Old Joan, Cecil Williamson & J.A. Smith

Deep within the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic in Boscastle, North Cornwall, continuing Cecil Williamson’s tradition of museum tableaux, is Joan’s Cottage. Here, a warm and kindly looking 19th century south-west wise-woman sits in her humble home, surrounded by her animal friends, her collection of magical and curative herbs lined up ready for use on the shelves, and the physical charms of her Craft adorning the whitewashed stone walls and hanging from the rough wooden beams.

Old Joan

For many years now, visitors to the Museum have been able to hear the voice paid to represent ‘Old Joan’ [18/8/15 it has been brought to my attention that the provider of this voice claims to have volunteered her time. She was in fact paid to do ‘promotional work’ for the Museum. It was my understanding that the recording was part of this work] reciting (with the incongruous inclusion of the odd cold and sinister cackle) an extraordinary and wonderful collection of verbal charms and spells, originally gathered by Devonshire witch and author Levannah Morgan, many of which I believe were passed to her by her Craft teacher Hereward the Wake.

Given the vast array of 19th century charms recorded in the south-west, I have long felt it might be nice for ‘Old Joan’ to be given some new material, and the refurbishments the Museum is now undergoing with its new ownership provided a good opportunity to discuss the possibility of manifesting this idea. Jane and I spoke with our friend the author, folklorist and magician Steve Patterson, and before we knew it he had assembled a suitable collection of south-west charms, spells and magical rites, a few of which draw on the material gathered by Cecil Williamson. The Museum team were enthusiastic about the project and before long we had found an eminently suitable new voice for Joan in our friend the author Elaine Gill who very kindly donated her time.

Over a couple of sessions, the recording was made in our little cottage in West Cornwall which is not unlike Joan’s cottage; with its large fireplace and whitewashed stone walls. Outside our cottage, Tawny Owls are often to be heard calling from the wooded valley and the surrounding thorn hedges, and so such calls were woven into the recording, along with the odd ‘meow’ from our cat Polly providing a voice for Joan’s feline companions. A softly crackling fire in the hearth provides a welcoming continuous backdrop to the recording.

Early in April, Jane, Inky and I drove up to Boscastle to deliver the new recording and to see how well it worked in the tableau, or if it required further editing. In fact, it sounded wonderful; very atmospheric and Elaine’s beautifully clear voice has a wise and highly compassionate quality to it which is very suited to the requisite qualities of a wise-woman who would often be turned to for guidance in times of difficulty and distress. The installment of the new recording is only the first aspect in the manifesting of this particular project, so keep an eye out for the rest to come!

Of course whilst there, we were able to take in the changes that have been made to parts of the Museum; the hard work has in our opinion certainly paid off and the place is looking wonderful. We particularly liked the new large Victorianesque display cabinets in the ‘Images of Witchcraft’ section which are beautifully lit.

Museun of Witchcraft & Magic

It was also lovely to see my little portrait of Cecil Williamson installed in a charming new display relating to Cecil and the history of the Museum. ‘Sticky’, Cecil’s famous walking stick, given to him by Windsor witch Rosa Woodman, and passed onto his good friend and witch Brownie Pate following his death is in the display, and leans against the portrait in which it is depicted; held by Cecil Williamson.

Cecil Williamson Display


The persecution section is now downstairs, and by entering into it one walks into a suitably ‘dark’ yet contemplative space in which a mannequin stands with her body ensnared by such contraptions as the thumbscrews and the ‘scold’s bridle’; adding to their impact. The mannequin herself is particularly striking in her lack of features; allowing the visitor to project a face from their subconscious, making her far more ‘real’ and powerful as we contemplate the horrors of persecution.

Museum of Witchcraft persecution display

The darkness of this experience is heightened by the contrast of stepping out into the brightness of a new and exciting exhibition space, located where the stone circle tableau once sat. Although the walls were empty at the time, awaiting the installment of their first exhibition, one could visualize the changing displays to come; showcasing the creativity that arises from those visual artists inspired by the witch, witchcraft, magic and the otherworldly.

Museum of Witchcraft Exhibition Space

The first of these exhibitions is one that I am personally looking forward to with great enthusiasm, for it will showcase the extraordinary work created by Joseph A. Smith for Erica Jong’s 1981 book ‘WITCHES’. Against one of the gallery’s walls, a glass display cabinet stood, and out of the corner of my eye I immediately recognised what lay inside and rushed over to it wide-eyed. There I was looking at Smith’s original watercolour and pencil depiction of the dualistic witch-goddess as dark crone and bright floral maiden.

‘WITCHES’ is a book which captivated me when I first encountered it as a student at art college. Jong’s poetry, the rites, the descriptions of the witch’s tools and J.A. Smith’s exquisite images spoke so powerfully of the mysterious world of witchcraft at a time when I was taking part in my first group ceremonies, and I was completely enchanted by it. I found art college very boring indeed, and was highly disappointed that, with only a couple of exceptions, it was not a haunt of the sensitive, unusual and otherworldly people I had expected of a place of creativity. So, after my grand parents had dropped me off in the morning, I would often make my way to the nearby woods (making sure to be back in time for them to pick me up), or, if the weather was bad, I would browse the library for books of witchcraft, magic, superstition and folklore, and it was here that I found ‘WITCHES’. I can remember the first time I withdrew this book from the library and I treasured it. Unfortunately, I ended up losing my student card, and so could not withdraw books any more from the college, but I was still able of course to spend as much time as possible escaping within this book in the library itself – art college is a place where I did very little work indeed.

Sadly, its seems someone else desired this book as much as I did, but with a lack of conscience, for the book was stolen from the library and I was not to see it again for many years until Jane bought the even more beautiful hardcover edition for me one birthday, and now it remains my most treasured book in a library of my own.

My eyes widened again when Peter and Judith told me that many of the paintings were up in the Museum’s archive and asked if I would like to have a look! These were images that, many years ago, I had made very bad photocopies of in the college photocopier so that I could put them up on my bedroom wall at home – and there I was, off to have a private viewing of the originals in the archive of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic. The paintings and drawings were held within a large card folder, protected by bubble-wrap, and separated by archival sheets. Carefully unwrapping these treasures, and being able to see them for the first time ‘in the flesh’ was a surreal experience, and enabled me to discover intimate aspects of them that I had not previously noticed in the book-printed versions; such as the few painted feathers on the ink-drawn crow in the section on the familiar, and the finer details of the strange glow arising from the herb being gathered by the witch by moonlight.

Thank you Peter and Judith for that amazing opportunity and I look forward to viewing the exhibition when it opens.

Gemma Gary Joseph Smith 1

Gemma Gary Joseph Smith 2    Gemma Gary Joseph Smith 3

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