A biography of mediumistic artist Anna Mary Howitt

College founding member Anna Mary Howitt Watts was one of the first mediumistic artists in Britain. Our Curator, Vivienne Roberts, shares a glimpse of her life & art.

By: Vivienne Roberts.   Posted

One of the many jewels in the College archive is a collection of artworks by the pioneering artist and Spiritualist, Anna Mary Howitt Watts (1824-84). Anna Mary Howitt was an extraordinary mediumistic artist - probably the first in Britain - as well as a founding member of The College of Psychic Studies. We are delighted to be able to exhibit her works - many of which have never been seen in public - at our Creative Spirits 2022 & Halloweek 2023 exhibitions...

A triptych of paintings by medium artist Anna Mary Howitt

A pioneering mediumistic artist

A member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Anna began to draw automatically in 1856. Spiritualism became her salvation after the personal heartache of a broken engagement and the professional setback of receiving a dismissive critique from the eminent art critic of the day, John Ruskin. He had offered Anna the advice of sticking with still life after he saw her grand historical painting, Boadicea Brooding over her Wrongs. This work of art showed Anna's pluckiness, but was possibly conceived as a woman artist punching above her weight at that time. 

Anna had struggled to receive the artistic training that was so freely available to men in Victorian England. Undeterred, she travelled to Germany where she was welcomed at the studio of Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Anna wrote about the experience in her book, A student in Munich, which discussed her wish for women to rise up in the art world as Sisters in Art. One of these 'sisters' was the artist and fellow feminist Barbara Bodichon. Together, and with several other like-minded women, they formed the Langham Place Group which campaigned for improvements in women's rights. It became one Britain's first organised women's movements.

Three line drawings by Anna Mary Howitt, from The College of Psychic Studies collection

A fledgling Spiritualist movement

Anna was not afraid of expressing her Spiritualist belief when the fledgling movement first arrived on British shores in 1852. She attended seances with her parents and other curious friends from their well connected literary and artistic circles. One obvious aim was to try to contact her brother, Claude who had perished some years before.

From 1856, she had begun to create spirit drawings, mostly on fine tracing paper. A selection were published in a small book called Light in the Valley written in 1857 by Anna's friend and fellow Spiritualist Camilla Newton Crosland. It contained some of the earliest examples of mediumistic art and included the following explanation: 

"The first drawings were very crude indeed, like the uncertain tottering lines of a child, and also singularly resembling the designs of the very early Italian painters, - heads of Christ, angels, and curious female figures seated within spheres and hearts; and always these drawings were accompanied with strange ornaments of spiral and shell forms, with dots and scroll-like ciphers, which I thought odd at the time, but only months afterwards, when accidentally referring to them, discovered to be the first undeveloped attempts at writing one of the 'spirit languages'." It was signed "Comfort", 1857. Comfort was Anna and with this book, a new genre of art was born.

Anna Mary Howitt & The College of Psychic Studies

The College's founder and first President, William Stainton Moses, was Anna's friend. He was an Oxford-educated schoolmaster, former Anglican priest, author and medium known for his gift of automatic writing. He gave an inaugural speech at The College of Psychic Studies (then the London Spiritualist Alliance) in May 1884 and welcomed the newly formed College's 'prospect of a new epoch' for Spiritualists. 

In this rallying speech, he referred to the support of the 'voices in the air'. These were the pioneering early Spiritualists who were no longer with them, united in their plight against a world that had become 'gross and material', and where few had 'escaped the shock of assault from spiritual foes'. 

Anna was not in the country at that time - she was visiting her mother in Tyrol in Austria. Two weeks later, she became one of those 'voices in the air', after succumbing to diptheria. However, her legacy and bravery would be forever remembered and celebrated.

Creative Spirits 2022 & Halloweek 2023 had a room devoted to Anna Mary Howitt. It displayed her artworks, books, articles she wrote in Spiritualist periodicals, and a strange little spirit photograph from the College's collection by Frederick Hudson of Anna, her father William Howitt and Claude in Spirit from 1872. 

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