Book Chapter

Mixed Media: Olivia Plender’s A Stellar Key to the Summerland and the Afterlife of Spiritualist Visual Culture



Ferguson C (2016) Mixed Media: Olivia Plender’s A Stellar Key to the Summerland and the Afterlife of Spiritualist Visual Culture. In: Jones A & Mitchell R (eds.) Drawing on the Victorians: The Palimpsest of Victorian and Neo-Victorian Graphic Texts. Series in Victorian Studies. Athens, OH, USA: Ohio University Press, pp. 121-150.

First paragraph: When Modern Spiritualism spread across the United States and then the Atlantic in the early eighteen-fifties, it initiated not only a radical heterodox and political movement but also a rich visual culture in which proof of spiritual survival was explained and evidenced through an elaborate system of cosmological maps and illustrations, emblems, photographs and phrenological medium portraits, spectacular demonstrations, and spirit drawings whose goal was to make the inquirer see anew 1 One of the most significant and intricate of the early movement’s illustrated books, A Stellar Key to the Summer Land (1867), by American Harmonial philosopher Andrew Jackson Davis, forges its argument for the Spiritualist hypothesis through a mixed-media synthesis of image and text in which the mundane and supernatural worlds are placed on the same visual plane. In her striking 2007 hand-drawn comic of almost identical name, research-based British artist Olivia Plender recovers the forgotten iconography and visual ephemera of nineteenth-century transatlantic Spiritualism—including mastheads from Spiritualist newspapers, medium portraits, proselytizing posters, and diagrams of séance equipment—to track, probe, and then ultimately undo the movement’s seeming complicity with the subsequent cultures of New Age libertarianism and neo-liberal capitalism. Framing her text as a New Age self-help book dictated by the departed spirit of Andrew Jackson Davis, Plender explores the ways in which Spiritualism’s reformist and socialist agenda was mediated and tempered by the spectacular forms of modern capitalism, its pictures of the hitherto unseen world of spirit framed to sell pitiless schemes of colonial violence and libertarian self-reliance. At the same time, however, her detailed reiterations and adaptations of the movement’s most iconic images reveal their continued ability to surpass the instrumentalist purposes to which they have often been put to use in the commodity culture of the New Age. This chapter examines A Stellar Key to the Summerland’s compelling meditation on the ideological ambivalence of the twinned exoteric image cultures in which it participates: that of the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement and that of contemporary popular comics.

Title of seriesSeries in Victorian Studies
Publication date31/12/2016
PublisherOhio University Press
Publisher URL
Place of publicationAthens, OH, USA

People (1)


Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor in English, English Studies