Posted by: Kay Heffernan | December 2, 2014

Synesthesia in the Victorian Era

We discussed the haptic or tactile nature of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs a few weeks ago, speaking briefly of the synesthetic. The proximity of the sitters and the  brought many of them close enough to touch; the rough-hewn and flushed qualities of their skin lets us imagine how their faces were marked by color, warmth, and age.

Wanting to know more about Victorian understandings of synesthesia, a neurological “mixing” of two or more senses, I came upon a beautiful and strange collection of images in a book entitled Thought-Forms. Published at the very end of the Victorian era in 1901, this book, written and illustrated by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, argued that ideas, emotions, and other intangible states of being manifested in visual form, in “thought-form.”

Besant and Leadbeater were members of the London Theosophical Society, the initial aim of which was to enrich contemporary knowledge of the Occult. (W. B. Yeats was also a member.) Considering their book as the first synesthetic archive of its kind – “[these thought-forms] are… actually observed” – the two occultists synthesized photography with color symbology in artistic representations of mental experience. They focused on two sensory pairings, sight with sound and sight with touch, rendering the invisible not just visible, but colorful.

In his article on the Victorian Occult and synesthesia, Benjamin Breen discusses the transformation of a Newtonian theory of color to a mystical or spiritual one, led by Madame Helena Blavatsky, a founder of the Society. A chart provided in Thought-Forms mapped out the colors “seen” and their correlating emotional, mental, or spiritual states.

"Meaning of the Colors," a chart provided in "Thought-Forms" by Besant and Leadbeater.

“Meaning of the Colors,” a chart provided in “Thought-Forms” by Besant and Leadbeater.

“Read more” to see examples of these thought-forms!

"Plate M. Music of Mendelssohn."

“Plate M. Music of Mendelssohn.”

"Fig. 18. Vague Intellectual Pleasure"

“Fig. 18. Vague Intellectual Pleasure”

"Fig. 12. Peace and Protection"

“Fig. 12. Peace and Protection”

(Doesn’t that look like a Golden Snitch from the Harry Potter series..!?)

"Fig. 30. At A Shipwreck"

“Fig. 30. At A Shipwreck”

In light of this psychologizing color theory, I see these thought-forms as early Rorschar ink blot tests or abstract artworks. However, Breen notes a shift within the book, “moving from illustrations of discrete thoughts and emotions to quasi-narratives about events.” See “At A Shipwreck,” the last illustration in the set above, for an excellent example of the narrative implied by the caption and staged by the visual.

Although the book was published at the turn of the 20th century, I find it incredible that understandings of visuality could get to this point within 70 years’ time. (Who would’ve thought the Victorians were capable of Rothko-esque work?)

What do you think of these illustrations? What do you think of when you see these illustrations?


If you’re interested, you can read the full text of “Thought-Forms” at Project Gutenberg here.

Source: “Victorian Occultism and the Art of Synesthesia” by Benjamin Breen. from The Public Domain Review


  1. I love this! Synesthesia has always fascinated me because it somehow moves us closer to being able to realize the senses — each is rendered slightly more tangible through its association with another sense. Similarly, I love that these pictures provide a sort of insight into the problem of other minds. Since I come from a musical background, the Music of Mendelssohn plate interests me particularly. You can never know how others are experiencing a piece of music, or any form of art — but through the lens of an additional sense (in this case, the visual works to clarify the auditory), we can come one step closer.

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