Devil-worshipping harpy. Pagan rebel. ‘Wicked’ bohemian from Sydney’s red light district. The notorious, Pan-worshipping Witch of Kings Cross. Despite being widely portrayed in such sensationalist terms by the popular print media of the 1950s and 1960s, the Australian trance occultist and visionary artist Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979) remains largely unknown, even among contemporary devotees of Western magical traditions.
Australia’s first and most famous witch, Rosaleen Norton
At a time when diversity was not celebrated (or tolerated) and the prevailing Australian social mentality was somewhat prudish (conservative, edging towards the puritanical), and when the appropriate place for a woman was perceived to be within the home, tending to the needs of husband and children, Rosaleen Norton flaunted accepted social conventions and instead utilised her extraordinary talent to portray the results of her visionary explorations of trance states, including:
… a wide range of supernatural beings … Norton depicted naked women wrestling with reptilian elementals or flying on the backs of winged griffins, gods who were both male and female, and demonic forms with menacing claw-tipped wings. But central to her magical cosmology was the figure of the Great God Pan, who for her was an essentially benign figure – the all-pervasive life-force of the Universe.
So says researcher and author Dr. Nevill Drury, one of Australia’s leading writers in the field of esoteric non-fiction (specialising in the Western magical tradition, shamanism and the history of New Age spirituality) and contemporary Australian art, and arguably the world’s leading scholar of the life, art and sex magic of Rosaleen Norton. Drury received his PhD from the University of Newcastle during 2008 for a dissertation on the art and magic of Rosaleen Norton and the Western esoteric tradition, some 31 years after having met Norton in her Sydney garret.
Nevill Drury: leading scholar of the life, art and sex magic of Rosaleen Norton
In his forthcoming Salamander and Sons title, Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare, Drury elaborates upon this meeting which precipitated a deep and personal connection with Norton and her work and strongly influenced his career as a writer:
I met Rosaleen Norton in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Kings Cross in 1977, while researching my book Inner Visions: Explorations in Magical Consciousness. At that stage Roie [Norton] had already become a recluse but a friend of mine and I tracked down a person called Danny who knew her. Danny worked in a jeweller’s shop in Kings Cross and we explained to him that we were genuinely interested in magical techniques and practices and wanted to discuss both her personal view of magic and her perceptions of the world at large. The message filtered through and we were granted an interview. Roie was living then in a dark basement flat at the end of a long corridor in an old building in Roslyn Gardens, just down from the centre of Kings Cross in the direction of Rushcutters Bay. She was somewhat frail but still extremely mentally alert, with expressive eyes and a hearty laugh. She even invited us to share an LSD trip with her, but in the gloomy recesses of her basement flat we shuddered to think of the shadowy beings we might unleash through this powerful psychedelic, and we both politely declined.
Dark Spirits is the third of Drury’s many books to step into the dark, private life and visionary work of Australia’s first and most famous witch. His previous texts on Norton include Pan’s Daughter: The Strange World of Rosaleen Norton (1988 and 1993, later republished as The Witch of Kings Cross in 2002) and Homage to Pan: The life, art and sex magic of Rosaleen Norton (2009), both of which are highly recommended.
Highly recommended: Nevill Drury’s earlier works on Rosaleen Norton
Drury elevates Norton beyond the tawdry tales of the cheap, sensationalistic tabloids and offers insights into the life of a remarkable individual whose:
… personal beliefs were a strange mix of magic, mythology and fantasy, but derived substantially from mystical experiences which, for her, were completely real … Roie was very much an adventurer – a free spirit – and she liked to fly through the worlds opened to her by her imagination. Her art, of course, reflected this. It was her main passion, her main reason for living. She had no career ambitions other than to reflect on the forces within her essential being, and to manifest these psychic and magical energies in the only way she knew how … art was the very centre of her life, and Roie took great pride in the brief recognition she received when the English critic and landscape artist John Sackville-West described her in 1970 as one of Australia’s finest artists, alongside Norman Lindsay … she [Norton] felt that at last someone had understood her art and had responded to it positively. All too often her critics had responded only to her outer veneer – focusing on her bizarre media persona in particular – and this was not the ‘real’ Roie at all.
In Dark Spirits, the wonderful visionary universe of this artistic outsider and dweller of the social margins is considered and contextualised alongside the life and work of the British visionary artist Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) whose major self-published works – Earth Inferno (1905), A Book of Satyrs (1907) and The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy (1909-1913) – are increasingly acknowledged as the works of a creative genius, and their creator one of the key figures in the 20th century Western magical revival and one of its most original thinkers.
Austin Osman Spare’s 1909 self-portrait
Although these two artists never met or even knew that the other existed, Drury says that Norton and Spare:
… resemble each other as innovative esoteric practitioners. Numerous comparisons can be made in relation to the two artist-magicians … The most intriguing similarity between the two artists relates to their visionary exploration of magical imagery through techniques of self-hypnosis, and there are several parallels in their personal lives and artistic careers as well. Within their respective individual contexts both Spare and Norton regarded themselves as artistic outsiders, largely alienated from the mainstream cultural trends of the day, and both spent most of their lives in squalid circumstances. Both were skilled figurative artists whose art school training contributed substantially to their graphic style, both exhibited their work extensively in popular meeting places like pubs or coffee shops in order to reach an appreciative audience, and both had a strong love for animals, especially cats. However, there are more specific parallels between Spare and Norton that suggest they should be regarded as visionary artists within the same esoteric genre. As occult practitioners, both considered themselves pantheists; both were well versed in the literature of the Western esoteric tradition, Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, and modern psychoanalysis (especially the works of Freud and Jung); both were attracted to the practice of sex magic and were familiar with the magical writings of Aleister Crowley – Spare knew Crowley personally. Both magicians explored magical grimoires like the Goetia and were fascinated by the sigils or ‘seals’ associated with elemental spirit-beings, and both were familiar with the philosophy and magical significance of the kabbalah. Both artists also developed and utilised their own, personal techniques of self-hypnosis and trance in order to produce their distinctive visionary artworks as a direct result of their magical methods. There is a clear parallel between the trance-based ‘otherworld’ consciousness explored by Norton and the Zos / Kia cosmology of Spare and this in turn draws attention to the unique contributions of the two artist-magicians operating as ‘visionary outsiders’ in the Western magical tradition.
Featuring more than 120 colour and black and white images, fully bound in black leather with gilt title and device and silk bookmark ribbon, and strictly limited to 95 copies numbered by hand, Dark Spirits is Drury’s superb tribute to Norton and Spare.
Although the limited edition of Dark Spirits was originally scheduled to manifest at the time of the Northern Summer Solstice 2012, the publication timeframe has been revised to late August 2012. As we edge closer to publication, updates regarding, and excerpts from, Dark Spirits will appear in later posts.