Isabella de Steiger, Castles in the Air, not dated, oil on canvas 90cm x 60cm in ornate gilded wooden frame 116.5cm x 86.5cm. £16500
Isabella de Steiger (1836-1927) was born in Liverpool, daughter of a respectable solicitor. She married Rudolf de Steiger, an international cotton merchant. For some years they lived in Egypt as the climate was kinder to Rudolf's declining health. When he died of TB in 1872 she concentrated upon her art, seeking instruction from various sources including Slade College of Art. Her interest in the esoteric blossomed. She knew Christian David Ginsberg who gave the world the first substantial account of Kabbalah in the English language. She joined the British National Association of Spiritualists, which continues to this day as the College of Psychic Studies, and the Society for Psychical Research. In 1878 she joined the Theosophical Society, becoming an active and important member. There she met Anna Kingsford, with whom she formed a close bond. She developed a profound interest in alchemy and joined The Hermetic Society, founded by Kingsford. She also became a close friend of the alchemist, Mary Anne Atwood whose book A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery was printed in 1850 but all copies withdrawn and burnt as her father believed they revealed too much. Isabella arranged for that works first proper publication, with additional material, after the author's death in 1910. She also translated and published Karl von Eckartshausen, The Cloud upon the Sanctuary, the work upon mysticism which was to have such a profound effect on Aleister Crowley's concept of the A.'.A.'.. Thus, she published two of the books that proved most influential upon modern occultism. She also wrote herself, publishing three:- On a Gold Basis: A Treatise on Mysticism (1907); Superhumanity (1916) and Memorabilia (1927) plus numerous articles and correspondence in the occult journals of the day. Isabella joined the Golden Dawn in its first year of operation, She became an active member, attending meetings in London, Bradford and Edinburgh. She took her initiation into the Inner Order in 1896 and painted the Vault of the Adepts for the Scottish Lodge. In 1903 she joined Waite's offshoot of the Order. It is a surprise given the depth of the Golden Dawn's work with symbols, colour theory, telesmatic images and the visual nature of its astral projection practices that the Order produced so very little artwork. Loads of occult fiction, (with Yeats) some important poetry, but so few paintings. Isabella was certainly the most prominent Golden Dawn artist. She exhibited a lot, the National Art Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum holds records of her showing pictures on 60 to 70 occasions. Her works made frequent appearance in the big public exhibitions which selected entries on merit, such as the Manchester Art Gallery, the Liverpool Art Gallery, the Grovesnor Gallery in London and, most prestigious of all, the Royal Academy. Her work also featured in exhibitions by the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Hibernian Society, Royal Scottish Society, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the Royal Society of Birmingham Artists and the Society of Woman Artists. Her works appeared alongside those of the major artists of the day and sold for substantial prices. She was preparing for a one woman show, one of the very first to be accorded to a female artist, when a warehouse fire destroyed much of her output, seriously hindering her recognition as an artist and making her work very scarce now. A number of her pictures were reproduced in monochrome in the Unknown World, the journal edited by A.E. Waite. Images of these are appended for context.
The painting shows a young lady with a floral headdress. She holds a wand and a chalice. The form of the wand is that of the lotus wand of the Golden Dawn. She has changed the colouration somewhat, out of respect for her oaths of secrecy. The figure is wearing pearls, blue stones and has pink flowers and a ewer. The chalice is deep red inside. On the table in front of her a book. Behind her two plinths, the one on her right burns bright, the one on her left smokes darkly. These reminds one of Joachim and Boaz, the light and dark pillars of the Tree of Life. The figure sits between them as one would find oneself after having stepped into the Tree of Life as conventionally represented. The plinth on her left carries the Latin Alta Peto (I strive for the heights) de Steiger's magical motto in the Golden Dawn. Beneath this the pentagram, which she will have traced with the wand in Golden Dawn rituals. There is an inscription and symbol on the other plinth. The glyph may be a circle divided eightfold, as found at the top and centre of each of the walls of the Vault of the Adepts. Behind her a classical temple emerges out of waters which presumably represent the Abyss. The wings behind her head symbolise the aspiration of the soul towards a higher than human condition, the possibility of rising to heaven.
The title Castles in the Air derives from a play by Ibsen, the Master Builder, first staged in 1893. This tells the story of a builder who falls to his death from his just finished church tower distracted by a temptress who encourages his hubris. The picture was exhibited under this name in 1926 at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, But labels on the reverse indicate it was previously called the Lady of Illusion, The Greek Pilgrim's Progress. Given the artist's thorough grounding in Theosophy she will have been well aware of Maya, the Goddess (or "Lady") of Illusion. But the sub-title specifically directs us to a text attributed to Cebes of Thebes, a disciple of Socrates. Generally known now as the Tablet of Cebes a translation into English appeared in 1910 under the title The Greek Pilgrim's Progress - The Picture to invite comparison with John Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress. The work describes how an old man (the good genius) explains a pictorial tabled on the Temple of Cronus that explains the nature of life. Neo-Platonic in nature, the allegorical description is highly reminiscent of astral visions. It describes how souls must drink of the chalice of the Lady of Delusion to achieve incarnation, but they drink error and ignorance. But then, by listening to their good genius, they can live righteously, reject of sham-culture, choose Good over Evil and then transcend this inherent quality of incarnation and achieve true happiness. This doctrine relates to the architecture of the Golden Dawn. There it is the Fall that has plunged man into error and ignorance and the initiations encourage the candidate to choose wisely and transcend the essentially illusory nature of "reality" and achieve adepthood. The "Good Genius" who gives instruction regarding the symbolism of the tablet in the Greek Pilgrim's Progress is corresponds with the Augoeides, or Holy Guardian Angel, with whom the candidate is brought into communication. But the picture is deeply ambiguous. The wings behind the lady of Illusion's head imply her transcendence, and she has the Golden Dawn wand and Isabella's magical motto engraved beyond her shoulder. As if to say "the nature of incarnation is to drink in Illusion and we swim in a world of Illusion. It is for us to skilfully marshal those illusions to enlighten ourselves and the world". This resonates with the Golden Dawn undertaking, which ultimately suggests the redemption of humanity by their own hand.
In her autobiography Memorabilia, Isabella is at pains to maintain her oaths of secrecy regarding the Golden Dawn and so says virtually nothing. She does mention this picture, almost certainly the last she painted:-
I said on a former page that I always intended as a girl to paint a beautiful woman picture which hung in my father's library…. Unhappily I never did, but at the close of my life, I have nearly completed a picture I call Castles in the Air, and I am glad I have done so, not because that picture shows to me what I have done, not because it pleases me, but because that picture shows to me what I could have done. I chose to follow many interests whereas had I done as I should I would have devoted myself exclusively to painting, and left anything outside that one subject alone.
The actual date of the painting is unclear. In Memorabilia she says:-
…, a picture now on my easel called "Castles in the Air" destined to be hung in the Walker Art Gallery in 1926.
This implies a date of 1925/1926. But a fragment of label from the back of the picture says 1910 to 191… The remainder of the label being lost.
The significance of the artist and this work is worthy of reiteration. She was deeply involved in the very heart of the British Occult Revival. Aside from Isabella's art, this explosion of occult activity seems top have left British art unchanged until later. On the Continent, the work of the Symbolists and Decadents resonated with the occult milieu but in Britain the situation was very different. It is hard to think of any Victorian artist, aside from Isabella de Steiger, who was producing art expressing occult themes at all. Some of her work is highly prescient of later occult themes in art. For instance, the imagery of a crystal upon the ajna chakra and radiant beams around an idealised head seems almost familiar to us now, but was truly ground breaking then.
In 2005 the picture received an extensive, no expense spared, restoration by one of the most prominent fine art restorers in the UK; Alexandra Walker, London, Fellow of the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers. The picture was cleaned, a backing applied to the canvas to strengthen it and a new stretcher provided. An impression was taken of the paint surface and careful retouching and retexturing was undertaken to match. The picture was then revarnished. The restorers report which records details of the process and all materials used is included. At the same time the frame was restored by Anthony Ley of Alexander George Ley, Makers of Fine Frames, London.
The back of the picture as it appears now.
Fragments of label removed from the back of the picture and now preserved.
Labels on the frame
Perhaps some of these labels were acquired from private commercial galleries as there is only one record in the National Art Library of Castles in the Air being publically exhibited, that is in 1926 at the Walker Art Gallery, the municipal art gallery of Liverpool where it was offered for sale at the price of £150, as confirmed by one of these labels. In terms of average wages, the price it is now offered for, £16500, was equivalent to £104 in 1926. So the picture is now 33% less than what Isabella charged for her talent and labour in her life time. (www.measuringworth.com)
The Greek Pilgrim's Progress - The Picture (1910) had some illustrations and numerous vignettes. Though somewhat crude, these may have influenced Isabella, particularly in portraying the state beyond illusion as classical temples above water. These are reproduced below for comparison now:-
The reproductions from the Unknown World preserve images of otherwise lost Isabella de Steiger artwork.
Also for comparison, a lotus wand made according to Golden Dawn instructions