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November's inspiration

Jim Kay’s illustrations for Harry Potter

I was very lucky to have been just the right age for the Harry Potter books. Although I wasn’t one of the kids queuing in the bookstores at midnight, I did read each one when they came out. I remember not being particularly impressed by the illustrations on the American edition, so I was surprised to come across Jim Kay’s illustrations in last year’s Harry Potter's: A History of Magic exhibition at the British Library. They are so amazingly rich in details.

I was recently looking at one of Kay’s illustrations for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showing several hippogriffs, the magical creature with the head, wings, and front legs of an eagle and the body, hind legs, and tail of a horse. Despite how stunning the finished illustration was, Kay wrote that he wasn’t completely happy with it, and wished he had been able to redo one of the animals. He wrote, ‘you never finish an illustration, you just run out of time.’

Seeing this coming from one of the most accomplished illustrators really struck a chord with me. I’m fully aware that I’m a perfectionist, and if it was up to me, I would spend months on my work until I was completely happy with it. Of course, this is impractical, and sometimes you just have to put your work out there.

Museums and magic

Earlier in the autumn I attended an interesting walking tour of the British Museum, led by writer Caroline Wise. She took our group through the galleries, exploring the different artefacts in the museum that influenced the British occult revival. There are the statues of the Egyptian sun goddess Sekmet, the huge Assyrian statues of winged lions with the heads of men, and the mummy sarcophagus that the famous occultist Madame Blavatsky warned one of her followers from keeping in his dining room because it would bring a curse.

Statues of the goddess Sekmet in the British Museum

The tour ended in the Enlightenment Gallery, where one display showed that John Dee’s crystal ball and obsidian mirror were currently on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I only recently learned about the life of John Dee, who was a scientist, magician, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. I was surprised to find that his magical instruments were held at the British Museum, and slightly dismayed to see that I had missed them. The Ashmolean Museum exhibition, Spellbound, was about magic, ritual, and witchcraft, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Oxford.

The Ashmolean Museum

Having never been to Oxford before, it seemed to be the perfect setting for such an unusual exhibition. We visited on a grey day in mid-October, and the town was relatively empty of students and tourists. The Spellbound exhibition itself included an impressive variety of books, art, and artefacts. We saw everything from a mummified cat that was found protecting the chimney of a house, to ‘unicorn horns’ (narwhal tusks). Unfortunately, John Dee’s instruments were tucked into a corner display at the end of a long line of artefacts, which meant it was hard to spend much time looking at them while the exhibition was so busy.

While in Oxford, we also looked around the rest of the Ashmolean’s collections, and headed on to the Pitt-Rivers Museum. The Pitt-Rivers Museum is completely unique. There are thousands of objects, arranged by type rather than area or time period. It makes for some interesting juxtapositions, like a vitrine of animal figures in art sitting next to one showing how dead enemies were treated, featuring shrunken heads. A huge totem pole from the Haida community in British Columbia stretches the height of the building. You could spend hours in the museum and still only see a small part of what’s on show.

The Pitt-Rivers Museum

Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino

I came across the story of Marchesa Casati while researching Brompton Cemetery’s many famous burials. She’s the kind of person whose influence can be seen throughout art, fashion, and popular culture, but she’s not a particularly well-known figure. I was surprised to find that there was only one English-language biography of Casati - Infinite Variety: the life and legend of the Marchesa Casati by Scott D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino.

Casati is larger than life in many ways. In the 1910’s, she threw lavish parties in the Palazzo dei Leoni in Venice (which later became the Peggy Guggenheim Collection), and was even allowed by the Mayor of Venice is hold a huge party in the Piazza San Marco.

She was known for her macabre and over-the-top fashion. Her clothes were designed by the likes of Leon Bakst of the Ballet Russes, and she was known for walking through Venice at night with her pet cheetahs, wearing just a fur coat. She would wear real snakes to dinner parties, and had an exact copy of herself made in wax which would sometimes sit at the table with her.

Although she was married, she had a long-term affair with the famous Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. She commissioned numerous portraits from artists, photographers, and sculptors such as Augustus John, Giovanni Boldini, Romaine Brooks, Man Ray, Adolph de Meyer, and Giacomo Balla.

Because of her incredible decadence, by 1930 she was millions of dollars in debt and lived in relative poverty in London until her death in 1957.

She reminds me of another wealthy twentieth-century figure lived in completely unrestrained and opulent life, and ultimately died in poverty, Aleister Crowley. Although Casati was interested in the occult and briefly became obsessed with the idea of visiting Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema on Sicily, she never made the trip. Ryersson and Yaccarino point out that she would have never submitted to being one of Crowley’s acolytes. It’s obvious that Casati had many faults, and although her self-indulgence led to her downfall, it meant she was also a strong woman who didn’t let any of the famous men in her presence overshadow her.

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