Theses: MacFarlane

In 2006 Jenny MacFarlane submitted a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the Australian National University with the title: “A visionary space. Theosophy and an alternative modernism in Australia 1890-1934(viii, 1169 leaves)

The thesis is held in a restricted area of the Menzies Library at the Australian National University.The thesis is not available for loan, and can only be consulted in the Menzies Library. The Menzies Library is located on the main campus of the University: 2 McDonald Place, Acton, ACT 2601.

This thesis was digitised and is available on-line through the available in the ANU Research Digital Theses collection. General enquiries

Link to the digital version available at:


“In this thesis I argue that the Theosophical Society had a major influence on Australian visual artists during the early 20th century. The project is located within a larger wave of contemporary histories now focussing on the aberrant and discontinuous to rediscover actively forgotten pasts. The Theosophical Society supported those who were marginalised and disenchanted with the experience of modernity. It proved particularly attractive to women who as artists, activists and intellectuals drew on its conceptualisation of reality to engage with an uncertain present. The Society was especially productive for artists as it offered a radical alternative visuality in which women had a privileged role in an extended international network of like-minded individuals. Theosophical teachings proposed a reality which was more profound than that available to the physical eye. The clairvoyant leadership of the Society communicated their encyclopaedic knowledge of the invisible and this would have a significant impact on Australian artists. Equally important was the influence of Indian art, specifically an interpretation of an Indian art tradition which privileged visualisation over optical sensation. The tension between a perceived invisible reality and the visible world unites these Theosophically inspired artists who directed their practice at passing beyond appearances beyond the visible to truth. The practice of visualisation was deployed in combination with a variety of stylistic vocabularies. In this thesis a number of key case studies are proposed which together present a picture of Australian modernist artists as informed primary players in a movement which challenged Western reason and looked to the ‘East’ to revitalise its focus. Australian artists are reconceived as an active part of a larger international network in which women and their concerns are the primary point of focus.”

Table of Contents:

  1. The third eye: Towards an alternative modernism 17
  2. Transcendental faiths and young democracies: Jane Price and a vision for the young Australia 46
  3. Unauthorised Visions: Florence Fuller 71
  4. Theorising the visionary: Ferdinanda and Meldrum in Melbourne and the realisation of Fuller’s promise in the work of Clarice Beckett 92
  5. A question of balance: Ethel Carrick 120
  6. Slippages and misfires: Leadbeater in Sydney 152
  7. Science versus Spirit: colour-music in Sydney 176
  8. The partial realisation of a great ideal: Axel Poignant 209

Conclusion: A visionary space 233


  1. Kollerstrom’s cross: two eyewitness accounts of a curious event 238
  2. List of colour plates 241
  3. Colour plates 249

Select Bibliography 250

Chapter 6 – “Slippages and misfires: Leadbeater in Sydney” – deals specifically with Leadbeater. It provides significant details about a number of important, albeit peripheral and largely unknown, figures, including the photographer, Judith Fletcher; the engraver, Alfred Warner; and the jeweller, Gustav Kollerstrom, who worked for Leadbeater, and a range of artists who were influenced by him.

See also:

Jenny MacFarlane “The Agency of the Object: Bishop Leadbeater and the Pectoral Cross” in Carole Cusack and Alex Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production [Brill, Leiden, 2012] pp. 133-152.

Jenny MacFarlane Concerning the Spiritual: The influence of the Theosophical Society on Australian Artists 1890–1934 Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2012


“Jenny McFarlane, in this fascinating study of Theosophical influences upon Australian artists, attempts a ‘cross-cultural and interdisciplinary interrogation of modernity’. Rather than viewing modernism in the arts as the progression of a series of ‘isms’, leading by a linear narrative to abstraction, she presents a picture of multiple, interweaving modernisms. Her period of interest extends from the 1890s, when prominent Australians such as Alfred Deakin and Henry Parkes were enthralled by Annie Besant’s Australian lectures, through the early twentieth century, when many artists officially joined the Theosophical Society, to the Society’s decline after the death of C.W. Leadbeater in 1934. By focusing on the way Theosophy encouraged artists to probe the nature of the visible and invisible, McFarlane gives an account of Australian modernism that is ‘gendered, decentralised and alternative’.”





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