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Spirit Painting (Part I)

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 10.1, March 2000

Part I: The Campbell Brothers

During the heyday of spiritualism, among the “physical phenomena” commonly manifested were so-called spirit paintings. These were portraits and other artworks, done in various media and produced under a variety of conditions but always ascribed to spirit entities. During 1998 and 1999 I was able to examine several of these at Lily Dale, the western New York spiritualist colony, and to thereby shed light on some century-old mysteries.

Figure 1. “Spirit” writing and painting produced on a slate during the heyday of “physical mediumship” (now exhibited at the Lily Dale Museum).

Figure 1. “Spirit” writing and painting produced on a slate during the heyday of “physical mediumship” (now exhibited at the Lily Dale Museum).

Full-fledged spirit paintings, often portraits of the dearly departed, were typically rather elaborate renderings in oils or pastels. Although looking for all the world like artworks done by professionals, they were produced under remarkable conditions: e.g., during a short time, in complete or near darkness, etc. The most famous spirit-painting mediums were the Bangs sisters (the subject of Part II) and the Campbell brothers.

Although there are myriad discussions of spirit painting (e.g., Coates 1911; Carrington 1920; Mulholland 1938), I have come across no real history of the alleged phenomenon and nothing to establish its origin or chronicle its development. The following few paragraphs are my attempt to fill this void.

Soon after modern spiritualism began in 1848 with the spirit rappings of the Fox sisters (who confessed their trickery four decades later), spirit pictures began to appear in a very simple form. The earliest ones of which I am aware were drawings produced as an extension of “automatic” writing, whereby messages were supposedly dictated by otherworldly entities or the medium’s hand was allegedly guided by them. For example, in 1851 John Murray Spear (b. 1804) produced séance writings and “also geometrical drawings and strange unintelligible figures, of which no interpretation was vouchsafed” (Podmore 1902, 1:216).

Figure 2. A typical “spirit” pastel portrait by the Campbell Brothers (exhibited at the Maplewood Hotel, Lily Dale).

Figure 2. A typical “spirit” pastel portrait by the Campbell Brothers (exhibited at the Maplewood Hotel, Lily Dale).

In the mid 1860s, a Glasgow cabinetmaker and spiritualist named David Duguid (1832-1907) began painting small landscapes while being observed, according to psychical investigator Frank Podmore (1902, II:130), “apparently in deep trance, and with his eyes apparently closed”-emphasis on the word apparently. Podmore (1902, II:131) was “disposed to regard Duguid’s trance utterances as probably not involving conscious deception,” but his later mediumistic demonstrations are another matter. Magician John Mulholland in his Beware Familiar Spirits (1938, 158), says Duguid was among the mediums who employed “simple substitution of painted for unpainted cards.”

After the debut of slate-writing-a phenomenon claimed to have been “discovered” by “Dr.” Henry Slade (d. 1905)-spirit pictures also began to appear, sometimes accompanying writing (see figure 1), sometimes separately. These pictures could be done (like the messages) with a simple slate pencil, but more ornate ones were rendered with colored chalks or paints. The slate effects were done under conditions that supposedly precluded trickery, thereby seeming to prove they were authentic spirit productions. In fact, however, they were easily produced by a variety of conjuring techniques, and mediums were repeatedly caught faking the phenomena (Houdini 1924).

Although spirit painting is distinct from spirit photography, there was actually some overlap. Interestingly, early photographic techniques-daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, etc.-did not yield spirit portraits; those awaited the advent of glass-plate negatives which facilitated double exposures. After spirit photography became established in 1862 (by Bostonian William H. Mumler1), painted portraits or other artworks obviously served on occasion as the basis for photographed spirit “extras.” Some mediumistic photographers produced photo images with artistically added “veils,” “shrouds,” and other funereal trappings (see examples in Permut 1988). And David Duguid expanded his repertoire from spirit paintings to spirit photographs and even “psychographs” (supposedly non-camera spirit or psychic photos) (Coates 1911, 65). One way the latter were produced involved using seemingly unprepared paper that actually contained a chemically bleached-out image. At the appropriate time the paper would be secretly pressed against a blotter dampened with a developing solution (Carrington 1920, 220-221).

Figure 3. “Spirit” oil painting, Azur, produced in stages during an 1898 séance (exhibited at the Maplewood Hotel, Lily Dale).

Figure 3. “Spirit” oil painting, Azur, produced in stages during an 1898 séance (exhibited at the Maplewood Hotel, Lily Dale).

At Lily Dale, I was able to examine several pictures by the Campbell brothers-or I should say, “brothers,” since they were unrelated. (According to my sources at Lily Dale, they were a gay couple in a time when differences in sexual orientation were less tolerated.) They were Allan B. Campbell (1833-1919) and Charles “Campbell” (born Charles Shourds, who died August 23, 1926). They lived at Lily Dale but traveled widely, reportedly making twenty-two trips to Europe. Their mediumship involved slate writing and spirit typewriting (produced in a portable cabinet), but they are best known for their spirit portraits and paintings (“Campbell Brothers” n.d.).

The Campbells’ “spirit” artists produced pastel and oil portraits. I inspected examples of both with an ordinary magnifying glass and a 103 illuminated loupe and found them indistinguishable from works produced by the human hand. Some writers claim the pictures “have no brush marks” (Jackson 1975). That is true of the pastels which were of course done without brushes or paints and which in fact have the characteristics of pastel drawings (see figure 2). The oil paintings do indeed have brush marks which may easily be found by the use of oblique light-a technique used to enhance surface irregularities (Nickell 1999).

One of the oils is a striking 40 x 60-inch painting of Allan Campbell’s alleged spirit guide, Azur (figure 3). It was produced on June 15, 1898, in a single sitting lasting only an hour and a half. In a signed statement, six witnesses (all of them apparently spiritualists, some of them prominent) described the conditions under which the picture was produced:

On the evening mentioned we met at the cottage of the Campbell Brothers on the hill and proceeded to their Egyptian séance room. Across the bay window at the end of the room was hung a large silk curtain, where stood a small table and a canvas 40"360". Each one in turn went up to the canvas and magnetized it by passing his hands over the surface. We then placed whatever marks we pleased on the back, some placing names, some numbers, some marks to suit their fancy. Mr. A. Campbell then invited one of the circle to sit with him in the impromptu cabinet and the silken curtain enclosing them; each member of the circle in turn sat within the cabinet with Mr. Campbell. Every time the curtain was withdrawn we saw the partly finished picture of Azur. During the entire séance there was light enough for us to see everything perfectly and note the gradual growth of the painting on the canvas. Mr. A. Campbell was entranced and Azur, using his organism, gave us some very beautiful words of welcome and lessons of a high order. He spoke of the stars and their significance, which we fully realized afterwards.

After some music, additional lights were brought, the curtain withdrawn, and lo! The picture was complete. It represented Azur with arms uplifted as in the act of speaking and fully life size. While we were admiring it, there came at the back of the head a six-pointed star, which is now distinctly seen. (Prendergast et al. 1989)

One notes that the picture was only observed in stages, but how was it done under the conditions described (assuming them to be true) and in so short a time for a large oil painting? To begin an answer we turn to Hereward Carrington (1920, 222) who describes the two major techniques used for spirit paintings rendered in oils:

One method is for the medium to take an ordinary oil-painting, as fresh as possible (so long as the oil is quite dry), and over this lightly gum, around the edges, another piece of blank canvas, seeing to it that it looks neat at the edges. Now, as soon as the medium is alone in the cabinet, he carefully peels off this outside piece of canvas, secreting it about his person, and exposing the under canvas (the one upon which is the painting) to view. In order to produce the impression of the painting still being wet, he quickly rubs over the painting with poppy-oil, and there is your spirit painting!

The second method Carrington describes as a “chemical means,” but that is something of a misnomer. As he explains:

The oil-painting in this case is first varnished, and, after this is thoroughly dry, it is covered with a solution of water and “zinc white.” The canvas will now have the appearance of being blank, and may be inspected. All the medium has to do, in order to restore the painting, is to wash over the canvas with a wet sponge, when the painting will appear as before.

In the second technique, the zinc white might be sponged off incrementally so that the picture seems to develop in stages. And it would be appropriately damp when brought forth (Gibson 1967). With either method employed, the sitters’ placing their names and other identifying marks on the back of the canvas to prevent substitution-a common ploy of spirit-painting mediums (Gibson 1967)-was a disarming but irrelevant act since the main canvas on which the marks were placed was not switched.

Figure 4. Surface damage is apparent in each of the four corners of Azur-a possible indication of trickery. (All photos by Joe Nickell)

Figure 4. Surface damage is apparent in each of the four corners of Azur-a possible indication of trickery. (All photos by Joe Nickell)

In examining Azur, I detected no traces of zinc white residue that might be expected to remain. However, I did discover-in each of the four corners-evidence of surface damage, seemingly consistent with the first scenario Carrington described. Although unmistakable, the damage is much less apparent to the unaided eye than is seen in an oblique-light photograph intended to reveal it (figure 4). In fact, the damage would no doubt generally go unnoticed, and, indeed, I had seen the painting on previous occasions without observing it. My eventual discovery reminds me of an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Gregory, in "Silver Blaze” (Doyle 1894), concerning a clue, a “wax vesta [match], half burned”:

“I cannot think how I came to overlook it,” said the inspector with an expression of annoyance.

“It was invisible, buried in the mud [Holmes replied]. I only saw it because I was looking for it.”

“What! You expected to find it?”

“I thought it not unlikely.”

If my observation of surface damage in the four corners of Azur means what I think it does (no innocent, alternate explanation comes to mind), then Allan Campbell seems to have had a blank canvas covering the finished Azur, lightly glued at the corners. There may actually have been two or more overlays so that intermediate stages of the painting could have been prepared in advance. Or there could have been a partial rendering on the back of the blank canvas for the same purpose (although that would have required reattachment after reversal). Allan Campbell might even have had a brush and paints available so that he could have produced on the overlay the first several stages of the painting until ready to reveal the finished product. (These could have been kept in a drawer of the “small table” referred to.)

How do we explain the star-shaped halo that afterward appeared on the painting, as the sitters attested, “while we were admiring it?” I suggest that the star, which is not particularly bold, was not at first noticed. When the sitters’ attention was called to it, and they then focused on it, they were deceived by the power of suggestion into thinking it had spontaneously materialized.

What about the members of the circle having taken turns sitting with the medium in the makeshift spirit cabinet (the curtained-off bay-window area)? Would not the presence of even a single observer have precluded trickery? Hardly. The painting may have had a covering placed over it, which was used to conceal the removal of the (hypothesized) canvas overlays. And Charles “Campbell” might have played an important role. It is curious that his involvement was not described; he might, for example, have been the first to sit with Allan Campbell, making removal (or reversal) of one overlay a cinch. He could have sat more than once, or one of the other sitters might have been a confederate. Again, we do not know that a sitter was always present or that the picture advanced to a new stage during each sitting. No doubt, whatever the actual conditions, they were insufficiently stringent to prevent deception.

Even if I am wrong about the implications of the surface damage in the corners, the hypothetical scenario I have sketched remains a valid explanation, since it would be possible to attach an overlay without such damage. (One version of the trick calls for tacks to be used to attach the blank sheet [Gibson 1967].)

Given the evidence, the painting of “Azur”-indeed the entire body of spirit paintings, like other physical spiritualistic phenomena-can scarcely be taken as proof of a transcendent realm.

Part II of “Spirit Paintings” will examine the works of the Bangs sisters.


  1. Spirit photography was reportedly “discovered” by Boston photographer William H. Mumler who noticed “extras” on recycled glass plates from which previous images had not been entirely removed. In 1862 Mumler began producing spirit photographs for credulous sitters but was later exposed when some of the entities were recognized as living city residents (Nickell 1995, 31).


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at