Our family friend, Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913), a self-educated man, was a remarkable Victorian intellectual. Not only did he co-share credit with Charles Darwin for discovering the process of natural selection; he also made many other significant contributions to the field of natural history.
Thousands of his letters were recently published by the Natural History Museum. From these letters we form an impression of an active, keenly observant, articulate and social man.
Just by example, we learn that he was not only quite a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but visited Reichenbach Falls (scene of the epic battle between Holmes and Moriarty).
Sherlock Holmes’ illustrator, Arthur Twidle, sent Wallace his Academy entry for 1913, along with copies of two butterfly paintings, as “a simple tribute from one who has derived untold pleasure from the results of your great work in this branch of Natural History”.
Wallace was an elegant and assured writer. In his wonderful book – “The Malay Archipelago”, he describes the hills of the Maros region of the Celebes.
Their surfaces are very irregular, broken into holes and fissures, with ledges overhanging the mouths of gloomy caverns; but from each projecting part have descended stalactites, often forming a wild gothic tracery over the caves and receding hollows, and affording an admirable support to the roots of the shrubs, trees, and creepers, which luxuriate in the warm pure atmosphere and the gentle moisture which constantly exudes from the rocks.
In 1893, Wallace visited Dove Dale near Ashbourne. He was much taken by the landscape, “In one place a fine arch through a rock which runs out in a thin buttress, another is like a church tower with an opening like a narrow gothic window in it.”
While in Ashbourne, Wallace could well have visited the pub which at one time bore the longest name in Great Britain, “The Royal Green Man and Blackamoor’s Head Commercial and Family Hotel”. The present inn was built in 1750, and is the result of the 19th century amalgamation of the Green Man and the nearby Blackamoors Head.
From 1775 until 1791, though, the master of the Blackamoors Head was one Charles Houghton, my many times great-grandfather.
Charles Houghton’s grand-daughter, Georgiana Houghton, seems to have had a far less tenuous connection to Wallace.
Like the afore-mentioned Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgiana Houghton was an ardent Spiritualist. She wrote at least two spiritualist books that are still in print: Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye Interblended with Personal Narrative, and Evenings At Home In Spiritual Seance: Welded Together By A Species Of Autobiography (1882).
She is considered by art critics not only as an early Modernist, but as a forerunner to some of the more famous abstract expressionists such as Kandinsky. In 1871, she exhibited some 155 of her “spirit drawings” at the New Bond Gallery in London. At least one of her drawings is in the collection of abcd (art brut, connaissance & diffusion foundation) in Paris. Another collection of thirty-five drawings exists at the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia.
As his many letters on the subject attest, Wallace himself was very interested in Spiritualism. He had at least one letter published in The Spiritual Magazine, the same magazine that Georgiana Houghton read and referred to often in her books. In fact, she wrote to the magazine herself on the subject of her exhibition of drawings in late August 1871.
In 1874, Wallace’s young son Bertie died suddenly of scarlet fever. He received a letter of condolence from Arabella Burton Fisher, in which she said
How wonderful it is how completely Spiritualism alters one’s idea of death; but I think it increases one’s wish to know what they are doing – you have so many friends who can get information for you & I suppose Mrs Guppy having known dear little Bertie would be able to learn a good deal – I wonder who will take care of him and educate him for you.
Mrs Guppy (aka Agnes Guppy Volckman) was a well-known medium in the 1860s and 70s. It seems that Mrs Guppy was in fact discovered as a medium by Wallace.
As evidenced by the many references to Mrs Guppy in her books, Mrs Guppy was a favoured medium and close friend of Georgiana Houghton.
So just on this alone, we could infer that Wallace and Houghton may have known each other.
We could leave the connection in the realm of conjecture, if it were not for an annotation to a spirit photograph which appears in “Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye Interblended with Personal Narrative”.
It reads: “Plate VI, 49. Alfred Russel Wallace, F.R.G.S., and his mother.”
So there you go…