top of page
The New Generation by Jan Toorop

Modernism & Alternate Spiritualities

A One-day symposium

10th January 2020 

RCA, London. 


In ‘A Secular Age’ Charles Taylor argues that instead of characterising Western modernity as a moment that saw a decline in religion, emphasis should instead be placed on the way in which the spiritual climate was reconfigured, particularly in terms of the way belief became a matter of individual choice.


 Modern life, he argues, bore witness to a ‘spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane’. Coterminous with the decline in the authority of the Church in the early 20th century was a turn to alternative spiritual pathways: the teaching of independent gurus such as GI Gurdjieff, PD Ouspensky and Meher Baba of Eastern Religion and appropriated versions in occult systems of thought, including Theosophy, Anthroposophy and magical organisations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.


This was a culture that was playful and explorative, one in which – as spiritual seeker Rom Landau put it in his book ‘God is my Adventure’ – people were ‘only too willing to delve into […] unorthodox schools of thought, yet without feeling compelled to accept this or that method as the only valid one.’


The aim of this symposium is to explore the intersection of this spiritual culture with literary and artistic modernism. Traditionally characterised as a movement infused by secular disillusionment, recent scholarship has emphasised the continuation of the sacred among the moderns, albeit in ways that were often idiosyncratic, outlandish and deviant.


10th January 2020

At the RCA
Kensington Campus 

Royal College of Art
Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU

Modernism & Alternate Spiritaulties SYMPOSIUM



Modernism and Alternative Spiritualities Symposium

Royal College of Art, Kensington | 10th January 2020

9:00 – 9:30


9:30 – 9:45
Welcome & Introduction

Imogen Woodberry

9:45 – 10:45

The Varieties of Modern Yoga in Early Twentieth-Century Britain
Suzanne Newcombe (The Open University)

Mystics, Masters and Teachers’: Authority and Seekership in the Interwar Period

Steven Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh)

10:45 – 11:00
Coffee & Tea Break

11:00 – 12:30

Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and the Rise of 'empirical spirituality'
Jules Evans (Queen Mary University of London)


Unruly Bodies: the Metaphysical, the Psychical and ‘Rational Religion’ in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain
Alana Harris (King's College, London)


Sorting the ‘mysticism’ from the ‘meat’? C.K. Ogden, Psyche and the Return of Magic
Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster)

12:30 – 14:00

14:00 – 15:30

Enchanted Modern Objects: Kibbo Kift’s Mundane Magic

Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton)


Silent Protest: Ditchling and the Rhythms of the Modern Retreat Movement
Jamie Callison (Nord University)

Christian Occultism: Charles Williams and the Erosion of Heresy
Aren Roukema (Birkbeck, University of London)

15:30 – 16:00
Coffee & Tea Break

16:00 – 17:30

Perils of Expansion: Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs and the Limits of the Counterculture
Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Mary Butts & Lynette Roberts: Believing in the Hidden Tides of Places
Leo Mellor (University of Cambridge)

 “Modernistic mysticism”: the Evolution of an Idea in Modernist Criticism from 1920 to the Present
Suzanne Hobson (Queen Mary University of London)

17:30- 19:00
Drinks Reception


Organising Committee 

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 10.23.44.png

Imogen Woodberry is an AHRC PhD student at the Royal College of Arts. Her thesis addresses the relationship between alternative forms of belief and art and literature between the wars in Britain. She has recently presented papers on John Middleton Murry at BAMS and Naomi Mitchison at a symposium on the writer at St Andrews.


Polly Hember is an AHRC and TECHNE funded PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Focusing on modernism and visual culture, her thesis explores the work of the POOL group. She is a representative of the British Association of Modernist Studies (BAMS) and co-edits the Modernist Review and the Decorating Dissidence Blog. She is currently co-organising the Figuring out Feeling Conference, to take place in Paris, July 2020. 

Formal photo..jpg

Dr Anna Neima is a social and cultural historian of the twentieth century, specialising in practical utopianism. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge, looking at Dartington Hall and its links with social reform in Britain and further afield between the wars. She is currently working on a book for Picador about the international wave of social experiments in how to live that was sparked off by the First World War.

Supported by


Please send any thoughts, questions or enquiries to

bottom of page