Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's painting of 'psychic influence' brings $63,000

Today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best-remembered for his Sherlock Holmes novels. Yet, during his lifetime, the authored wished to instead be remembered for his psychic work...

This lesser-known side to the writer is revealed through a painting with a remarkable story attached to it; sold by Bonhams as part of the Owston Collection in Sydney over the weekend (June 25-26).

The painting by William Francis (Will) Longstaff (Australian, 1879-1953) titled 'The Rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC)' sold with an estimate of AU$20,000-40,000 (over US$37,000).

Ten of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 60
published books are on spiritualism

So the story goes, Longstaff's painting was inspired by the psychic spirits of dead soldiers, and bought by the grieving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after losing his son in WW1.

It is one of only six paintings which represent the pinnacle of the Official War Artists career, beginning with his best work, Menin Gate.

'The Rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC)' was painted after Longstaff attended the unveiling ceremony of the Menin Gate memorial on July 24, 1927.

He was so moved by the ceremony that, during a midnight walk along the Menin Road, he imagined a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields which inspired The Rearguard.

It is said that, following his return to London, Longstaff painted the work in one session.

"He began at 7 o'clock in the morning, working unceasingly in the dim light. He had experienced a sensation not felt in any other work, and he was surprised and delighted," Conan Doyle later wrote.

"It is one of the most remarkable pictures I have seen. The artist worked for 11 hours with the fury of inspiration. Genius has always been on the edge of psychic influence.'"

'The Rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC)' by William Francis Longstaff
(Click to view the whole painting)


Mrs Mary Horsburgh, who had worked in a British canteen during the war, may also have influence the work. She had met Longstaff during his evening walk, and told him that she could feel "her dead boys" all around her.

Spiritualism was very much in vogue in the 1920s, and many wished to communicate with relatives and friends who had died in battle found consolation in its tenets.

Conan Doyle was among those who sought solace in spiritualism. He claimed to have had conversations with the spirits of many great men, including Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Conrad and others, and 10 of his 60 published books are about spiritualism.

Aside from its striking spiritual connotations, the work is also the most poignant from Longstaff's series, for its nod to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) tradition.

ANZAC believed that the First World War, and the Gallipoli Campaign in particular, was a watershed in Australian history, and that those who died on foreign soil did so to create a greater Australia, gave this painting an added, almost religious, significance.

The work whose back story is as impressive as its imagery sold for well over its AU$20,000-40,000 at Bonhams, bringing a final price of AU$72,000 (or $62,856) including Buyer's Premium.

Meanwhile, for collectors on the lookout for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle memorabilia, this rare and good condition handwritten note is currently for sale on the market.


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