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At the Maltwood Museum: Madame Blavatsky's Theosophists & The Order of Women Freemasons

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Victoria Times-Colonist

From the world to Victoria

Collections of long-ago travellers on display at the Maltwood Museum

November 1, 2009

By Robert Amos, Times Colonist

The Maltwood Museum at the University of Victoria was endowed by Katharine Maltwood (1878-1961), and she bequeathed to it her extensive collection. Maltwood was many things: sculptor, world traveller, philanthropist.

Currently, a small exhibition in the museum (curated by graduate student in art history Marnie Mandel) shows her as a mystic.

A cornerstone of the show is Maltwood's certificate of membership in the Order of Women Freemasons. As the Freemasons is usually a male organization, her membership is indicative of a profound interest in this esoteric society.

In this she was aligned with Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), the founder of Theosophy. Maltwood's conceptual drawings for a temple of Freemasonry, here on show, evince the depth of her interest.

The Theosophists traced the universal striving for transcendence through many paths, among them "Egyptosophy." Maltwood and her husband John travelled to Egypt in 1919, 1921 and 1923, visiting temples and collecting amulets. (It is worth noting that Howard Carter unearthed King Tut's tomb in 1922). These trips were more than mere tourism, as can been seen in Maltwood's stone carvings, which are part of this exhibit.

During the Maltwoods' years of protracted travel, between 1921 and 1928 they visited the sacred sites of England, Italy, Greece, Egypt, North Africa, the Holy land and Arab nations, India, Indonesia, China and ultimately Japan, collecting mystic-tinged artworks that came to make up the Maltwood Collection. In particular they focused on the Buddhist arts of Japan.

Buddhism was a vital source for the Theosophists, seen as an antidote to the Christian materialism, which they blamed for the recent Great War. Chief among the Maltwood's treasures are three Buddhist paintings said to be from Japan's Kamakura era (1183-1334) which are in a remarkable state of preservation. Two represent Amida Buddha and a third depicts the 11-headed Kannon. In addition they found a lovely little head of Buddha, carved of wood during that same Kamakura period.

Documents in this show testify to the friendship between the Maltwoods and D.T. Suzuki (1890-1966) in England.

Suzuki's books, in English, developed a concept of Buddhist Modernism which made this philosophy accessible to the West.

He proposed "the development of inner spirituality through meditation and mental discipline, rather than worshipping idols, belief in sacred books or reliance on authorities."

In 1938, sensing the oncoming Second World War, the Maltwoods moved to Victoria and proposed the establishment of a museum, with their collection, as a gift to the City. The current show is, to a degree, in fulfilment of that wish. Clearly there is much more to learn from the efforts of Katharine Maltwood.

Treasures of the Turcomans

There was a time when the name of Turkmenistan called up visions of the Silk Road, when the carpets of Baluchistan and embroidered clothing from Meshed were a romantic dream.

This year we are more likely to think of this region as the northern border of Iran where Afghanistan meets the unravelling fringe of the former Soviet Union.

But there was a time ... From the 1920s to the late 1940s, Evvie Gastrell, accompanied by his wife Dishie, was a British consul in Iran. He worked in the embassy in Tehran and, at times, in consulates throughout the country. When they were able, the Gastrells loved to leave politics aside and visit towns and the countryside. With a discerning eye they brought home a rich collection of chain-stitched wall hangings, silk jackets and hand-knotted wool carpets.

These highly embellished handmade garments have been preserved in like-new condition by the family and are on loan from the Gastrell's daughter, Susan, to the Maltwood Museum.

She herself travelled through this area in 1958 and now, at a time when so many other things dominate our sense of these lands, she wants to bring attention to "the rich inheritance of work made by Turcoman women in northwest Iran."

Among the textiles is a group of metal breastplates and necklaces, richly studded with an abundance of Afghan rubies. The workmanship is worthy of note.

Tantalized by selections from the Gastrells' annotated period photo albums, showing them camping and visiting markets, I wish I had more background on this intriguing family. For now, I am grateful to have had a close look at this rich handiwork from another time.

The exhibit is a project of art history graduate student Bryn Dharmaratne.

Travels and Treasures: Divine Inspirations of Katharine Maltwood and Treasures of the Turcomans, at the Maltwood Museum, University of Victoria (250-721-8298), until Jan. 29, 2010.

Further Reading:

Travelling Men - Fraternal Associations

Freemasonry in Canada