After going slightly insane discovering connections between Tom Swift, Paul Hazelton, Caspar the Art Oracle, The Shell Grotto and an ancient religious cult, I came across this text typed up and stuck in a scrapbook. It’s obviously a more recent transcription of an older document, although I can’t find the original on the internet.

“Nunquam aliud Natura, aliud Sapientia, dicit.”—Juvenal xiv. 321

The Mystical Sciences, followed out to their fullest extent, are of the noblest subjects to which human minds can give themselves. Beyond the measure, rule, balance and compass, and past the line of the pencil: these are the sciences of the mind, more than the mere observations of the eye.

There is a particular and refined beauty and majesty in the Mystical Sciences when applied to the constructions of man, which pleases certain prejudices and preconceptions of the eye, and inspires and informs such trains of meditation in the mind as to show the true beauty of nature. The peculiarity of the Mystical Sciences applied to the Poetry of Architecture which will be found most interesting is that they trace the distinctive characteristics of the nations of the world.

The ancient Shell Temple at Margate is one such construction, and it is clearly the work of refined architects who understand the sacred geometries and the mathematics of the planets, as it aligns once yearly with certain astral configurations – but the Mystical Sciences behind the edifice are considered by many to be long lost, belonging to some ancient configuration of religions and beliefs. The general public, and I say it with sorrow born from observation, have little to do with the encouragement or consideration of purpose, and substitute spectacle for beauty and understanding.

If such members of the public as make their way to the Shell Temple were to study the measure of the arch, the circle and the serpentine passage they would trace the distinctive patterns of the Poetry of Architecture found in antiquity of the Ancient Romano temples, with an adaptation to the situation and climate in which it has been constructed, betraying that the prevailing turn of mind at the time of such construction was towards the worship of the Sacra Anatis. The intricacies of the construction and the peculiarity of the shells turned inwards to provide particular acoustical properties are found only in temples to this arcane and ancient belief (which considers that the noise of Sacra Anatis is unheard by the Oread Echo), which is known to have spread from great minds of the Oriental scholars to the Mediterranean and the ancient Roman philosophers, hence arriving in Briton on the Island of Thanet.

This temple once stood on the banks for a river, and the flow of the river would be part of the proportioned whole: The Shell Temple must not be seen all at once; and he who reaches one end should feel that, as he can arrive at no conclusion other than he has been on a sacred journey, he is now impressed with a feeling of a universal energy, pervading with its beauty all life and all inanimation.

While the belief in Sacra Anatis is at deliciously low ebb in Great Britain today, the arrival of the Italian brethren into our expanding cities, to provide such excellent skills as brickmaking and fine work in our manufactories, may yet see a return of this belief. And what is the consequence? The return of Sacra Anatis, at a time of revolutionary change and given the fullest considerations of the industrial mind, driven by steam, the manufactories and the advance of mass production with aesthetic consideration, and the iron rail and steamship to spread such understanding across the Mother Country and the Empire, should yet be wondered at.

JR, Margate, January 1874

Caspar the Art Oracle and the Sacred Duck

For A Fete Worse Than Death, artists Tom Swift and Paul Hazelton got a gang together. Meeting in an ice cream parlour in Tom’s hometown of Ramsgate (out of the eyes of Margate’s art cognoscenti) the boys (and one girl) planned one perfect job, never to be repeated. De-In-Stall is a joint collaboration between Tom and dust artist Paul Hazelton featuring pop music video director Simon Williams, artist Steve McPherson, colour poet Emrys Plant, musician Steve Graham, and seamstress Beth Anderson. They ended up being joined by the ice cream shop owner, a reclusive ex-millionaire called Caspar (who once owned Gillingham Town FC), who dispensed advice to visitors.

To move from running an ice cream parlour to mixing with the art elite in a short space of time seems like an unlikely career arc. So just who is Caspar the Art Oracle? Ahead of this week’s Art Car Boot Fair in Folkestone (at which he may or may not appear) I’ve done some digging. Here’s his voice, on the trailer for a new De-In-Stall motivational film by Swift and Hazelton:

He certainly sounds like an interesting character; a guru, passing on knowledge, giving insight into the world. So what’s his role in Swift and Hazelton’s artistic practice? Notice that accompanying Caspar’s voice is an image of a duck – not a realistic duck, more an icon.

BvEhvN4CEAAbrFOSome images of the work that Swift and Hazelton have produced for the Art Car Boot Fair have been leaked on social media.

At the last De-In-Stall, Caspar the Art Oracle appeared with slicked-back hair, a duck’s bill mask and a rapid-fire patter. So these leaked images appear to show bizarre effigies of Caspar the Art Oracle, tattooed dolls with silvered duck heads and giant hands. They appear to be constructed in a ritual way, with three artists working to produce the various parts, and to have similarities to the Greek Kolossos tradition.

So – what’s the significance of the duck? Historically, the Sacred Duck appears in Tibetan folk stories (such as ‘How the sacred duck got his yellow breast’). It is also one of the spirit helpers of the Siberian Shaman.

In the 20th century we find it in Hans Gál’s opera Die Heilige Ente or The Sacred Duck, which premiered in Düsseldorf in 1923.

The title is as farcical as the opera: Chinese gods, fed up with perpetual worship and the smell of incense descend into an opium den where, as a distraction, they swap the brains of various miscreants. A duck, historically a theatrical tool used as a symbol for the ridiculous, is a by-product of the farce and ultimately leads to a happy end. There are no recordings of this work.

In 1938, Hans Gál fled to Great Britain, and after internment as an enemy alien, he settled in Edinburgh, where he taught at the University. He became a much respected member of the Edinburgh musical scene and was one of the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Edinburgh is of course well-known for the Italian community who settled there – and for the ice cream parlours they opened there from the 1920s onwards. And one of the few facts we know about Caspar the Art Oracle is that he is the owner of an ice cream parlour in Ramsgate.

So it’s possible that there’s a connection between the Italian communities in Edinburgh and Ramsgate, and that connects the older Hans Gál and the younger Caspar the Art Oracle. Was the recipe for a good ice cream the only thing that was passed down?

The other connection worth exploring is in Celtic mythology. There we find Sequanna who was a Celtic river goddess, and her sacred animal was the duck.

Both Swift and Hazelton are Margate residents, and in this town on the Isle of Thanet, water is very important. As well as the River Wanstum which cut the Isle of Thanet off from mainland Britain, a lost river flows through the centre of Margate. It’s easy to track; it follows the line of King Street and Dane Road through the town centre.

SHell Grotto

Just off this line is the mysterious Shell Grotto. This would have stood on the banks of the river. The Shell Grotto’s underground labyrinth was discovered in 1835, we’re told, by somebody digging a duck pond! Obviously it was already known, and this tall tale is an in-joke for the initiated.

The Shell Grotto is either Celtic or Romano in origin. It’s an  underground temple, with a serpentine passage suggesting that activity in this site was connected with the flow of water. Hazelton has produced and exhibited work in the Shell Grotto as their artist-in-residence. As such, he’s almost certainly been inducted into the secret cult around the temple.

So we’re left with an intriguing possibility – a series of connections between Hans Gál, Hazelton, Swift, Sequanna, the Sacred Duck, and the mysterious Caspar. Are the De-In-Stall artists modern-day custodians of the tradition of Sequanna and her Sacred Duck, a secret knowledge passed to them by Caspar the Art Oracle, who received the knowledge from his teacher Hans Gál, and kept alive at the ancient Shell Grotto where it was passed from Celtic to Romano ownership? It’ll be worth watching future De-In-Stall events for more clues.