A Visionary Space

Jenny McFarlane A Visionary Space. Theosophy and an Alternative Modernism in Australia 1890-1934 A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University 2006

The thesis is available on-line in digital form at: https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/…/McFarlane%20J%20Thesis%202006.pdf

CWL Sydney

“CW Leadbeater, the influential proponent of radical visuality, was resident in Sydney from 1914 to 1929 and retained a significant presence there until his death in 1934. He is popularly remembered in Sydney for the sex scandals. No one to date has however examined the effect this charismatic and complex man had on the artists of the city he came to call home, although Roe’s work points to the many significant individuals who came into his orbit.

Leadbeater’s time in Sydney was a unique period of collaboration with local artists.

In particular his collaborations with Judith Fletcher, Alfred Edward Warner and Gustaf Kollerstrom (photographer, printmaker and jeweller respectively) emerge as aberrant and extravagant moments within the oeuvre of each artist, what Deleuze and Guattari might describe as ‘slippages’ or ‘misfires.’ Yet these very misfires are productive. Leadbeater’s intense relationship with these artists had in each case surprising ramifications. These artists have been previously figured as conservative and parochial exponents in their chosen fields. Yet in collaboration with Lead beater their work blossoms into expressions of radical modernism in ways which offer unique insights into broader contemporary practice. These three artists shared a conviction that the visible and invisible worlds were interlinked, that the transcendental was immanent and active in the visible world. In their work the separation of the disciplines of science, religion and art promoted by the Enlightenment was explicitly and programmatically ignored.

Much of the unusual in these artist’s productions can be understood as the result of their intimate relationship with Lead beater. All were bound to him by an utter conviction of his superior psychic vision and by close physical proximity. Only in Sydney was Leadbeater’s theory backed by the full weight of his dominant personality and experienced relatively unmediated by others in the Theosophical leadership. At close quarters Leadbeater’s impact was mesmeric. While artists at a distance were able to explore the implications of his ideas with greater licence (and I will explore this in the next chapter) those close to him were tied to his expectations by their very acknowledgment of his superior visual authority. The artists most closely associated with Lead beater felt highly privileged to be permitted to document this supreme artist’s visions. The compromise they made with their personal style was part of their general subsumption to his goals.

In Sydney Lead beater embarked on the major project which was to occupy the second part of his life – the formation of the Liberal Catholic Church. This church was shaped within a Theosophical environment, the details of which will be addressed in more detail shortly. In the execution of this project he sought out artists to realise his dream of a theatrical experience, a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork encompassing a range of media with many constitutive works of art. Combined, the different media were designed to open the operations of the psychic realm.”

From: Jenny McFarlane A Visionary Space. Theosophy and an Alternative Modernism in Australia 1890-1934 A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the

Australian National University, 2006: 152-153 Footnotes have been omitted.

For the work of Jenny McFarlane, 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


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