Haven’t done one of these for a while, I’m sure that people have forgotten I actually spend my day surrounded by books rather than lurking in a screen filled cave attempting to absorb the contents of the internet. I’ve got a ton of stuff to write about at the moment (I’m not promising any of it will be any good, but hey, if you want good go here, and here), we’ve had an influx of very cool books, I have another catalogue to write and we’re gearing up for the imminent publication of Jon Gilbert’s epic Ian Fleming Bibliography.
So for starters, something barking mad:
BARRETT, Francis. The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer; Being a Complete System of Occult Philosophy.
London: Printed for Lackington, Allen and Co., 1801. [38020 ]
FIRST EDITION. Quarto (270 x 210mm) Three books in two parts pp. xv, 175,198. Bound with the half-title but lacking the leaf of advertisments to rear. Later 19th Century half tan morocco leather, cloth sides, raised bands and gilt titles to spine. All edges speckled red. Frontispiece portrait, 22 plates (1 folding and four hand-coloured) and smaller illustrations and tables within the text. Some rubbing to edges, armorial bookplate of J. Griffith Dearden to front pastedown. A remakably clean and fesh example with just some browning and light spotting to frontispiece and title, with a faint stain to the gutter of first two leaves. The colouring of the Demon portraits is particularly vibrant, with more use of blues and greens than the more usual browns and reds. Francis Barrett was an eccentric student of the Occult (and amateur balloonist!) His major work, The Magus, was influential on the occult revival of the 19th Century, both on the Gothic novel and Romantic works and later, with the publication of a facsimile edition c.1875, groups such as the Golden Dawn. Although he was heavily indebted to the works of earlier masters and perhaps added little of his own philosophy, though he did translate some Latin passages, the Magus was the first collection of major Occult thought in English since the 1651 translation of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. An uncommonly clean and unrestored copy of an Occult landmark.
Those of you familiar with my ramblings will be aware that the above catalogue description issues from the steady hand and calm mind of Mr. Blair Cowl, Keeper of Ye Cupboard of Darknesse. All further attempt at erudition is entirely my own fault.
August 11th, 1802, Greenwich, London: Enormous crowds gather to witness Francis Barrett, occultist, alchemist, Brother of The Rosy Cross, astrologer and scholar attempt to add the title of Balloon Adventurer (or “Ballooner” as Lauren Avirom would have it) to his list of titles. The Times of the day reported:
“The roads leading from London…were filled the whole of the afternoon with conveyances of every description…Blackheath resembled a race-ground, carriages were continually passing over it…”
The crowd was enormous, fractious, rambunctious, largely drunk and destined to be disappointed. In this context “disappointed” means that the military had to be hastily drafted in to control it.
Magister Barrett’s balloon encountered problems. His plan was to use massive amounts of sulphuric acid mixed with iron filings to create hydrogen to inflate his airship. The theory was fairly sound except for the niggling detail that vaporized sulphuric acid is a trifle aggressive, and proceeded to eat through the barrels and the hoses intended to deliver hydrogen into the balloon.
The flight had to be delayed until the next day, the only people happy with this were the pickpockets, who were having, literally, a field day. Barrett apologetically (and probably rather nervously) promised results by 3pm the next day. Barrett and his cohorts (including the Chevalier Andrade, whose grounds were hosting the experiment…and the horde) worked through the night attempting to improve their airship. The crowd returned, about half of them wanting to see a balloon fly, the other half wanting a riot to kick off. The pickpockets had bought friends, and a number of people were robbed blind. Barrett’s balloon eventually clambered sluggishly into the grey sky, unmanned and un-basketed, it managed to lurch three miles or so and pitched into a marsh. The populace were not amused. Barrett and family left London under something of a cloud.
Mr. Robert Southey, never one to keep his mouth shut, had this to say in one of his millions of letters:
“…We dined at the traveller’s room at Swansea. There came in after dinner the balloon adventurer Barrett to sponge a glass of wine. Tell King I have seen a greater rogue than Solomon! This same Barrett who took in the people at Greenwich – and who wrote a book called The Magus – of which I have seen the title page and his own rascally portrait as frontispiece. My gentleman professes to teach the occult sciences. Unhappily I did not know this was the fellow when I saw him – else I would have gone thro his sciences! – and he puts all the letters in the alphabet after his name to look like honorary titles. A dog – he had better break his neck from a balloon to save the country the expense of hanging him.”
Whereupon the recipient of the letter probably wrote back telling Southey to stop beating round the bush and just say what he really felt.
Barrett was possibly the least successful balloon adventurer ever, he made exactly one half-way successful flight; spending a couple of hours being dragged through hedgerows by a recalcitrant airship that was dismembered by over enthusiastic field hands as soon as it eventually came to rest. We’re not going to talk about the time he almost set a dog and a cat on fire.
Lack of success as an aeronaut aside, Barrett’s true importance lies in the fact that he was virtually the first “magician” since the Medieval period to create a magical “Do It Yourself” textbook. It remained a significant part of the exploration of the occult until the publication of Crowley’s Magick In Theory and Practice (1929) supplanted it slightly in the minds of serious practitioners on the grounds that magickal education is all very well, but it’s better when there are also naked people involved.
“The Magus” is a remarkable piece of work, covering as it does just about every part of magical theory. The title alone covers three quarters of the page:
“The Magus, Or Celestial Intelligencer; Being a Complete system of Occult Philosophy. In three books: Containing the Antient and Modern Practice of the Cabalistic Art, Natural and Celestial Magic & c. ; shewing the wonderful effects that may be formed by a knowledge of the Celestial Influences, the Occult Properties of Mestals, Herbs and Stones, and the Application of Active to Passive Principles Exhibiting The Sciences of Natural Magic; Alchemy or Hermetic Philosophy; Also The Nature Creation, and Fall of Man; His Natural and Supernatural Gifts; The Magical Power Inherent in the Soul & c. ; The Composition and Construction of All Sorts of Magic Seals, Images, Rings, Glasses & c. ; The Virtue and Efficacy of Numbers, Characters and Figures, of Good and Evil Spirits. Magnetism and Cabalistical or Ceremonial Magic; In which The Secret Mysteries of The Cabala are explained; The Operations of Good and Evil Spirits; All Kinds of Cabalistic Figures, Tables, Seals and Names with their use & c. The Times, Bonds, Offices and Conjuration of Spirits. To Which Is Added Biographia Antiqua , or the Lives of the most eminent Philosphers, Magi & c. The Whole illustrated with a great Variety of Curious Engravings, Magical and Cabalistical Figure & c.”
His intention, as evinced by an advertisement printed inside the first (and only for 70 odd years) edition of the book, was to form a magical school with no more than 20 students where he would teach the theories and practices defined in The Magus. Barrett seems to have been one of those people who hovered on the misty border between penury and discovery. His work (and hobbies come to think of it) displays a fascination with systems of thought, the building of cross disciplinary equations and the embracing of technology. Like a kind of occult Rochester he seems to have been resourceful, frequently brilliant and totally unable to settle. Remarkably little is known about him, either his early life or his subsequent adventures after 1802 until his death at some time in (presumably) the 1820’s. Even his two primary biographers; the deliciously erudite and eccentric Timothy d’Arch Smith and later Mr. Francis King have very little light to shed upon what actually happened to Barrett before or after his abortive foray into the upper atmosphere. It is speculated he was a surgeon’s mate in the Royal Navy, it’s known that in 1800 he married sixteen year old Grace Hodge and a year later had a son.
His occult school seems to have been relatively successful (if Montague Summers can be relied upon, and he can’t, not normally), being based at least for a while at 99 Norton Street in London. The careers of a couple of his pupils can be tracked into the mid nineteenth century. Of Barrett himself there are few traces. Personally I would be inclined to favour the idea that he finally finished his masterpiece of an airship and attained his ambition “To be abandoned to a new element.”