Wild Witchcraft, psychedelia & The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie:
The Ayrshire Wica and the painted sketchbooks of John Upton (1933-2005)
with Dr John Callow and Melissa Seims 28th April 2019
at The Angel & Royal Grantham
The Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie left a huge mark upon both folklore and upon modern pagan identity, highly individual, strong willed and unashamedly sensual, Isobel Gowdie ranks as one of the most compelling figures in historical witchcraft narrative. In the last quarter of the 20th century a young artist called John Upton came under the spell of both Gowdie and the Wicca of his contemporaries, Upton has left us a remarkable record of his magical dealing with the world of faery in the form of 13 huge artist sketchbooks, last year was published a combination of two extensive art books produced by the initiated witch and pop-mural artist John ‘Albion’ Upton (1933-2005) as 'The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie' by Hell Fire Club Books, the first time these beautiful works have been seen publically.
John Upton left a full 13 sketchbooks and designs for an initiated Tarot deck which comprise the story, workings, heritage and Book of Shadows of the Ayrshire Wica (‘The Wica’ as it is known).
The two sketchbooks reproduced together as one volume here tell the stories of the trials and executions of three Scottish witches: Isobel Gowdie, Aleson Piersom and Bessie Dunlop, but from a remarkable connection to both the practise of witchcraft and the folklore of Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries up to the present era.
John Uptons artworks are a dazzling and explosive mix of vibrant colour coming from his involvement with the subculture of psychedelia among artists in Brighton in the 1960s. With collage, numerous physical inclusions on the original pages (including feathers, plants, talismans and photographs), sections of the work opening up as doorways, powerfully erotic and pansexual, John Upton tells the story of witchcraft through the practise of the craft itself fusing faery lore and channelled voices in a vibrant modern story board style.
‘Isobel Gowdie continues to cast a glamour about her: she appears in the form of a hare, a crow, or as a jackdaw; she deals death from upon high and gleans scraps from a neighbours table. She goes unnoticed by laird and preacher, above ground, but is treated as an equal by the king and queen of faeries below. Her marriage bed is only for sleeping; but she thrills to Satan’s illicit black touch and to the ice cold drip of his semen upon her ivory thighs..’ Dr.John Callow
One person who came to be enchanted and inspired by Gowdies evocative tales, was the artist and initiate of The Wica, John Upton, and it is his work which re-imagines Isobel Gowdie, vividly and specifically, within the context of modern, Pagan witchcraft and ritual.
John Uptons life was every bit as interesting, and as varied, as his artistic work. A professional boxer in his youth, a counter-cultural anarchist, mural painter, sculptor and associate of Bill Butler, radical publisher and homosexual poet late of the legendary Unicorn Bookshop which in the 1960’s was a centre for Beat culture literature and banned pornography including early work by J.G.Ballard.
Uptons work was the art of an outsider, never a lover of institutional academia, he remained free of the attachments of financial and cultural controls. His work speaks from a place of truth: honest, naïve, explosive!
Johns work begs an immediate response from the viewer, it is immersive and in some parts frightening. In this sense the working of practical occult magic, of the folk witchcraft which lies at the heart of the Gowdie sketchbooks, begs a ‘happening’ and a transformation, whether it be figurative, literal or sexual.
John Uptons early connections with the occult can bee seen in his surviving mural ‘Christs entry into Brighton’ which has Aleister Crowley at its centre flanked by figures such as Jimi Hendrix and Christine Keeler. Perhaps Uptons mural was influenced by the Beatles Sgt Pepper album, but also likely the religious and working-class undertones of Stanley Spencers ‘Christs entry into Jerusalem’.
Uptons work invokes the role of art in the ancient Mystery Religions: having resonances in some places with William Blake, in others with the woodcut illustrations of the 16th and 17th century witchcraft and folk tracts, as well as the vibrant pop art of his own day, he performs the role of alchemist and transformer of consciousness: drawing us back into the realm of historical witchcraft and bringing that primitive undeniably shamanic atmosphere into our experience of the present.
With their emphasis on vibrancy of colour, truth of narrative, channelling of faery power and deep rooted in the witchcraft of our times and times long gone, the Upton sketchbooks evoke a world just on the borders of our own.
In the early 1970s John Upton met the extraordinary Doreen Valiente and was initiated into witchcraft, in 1979 he moved to Irvine on the West coast of Scotland and some years later met the profoundly influential Charles Clarke. Charles Clarke was for several years secretary to Gerald Gardner founder of modern witchcraft, and was initiated by Gardner and his wife Donna intro witchcraft in the 1950’s.
Charles Clarke was charged by Gardner with the task of heading the Scottish Wica and went on to found three covens: Perth, Glasgow and Ayrshire. Initiates of Charles Clarkes Scots lineage included Monique Wilson and Raymond Buckland.
Over a period of ten years, John Upton set about telling the story of Scottish Witchcraft filling thirteen large format sketchbooks with material spanning both historical witchcraft narratives as retold in the voices of the witches themselves, as well as the material covered in Gerald Gardner’s own magical grimoires. In this work Upton prefigured the major academic efforts of Emma Wilby tracing Scottish witchcraft back to its roots in traditional folk medicine, faery lore and shamanic practices.
Powerfully influenced by William S. Borroughs, who John Upton had met in Morocco, John Upton experimented with LSD and likely with mushrooms in magical ritual contexts, both entering and then evoking for us the faery-realms and witch-transformations spoken of by Isobel Gowdie and others.
The creativity of Isobel Gowdie, like that of John Upton, casts a magic that is both inescapably loud, yet with a subtlety that continues working within you long after the initial exposure has passed.
The Angel and Royal Hotel High St, Grantham NG31 6PN
Information for your visit:
Meet 7pm at the bar downstairs, talk begins 8pm, break at 9pm for tea/coffee/cordial
Events cost £3 per person entry
The Angel is a social and discussion group for those interested in astrology, tarot, magick, alchemy, spiritual awakening, ancient cultures, esoteric symbolism, eastern disciplines, kabbalah, mysticism, higher physics, psychic phenomena, supernatural experience, witchcraft, crystals, energy work and more!
Entry cost £3 per person, this is to allay the expenses of the room.
'The Angel' is a friendly group open to all, evenings begin at 7pm with drinks in the main bistro bar downstairs (the bistro can cater for meals if you are travelling a distance: please book through the hotel). Talks and workshops generally begin at 8pm with a break at 9pm, tea/coffee/cordial is included.
'The Angel' group meets every second month in the Kings Room upstairs at the medieval Angel & Royal Hotel, High Street, Grantham NG31 6PN, Phone: 01476 565 816
The Hotel has a 600 year old structure and the Kings Room once held the court of King Richard III. At one time the site was a Knights Templar Commandery. The hotel is a few minutes from the train station and the town centre.
DIRECTIONS Getting here couldn’t be easier, we are excellently located on the East Cost Mainline for trains, just 40 minutes by car from East Midlands Airport.
Driving directions: From the North Take the first exit for Grantham off the A1, near to Downtown superstore.
Straight on at the road about to go up the hill, come down the hill and through the village of Gonerby, which then leads into Grantham.
Get in the left hand lane to town centre, then immediately change to the right hand lane taking a left at the second set of lights. When you reach another set of lights you will see the hotel on the left, go past us and take the next left, and left again our car park is the 3rd on the right.
From the South Take the first exit marked Grantham on the A1, follow the road into the town centre, pass Sainsburys, at the next set of lights right hand lane and stay in this lane to turn right, then immediate left onto Elmer street south, leading to Elmer street north, the car park is the third on the right.
The postcode for the car park for your sat nav - NG31 6RE.
Please note: there is a stairway up to the Kings Room, there is no elevator or disabled access.