If you weren't one of those who managed to attend the conference this week, you can read a full review of this fascinating day of talks below compiled by Peter and Joyce.
Marion Gibson: Witchcraft and the Novel 1919-1929
Marion Gibson began her presentation with a delightful satire from Punch humourist E.V. Knox, describing a well-off young woman asking her father to buy her a cottage so that she can set up as a village witch (complete with toads and a one-eyed cat). Marion went on to discuss how the effects of the First World War led to a surprisingly complex view of witchcraft – how exploring magical traditions was both a way of dealing with the trauma of the War and a way for women to express their sense of new-found liberation. Her comments about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (and Margaret Murray’s influence on the book) left most of the audience resolving to read (or re-read) it.
Katherine Hodgkin: Pagans and demons in the English Village: witchcraft in women’s detective fiction.
Katherine Hodgkin focused on the novels of Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell. Arguing that these quintessential writers of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction were already consciously creating a nostalgic view of the English village, she went on to suggest intriguingly that this village was not complete without its sinister folkloric witch and diabolical learned demonologist. She pointed out that Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell were influenced by a remarkably wide range of writers on the occult, from James Frazer and Margaret Murray to A.E Waite and Aleister Crowley, and added that in spite of taking a predominantly rationalist tone (in keeping with the idea of the detective novel representing the triumph of reason and order), they couldn’t quite resist hinting that magic really works. Katherine finished by pointing out that Gladys Mitchell’s detective, Mrs Bradley, in many ways an iconic image of the modern, scientific woman, shares an ancestor with the witch in one of the novels.
Eleanor Byrne: Witchcraft for girls: Writing the witch in children’s literature of the 1970s.
Eleanor Byrne argued that the 1970s saw a major shift in the way magic was portrayed in children’s literature, with books like Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week and Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series suddenly embracing the idea of witchcraft. They grew out of the already popular boarding school genre (the outsider idea of witchcraft moving into a symbol of formal education) – and of course were the precursors of the Harry Potter books. However, one particularly interesting and significant aspect of them was the way they portrayed magic as chaotic and unpredictable. While this obviously created opportunities for humour, Eleanor suggested that it also provided a way for girls to explore anxieties about female power and identity and the female body.
Fiona Hackney: The Crochet woman: the witch as a figure of folkcraft and rural modernity in the fiction of Ruth Manning-Sanders in the 1920s & 1930s.
This presentation was particularly relevant to the symposium’s setting in one of Cornwall’s popular tourist destinations. Ruth Manning-Sanders is best-known for her fairy tale collections, and also spent time in a circus (what interesting people so many writers on witchcraft turn out to be!). But Fiona Hackney’s presentation revealed a perhaps less expected aspect of her writing – after she embraced the movement towards a more natural lifestyle and moved to the Cornish coast, she became a contributor to guide books for the tourists who wanted to have a taste of that ideal. Fiona then went on to give a vivid account of Ruth Manning-Sanders’s novel The Crochet Woman, a compelling modern fairy tale investigating female roles such as gossip and mother, and featuring the use of crochet for crafting spells – an intriguing echo of the knitted spell in the Museum.
The morning session left the audience with a mental booklist of several months’ worth of exciting reading.
Joyce Froome (Assistant Curator, Museum of Witchcraft & Magic)
Joyce Froome kicked off the second session with an engaging talk on The Witches Guide to Gardening by Dorothy Jacob. Joyce’s selection of passages from the book, first published in 1965, revealed why it had been a personal favourite since childhood. There was the curious 20th century charm against illness from a Cheshire cook – simply place half an onion under the sink and it will draw all maladies to itself. Then there were Jacobs’ captivating descriptions of the magical properties – and personalities – of plants. The flora in The Witches Guide have their own identities and private lives; some perilous, some benevolent, they cohabit the human world of ‘moral recklessness’. Starting a major theme to which other speakers returned, Joyce emphasised how the process of writing itself was magical – spinning stories, enveloping the reader with the sensual pleasures of the garden, and then subverting expectations. I can’t wait to read A Witches Guide to Gardening for myself!
Hayley Potter (Illustrator and Writer, www.hayleypotter.com)
Hayley completed her artist residency at the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic in April 2014 and it was wonderful to see her drawings and to see how the project had developed since then. She talked about how her plans to ‘visualize the British witch’ had started with influences from popular culture, such as film and TV shows, before she felt compelled to refocus upon stories, particularly those surrounding magical objects in museum collections. Her methodology – which uniquely combines handling and sketching objects – took her to the Pitt Rivers in Oxford and to the Museum here in Boscastle – the images, worked up in full colour and surrounded by ‘museum-style’ notes on provenance and personal reactions to texture and so on, were both beautiful and evocative.
It was fascinating to hear about Hayley’s experience of magical objects – how a bottle professed to contain a Sussex witch kept inexplicably moving (a fact also attested by Pitt Rivers staff) – and particularly how the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic re-orientates the museum experience by placing the visitor within a potent, living tradition. Hayley’s work certainly sheds new light onto the elusive figure of the witch, as well as providing new pathways towards understanding traditional magical practice. In addition, through illustration, these objects seem to appear anew – the process of ‘really’ looking and drawing reveals so much that is elusive.
Steve Patterson (Independent folklorist, sculptor, writer)
It was fascinating to hear Steve Patterson’s account of Ithel Colquhoun’s (1906-1988) working life and magical practice in the Lamorna Valley, near Penzance. The Valley and Cove, where Colquhoun’s ashes were scattered near the stone altar she used (now a tarmac carpark), shifted the focus of the conference to the role of the landscape and its influence upon the creative and magical practice of women in the mid-twentieth century. Steve referred to Colquhoun’s deeply held animism, and her sense of the living stones around her and the genus loci with whom she communed and channelled in her ‘travel’ writings and artworks. It was great to see Colquhoun’s artworks, illustrations of standing stones perceived as fountains of Hecate, funnelling the macrocosmic universe. The subject of alchemy had arisen elsewhere during the day, and here Steve showed how Colquhoun saw alchemy as an ‘operative act’, not a metaphor, in that it transformed the practitioner or operator at a fundamental level.
Helen Cornish: Revisiting Margaret Murray.
Helen Cornish courted controversy with her presentation on Margaret Murray. She pointed out that Margaret Murray was by no means the only researcher of the time who was suggesting ancient origins for witchcraft, and questioned why she has been singled out for such hostile criticism (nothing to do with her being a woman, surely!). Helen then drew on the controversy surrounding Margaret Murray’s theories, and her own extensive research into how modern witches view their heritage, to explore how ideas of history are constructed, and ended with the provocative suggestion that perhaps we should re-examine some of our assumptions about the nature of history itself.
Carolyn Trant (Artist and Illustrator, http://thepf.co.uk/)
Following Joyce’s elucidation of magic and the creative process, Carolyn Trant gave us an excellent evaluation of female artists such as Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Ithel Colquhoun and Grace Pailethorpe – all of which were seen to pioneer new forms of unconscious and automatic art that continues to defy categorization. Many terms were used to approximate their practice and thinking – alchemy, theosophy, androgyny, manticism, womb magic – but I was especially taken with Carolyn’s notion that these women preferred a kind of quiet subversion, and even when working and living together, they shunned the creation of rules and manifestos in favour of societies of collaboration and independence. It was very interesting to hear of the gendering of artistic media – whilst today embroidery is a battleground in gender politics, during the second quarter of the twentieth century egg-tempera was seen to be too close to cooking to be truly artistic. We also saw how these visionary artists viewed their milieu – ‘Men fear the night and have no mental powers save the intellect’. Witchcraft indeed!?
Folklore Tapes: Ian Humberstone, David Chatton Barker and Sam Mcloughlin (http://www.folkloretapes.co.uk/)
The day was brought to a close by Ian Humberstone, David Chatton Barker and Sam Mcloughlin of Folklore Tapes (FT) – a research project, music, spoken word and visual art collective that seek to ‘bring the nation’s folk record to life, to rekindle interest in the treasure trove of traditional culture by finding new forms for its expression.’ Although interest in such matters was already high, I think I speak for all attendees in saying that their tribute to the folklorist and artist Theo Brown was astonishingly wonderful. Biographical excerpts, extracts from her works and cassette recordings of her musings on various subjects (including charmers and protective magic) were woven into strains of DIY ambience and feedback that were at once unassuming and profoundly moving. Gathered herbs strewn over OHP projections of Theo’s archive, home and childhood photos produced a multi-sensory portrait that was tender, sensitive and deeply in touch with the core principles of her work. In short, it was the finest of endings to a hugely stimulating day!
Many thanks to Desdemona McCannon for organising such a brilliant line-up of speakers.