Exploring alchemy in the early 20th century, part 1
The Journal of the Alchemical Society (1) was edited by the British chemist Herbert Stanley Redgrove (1887-1943), Fellow of the Institute of Chemists, and perhaps best known as the author of Alchemy: ancient and modern (1911) and Bygone beliefs being a series of excursions in the byways of thought (1920). In this latter book, Redgrove sympathetically reviewed the ‘bygone belief’ in alchemy and looked back on the Alchemical Society he had founded, regretting it was stopped by ‘that greatest calamity of history’, the First World War:
recent developments in physical and chemical science seem to indicate that the alchemists were not so utterly wrong in their concept of Nature as has formerly been supposed – that, whilst they certainly erred in both their methods and their interpretations of individual phenomena, they did intuitively grasp certain fundamental facts concerning the universe of the very greatest importance.
Suppose, however, that the theories of the alchemists are entirely erroneous from beginning to end, and are nowhere relieved by the merest glimmer of truth. Still they were believed to be true, and this belief had an important influence upon human thought. […] What exactly was the system of beliefs grouped under the term ‘alchemy’, and what was its aim? Why were the beliefs held? What was their precise influence upon human thought and culture?
It was in order to elucidate problems of this sort, as well as to determine what elements of truth, if any, there are in the theories of the alchemists, that The Alchemical Society was founded in 1912, mainly through my own efforts and those of my confrères, and for the first time something like justice was being done to the memory of the alchemists when the Society’s activities were stayed by that greatest calamity of history, the European War (pp. 124-25).
The Alchemical Society was founded in London in November 1912 with the object of studying ‘the works and theories of the alchemists in all their aspects, philosophical, historical and scientific, and of all matters relating thereto’. The first issue of the Society’s periodical, dated January 1913, opened with a report of the first general meeting, held earlier that month on 10 January. John Ferguson, Regius Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow, compiler of the Bibliotheca chemica and acclaimed historian of alchemy, was made Honorary President of the Society, which also included as council members Arthur Edward Waite, Isabelle de Steiger, Walter Gorn Old, Philip Sinclair Wellby and Clarissa Miles. By 1913, Waite was already an established historian of Western esoteric currents, De Steiger (a prominent early member also of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) had published her On a gold basis. A treatise on mysticism and Walter Gorn Old was publishing astrological treatises under the pseudonym Sepharial. The publisher Philip S. Wellby was a contributor to The Occult Review and a close personal friend of A.E. Waite; Clarissa Miles’s interest lay rather more in psychical research. In 1908 she had contributed an article, ‘Experiments in thought transference’, to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Stanley Redgrove delivered the opening address on ‘The origin of alchemy’, which was printed in the first issue of the Journal. At the third general meeting of the Society, J.B. Craven was elected honorary Vice-President ‘in recognition of his services to the study of alchemical literature by the publication of the writings of Robert Fludd and Michael Maier’. A list of all officers and council members for 1913-1914 was printed in the second volume of the Journal.
Isabelle de Steiger,
photograph in her memoirs Memorabilia
The seventh general meeting, with Isabelle de Steiger (1836-1927) speaking on ‘The Hermetic mystery’, must have caused something of a stir amongst the more sober members of the Society. Referring to Mary Ann Atwood’s Suggestive enquiry into the Hermetic mystery,(2) she announced that
The work on Superhumanity (3)which I’m bringing out as a serial in The Path, deals with the duality (inevitably pre-existent in the first move from homogeneity) subsisting in man from birth, inasmuch as he has a germ of death (the gluten of Eckartshausen), as well as the germ of life, in his heart, that is in his blood. The germ of death has to be eradicated in its special organ, the body, which is the task for present day medical art, since this works from secondary causes; but the art of revealing and bringing to the light of day the Pearl of Great Price, is the Hermetic Art. (p. 18)
Several in the audience thanked Mrs De Steiger for her ‘suggestive thoughts’, including Stanley Redgrove, who chaired the meeting. Her address might seem a departure from previous papers, which had been mainly historical or had been presented from a scientific perspective, he commented, but then the Society had set itself the task of presenting alchemy from every possible angle. A. E. Waite was more responsive to De Steiger’s views:
It was the chief aim of the Society firstly to decode these texts, and thus gain the secret knowledge, which could then be practically applied.
Stanley Redgrove agreed with Waite that ‘the chief work of the Society must consist in decoding the alchemical texts’, but was silent about the subject of practical application. Thus already at the early meetings of the Alchemical Society it was obvious that the chief approaches to the subject of alchemy were either historical and scientific or speculative and ‘practical’. Although the first approach seems to have dominated, there was room for the speculative members of the Society, with another address, on ‘Mystical aspects of alchemy’, being delivered the next year by Dr Elizabeth Severn from Chicago, later to acquire fame through her association with the psychoanalist Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), with whom she conducted ‘mutual analysis’. This was Severn’s only contribution to the Journal.
The fourteenth general meeting of the Society took place in November 1914, when the war had already broken out. It was nevertheless hoped that the meetings might continue to take place under normal circumstances. They were held until May 1915, when it was noted that a small influx of new members balanced the withdrawals: nevertheless attendance at meetings being very small, the future of the Society depended upon the active participation of its members. The last issues of the Journal, parts 20 & 21, were printed together in September 1915 and included the abstract of the discussion which had followed A.E. Waite’s lecture on ‘The beginnings of alchemy’ in May.
The French alchemical connection part 1
During its brief existence, the Alchemial Society also established friendly ties with its French counterpart, La Société Alchimique de France, which had been founded in 1896 by François Jollivet-Castelot (1874-1937), a practising alchemist interested in transmutation. In 1914 John Ferguson and Herbert Stanley Redgrove were created honorary members of the Société Alchimique; the other members of the English Alchemical Society were made titulary members. The Alchemical Society returned the compliment and proceeded to create Jollivet Castelot an honorary member. Members of the Alchemical Society were entitled to free copies of the Société’s periodical Les nouveaux horizons.(4)
The new association with the French Alchemical Society immediately bore fruit. In the November 1914 issue of The Alchemical Journal, the psychic medium Willie Wendt de Kerlor (5)presented some notes on the alchemical researches of Jollivet Castelot. Referring to Johann Baptista van Helmont and Johannes Helvetius, De Kerlor stated that ‘Transmutation is not in itself incredible, and there are certain experiments which go to show that it has actually been accomplished.’ De Kerlor went on to note that Jollivet’s first (unsuccessful) experiment in transmutation was performed in January 1893. Jollivet had recorded his early experiments in La vie et l’âme de la matière (1892-93). De Kerlor regretted he was not able to furnish more information about Jollivet’s alchemical activities: the French Society’s headquarters were at Douai, which had been devastated by the war.
The discussion which ensued after De Kerlor’s paper was judged by the Chairman, Stanley Redgrove, to be the most interesting that had yet taken place in the history of the Alchemical Society. One member called for a division of the Society into sections, so that members could pursue their various interests in alchemy, whether they were historical, chemical, philosophical or spiritual. A.E. Waite, who was on the side of the spiritual, was most emphatic about the contents of De Kerlor’s address:
So far as he was concerned personally, and speaking, as he believed that he could, for the rest of the founders, laboratory work was no part of their programme, which was rather the careful, critical and comparative study of the old texts, in the hope of decoding the most cryptic of all symbolism and thus securing an authoritative canon of distinction between records belonging to the so-called practical work and those of the mystical order, which were those only that deserved the name of practical from his point of view.
Although Waite in the first part of his remark seems interested in a historical approach to alchemy, the latter part makes clear that he regarded alchemy as a spiritual discipline. This was the cause underlying his rejection of modern transmutational experiments:
In this connection he remembered the testimony of Alipili: ‘If that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.’ (6)
Nearing the end
In the next issue of the Journal, which came out in December 1914, the Council decided to offer facilities for the formation of informal study groups for the exchange of information and assistance, thus responding to the call for diversification. Whether these informal study groups yielded any results is not made clear by the remaining issues of the Journal. The last issue, which dates to September 1915, printed John Ferguson’s lecture on George Starkey’s The marrow of alchemy. The Alchemical Society folded sometime in the autumn of 1915: although the date for the next meeting, 8 October, was announced in the September issue, the Journal, the main function of which was to print the lectures of members and the abstracts of ensuing discussions, ceased publication.
Unlike the French Société Alchimique, the English Alchemical Society was not revived after the war. With it closed a forum for debate on various – and for some members irreconcilable – aspects of alchemy. It was more than twenty years later that the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry was founded, in 1937. The Society’s periodical Ambix first came out in May 1937. Probably due to that other great calamity of history, the Second World War, publication was discontinued after September 1938, to be resumed in December 1946, and so Ambix could not devote an obituary to Herbert Stanley Redgrove, BSc, founder of the Alchemical Society, who died in 1943 at the age of 56.
Contents of The Alchemical Journal:
1. H. Stanley Redgrove, The origin of alchemy, pp. 2-14
2. A.E. Waite, The canon of criticism in respect of alchemical literature, pp. 17-30
3. Sijil Abdul-Ali, An interpretation of alchemy in relation to modern scientific thought, pp. 34-45
4. Gaston de Mengel, The evidence for authentic transmutation, pp. 49-60
Review section, pp. 62-64
5. J.B. Craven, A Scottish alchemist of the seventeenth century – David Lord Balcarres, pp. 68-73
Review section, pp. 75-77
6. John Ferguson, Some English alchemical books, pp. 2-16
7. Isabelle De Steiger, The Hermetic mystery, pp. 17-30
8. Herbert Chatley, Alchemy in China, pp. 33-37
Review section, pp. 38-42
9. A.E. Waite, Kabbalistic alchemy, pp. 43-57
10. Sijil Abdul-Ali, Some notes on the doctrine of the first matter, with special reference to the works of Thomas Vaughan, pp. 59-71
11. Ralph Rowbottom, Roger Bacon, pp. 75-84
Review section, pp. 86-89
12.. Philip Sinclair Wellby, Some reflections on ‘Basil Valentine’, pp. 91-101
Review section, pp. 104-106
13. Elizabeth Severn, Some mystical aspects of alchemy, pp. 111-17
Review section, pp. 119-122
14. W. De Kerlor, Some notes on the alchemical researches of M. Jollivet Castelot, pp. 2-4
Review section, pp. 13-16
15. Jasper Gibson, An interpretation of alchemical symbolism with reference to the writings of Edward Kelly, pp. 17-25; A.E. Waite, Some notes on the alchemist Alipili, pp. 25-28; H. Stanley Redgrove, Some characteristics of mediaeval thought, pp. 28-32
16. Gaston De Mengel, The philosophical channels of alchemical tradition, pp. 33-40
Review section, pp. 46-48
17. J.B. Craven, Alchemy and the Devil, pp. 49-55; Sijil Abdul-Ali, A general view of magic in respect to certain primary modes of thought, pp. 58-63
18. H. Stanley Redgrove, The phallic element in alchemical tradition, pp. 65-84
19. A.E. Waite, The beginnings of alchemy, pp. 91-100
20-21. John Ferguson, ‘The Marrow of Alchemy’, pp. 107-29
Review section, pp. 129-30
1 The BPH holds two copies, one of which was owned by The Chemists’ Club (founded 1898) in New York, which acquired the series in 1941; the other copy belonged to Arthur Edward Waite, one of the members of the Alchemical Society.
2 In her autobiographical work Memorabilia (1927), Isabelle de Steiger dwelt upon the three women she admired most in the 19th century: H.P. Blavatsky, Anna Bonus Kingsford and Mary Anne Atwood. De Steiger wrote she felt called upon to bring Atwood’s A suggestive enquiry to public notice (p. 239). The re-issue of this work, published in Belfast in 1918, was dedicated to the memory of Atwood by ‘her devoted friend, Isabelle de Steiger’. Atwood’s Suggestive enquiry was first published in 1850 but immediately suppressed by the author ‘in diffidence of her own powers and distrust of the capacity of the contemporary public to appreciate or profit by it’ (introduction by W.L. Wilmshurst, pp. 63-64). ) Writing about the Alchemical Society, De Steiger recorded that Atwood’s book ‘gave a very practical impetus to that study by a circle already formed in London under the acting presidency of Mr. Stanley Redgrove, B.Sc., and Mr. A.E. Waite, W.G. Old (the Astrologer who writes under the pen name of “Sepharial”) and others.’ De Steiger also commented on her own contribution to the Alchemical Society, which, she wrote, had been ‘extremely well received’ (pp. 273-74).
3 ‘Superhumanity. The mystic meaning & condition of regenerate humanity’, published in instalments from April 1913 through June 1914 in The Path, the periodical of the Theosophical Society.
4 Les nouveaux horizons de la science et de la pensée, published from 1906-1914. The first periodical of the Société Alchimique, also edited by Jollivet, was L’Hyperchimie. Revue mensuelle d’alchimie, d’hermétisme et de médecine spagyrique, which appeared from 1896-1898 in 19 issues. From 1902-1905 the Société’s periodical was called Rosa alchemica, to be changed into Nouveaux horizons the next year. Publication of the periodical was discontinued as a result of the war in October 1914. In September 1920 Jollivet Castelot issued a new periodical, Rose + Croix. Revue synthétique des sciences d’Hermès. See Ernest Hentges, ‘Ein moderner Alchemist: François Jollivet Castelot’, Alchemistische Blätter 2 (1930) 1, pp. 23-29.
5 De Kerlor (1883-after 1927) later translated works by the French philosopher and psychic Émile Boirac (1851-1917), including Our hidden forces (1917) and The psychology of the future (1918).
6 The English translation of Ali Puli’s Centrum naturae concentratum: or the salt of nature regenerated. For the most part improperly called The philosopher’s stone was printed in London in 1696. One of Waite’s acquaintances, J.W. Hamilton-Jones, theosophist, freemason and Librarian-General of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), an English masonic Society, later edited and translated Ali Puli’s work as The epistles of Ali Puli (London 1951). It was based, he wrote in the preface, on a manuscript ‘in low Dutch’, dated 1735, which is now in the BPH: Ms M78. For this manuscript see Frank van Lamoen, ‘Vijf handschriften van Burghard de Groot M.D. (1661/62-1744) in Jaarverslagen Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap 132 (1991), pp. 73-81, esp. pp. 75-77.