The Glorious Adventure: Richard Halliburton’s Marvels

Between the wars, few young American boys would not have read at least one of Richard Halliburton’s books. Chronicling his remarkable exploits and daring escapades, Halliburton travelled across the globe, undertaking and invariably completing labours that would have put Hercules to shame. Born in Brownsville, Tennessee on 9th January 1900, at first, Halliburton’s slight frame and fragile constitution made him appear to be an unlikely adventurer; however, he forbade any physical limitations from inhibiting his formidable character.

From Paris, where Halliburton spent several months in 1919, he replied to his father, who had written to express a desire for his son to adopt a more ‘even tenor,’ that instead, ‘When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills – any emotion that any human ever had – and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.’

After returning to America, Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, and briefly toyed with the possibility of becoming an academic, but his unsatisfied wanderlust soon put paid to such ambitions. In September 1921, he climbed the Matterhorn before heading to Gibraltar, where he managed to get himself arrested on suspicion of being a German spy. Egypt and India were his next ports of call; he saw the Taj Mahal and then went on to Japan, where he scaled Mount Fujiyama, before arriving home in Tennessee on 1st March 1923.

Realising that people would pay good money to hear about his incredible experiences, Halliburton gave a series of lectures and in 1925, published his first book, The Royal Road to Romance. Summing up his attitude to life, and the path he had chosen for himself, he claimed in the text, ‘Youth – nothing else worth having in the world…and I had youth, the transitory, the fugitive, now, completely and abundantly. Yet what was I going to do with it? Certainly not squander its gold on the commonplace quest for riches and respectability, and then secretly lament the price that had to be paid for these futile ideals.’ For good measure, he attempted to paint himself in a rebellious light, adding, ‘Let those who wish have their respectability – I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.’ Continue reading

So Far And Beyond: The Style Of Til Brugman

Mathilda Maria Petronella Brugman, known as ‘Til,’ was born on 16th September 1888 in Amsterdam, the eldest of nine children. The Brugman family were strict Roman Catholics and their first-born daughter’s assertiveness and sexuality would become a source of domestic conflict. At the age of 11, Brugman was sent to a Catholic girl’s boarding school, having already shown an aptitude for languages, encouraged by her mother. In 1911, Brugman found her own apartment in Amsterdam, taking a job as translator.

Always acknowledging that she was attracted to her own sex, Brugman fell in love with the opera singer Sienna Masthoff in 1917, and the couple moved to The Hague, where Brugman worked as a foreign languages tutor. At the same time, Brugman started to write poetry, inspired by her friendship with the avant-garde painter Piet Mondrian.

By 1917, Modrian had become affiliated with the recently formed collective of artists and architects, known as De Stijl. Founded by the designer and painter Theo van Doesburg, the group considered that art should be stripped down to the bare essentials, favouring simple bold lines and mainly black and white colour schemes. Others associated with the movement included the Hungarian painter, Vilmos Huszár and architect and furniture designer, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld. Additionally, a journal of the same name was produced in order to publicise De Stijl’s abstract notions and concepts, with the first edition proclaiming, ‘There is an old and a new awareness of art. The former focuses on the individual. The new focus on the universal.’ Continue reading

Borrowed Scenes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle And The Cottingley Fairies

During the summer of 1917, Frances Griffiths, who was then 9 years-old, returned to England from South Africa to stay with her aunt, Polly Wright, Polly’s husband Arthur, and their 16 year-old daughter, Elsie. In a country gripped by war, and all the fear and uncertainty that accompanied it, the two young girls sought to escape into the glorious countryside which surrounded the Wright’s home in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley. The youngsters having persuaded Arthur Wright to let them use his camera, returned one day to excitedly boast that they had seen, and taken images of themselves with, the mystical beings that inhabited Cottingley Beck; an idyllic spot, where enchantment seemed to hang in the air. The two photographs, one of Frances with a ring of four fairies, the other showing Elsie, sitting by a gnome, were quickly dismissed by Elsie’s father as nothing more than a childish trick. Little did he suspect that the pictures would go on to deceive one of the most esteemed and distinguished writers in Britain.

Were it not for Elsie’s mother, the photographs might never have been seen beyond the Wright and Griffiths families.  More amenable to the possibility of supernatural phenomena than her husband. In 1919, Polly attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. She took with her the two photographs, which were then put on display at the society’s annual conference in Harrogate. Brought to the attention of Edward Gardner, one of the society’s most prominent members, the photographs were sent by him to Harold Snelling, an expert who declared them to be genuine.

After they were mentioned in the Spiritualist publication, Light, the images were brought to the notice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; himself a long-term advocate for and believer in Spiritualism, a faith which had only been reinforced by the horrors of the Great War. Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley had been wounded during the Battle of the Somme, before contracting pneumonia and dying in October 1917. The War also claimed the lives of Doyle’s brother, Innes, and two of his nephews. Struggling to accept his loss, Doyle turned to Spiritualism to reassure himself that there was indeed life after death, and even reported to have spoken with his son from beyond the grave.

 Above: Interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1930) 

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Tiger-Woman: Betty May And The Abbey of Thelema

In 1922, a young Oxford graduate, Frederick Charles Loveday, published his poem, A Song of Town in Oxford Poetry. Comparing the dark and bleak London he knew to a dragonfly, an ephemeral creature whose life was drawing to a close, Loveday was undoubtedly talented, but he struggled to find a way in which to use his intellect and settle upon a career. Less than a year later, having found himself increasingly drawn to the occult, he adopted the name ‘Raoul’ and accepted a job as a secretary to the occultist Aleister Crowley. The position necessitated his move to Cefalù, on the north coast of Sicily. There, he would live and work at the Abbey of Thelema, which Crowley and his lover, Leah Hirsig had founded in 1920.

The town itself was seeped in legend, its coastline dominated by an imposing mountain known as La Rocca, a mountain believed to be sacred by the town’s early inhabitants. According to a local myth, La Rocca had once been the handsome young shepherd, Daphnis, the product of a liaison between the god Hermes and a local nymph. Daphnis fell in love with a naiad, but betrayed her with a  princess after drinking too much wine. In return for his betrayal, the naiad blinded him and then turned him into the giant rock, where he would be left to rue his actions for all eternity. Centuries later, Cefalù would be the site of another betrayal and the Abbey of Thelema a lasting monument to the ensuing tragedy.

Raoul Loveday did not travel to Cefalù alone. He had recently married Betty May, a noted beauty and a woman far more worldly than her husband. She had been born into a life of poverty in the East End of London, and strove to escape from it as soon as she was able; Loveday was her third husband (or possibly fourth, she could never remember). Her stunning looks enabled her to become a sought after artist’s model, having sat for the likes of Augustus John and being hailed as his muse by the celebrated sculptor Jacob Epstein. However, there were also rumours that she was a heavy user of both cocaine and morphine and occasionally worked as a prostitute. Crowley later stated that, in his view, ‘Raoul should not have married her. It meant the sterilization of the genius of success in life.’ Furthermore, Crowley believed that by inviting the couple to Cefalù he had offered them a chance to escape their miserable existence back in London, which had seen them, ‘living from hand to mouth, with disaster eternally looming ahead, and the whisper of hope more faint and feeble as each effort ended in failure.’ Continue reading