Lady Frieda Harris

Born Marguerite Frieda Bloxam in 1877, she was the second of three children in a middle class family. Her father was John Astley Bloxam, a former military surgeon and atheist. By contrast, John Astley’s grandson says that Lady Frieda’s mother was “deeply religious,”(Whitehouse, 2020, p. 127) but gives no details regarding her faith. “Like many wealthy middle-class young ladies, Harris was raised in the expectation of making a good marriage, and educated accordingly. Instead of academic subjects, girls were taught ‘accomplishments’, such as music, drawing and painting, dancing and conversational French. Harris was fortunate to be sent to a small private establishment in Broadstairs, Kent, whose lady proprietor, Miss Osmond, had trained as an artist.”(Whitehouse, 2020, p. 127). Researcher Deja Whitehouse believes that her lack of formal academic training haunted her for the rest of her life, causing her to be intimidated by better educated contemporaries, but also to read voraciously. 

Lady Frieda’s husband was the radical liberal politician Percy Harris, the son of Polish Immigrants and MP for a working class East End District. He was, by modern standards, a moderate Socialist. He chronicled his own life in “Forty Years In and Out of Parliament,” in 1948. He was made a Baronet in 1932 for his government service, the Baronetcy of Bethnal Green created for him. This technically made his wife “Lady Frieda,” but neither were born to the British noble class. She was attracted to Percy Harris for his mind, and the two discussed far ranging subjects from books and the economy to poetry and plays. They were married in a civil ceremony in Kensington in 1901. 

In the Thelemic community, it has been common to portray Lady Frieda Harris as a “normal” artist, accepting Crowley’s imprint free of any existing esoteric affiliations or understandings. To understand their work as a collaboration, one must be aware that Harris was familiar with the esoteric long before she met Crowley.

By the time she met Crowley through playwright and journalist Clifford Bax in 1937, she was sixty and her husband was the number two man in his party; the Liberal Whip. She became a pupil of Crowley’s A⸫A⸫ and O.T.O. At the time she joined, her “reciprocal” status “indicates that Harris had attained the IV° grade of Freemasonry and there is evidence to suggest that she subsequently reached VII° (Sovereign Grand Inspector General) of the O.T.O.”(Whitehouse, 2020, p. 131) There is no extant information about which order she may have belonged to. 

Crowley was not Harris’ only esoteric acquaintance. She was an intimate of the esoteric artists Ithell Colquhoun and Maxwell Armfield, as well as author George Russell who wrote under the name “Æ.” She published her own illustrated book, “Wincheslea” in 1926, telling the story of a Shepherdess who spends an idyllic summer with Dionysius and when she refuses to return with him to Greece is transformed into the town of Wincheslea. She was familiar with Blavatsky and various other occultists, and “in a lecture on the Thoth Tarot, she made specific reference to P.D. Ouspensky’s ‘New Model for the Universe,’ which describes various esoteric concepts, including the Fourth Dimension and the occult significance of the Tarot.”(Whitehouse, 2020, p. 129)

Harris adopted the name “Jesus Chutney,” to sign her art and other work. This may have been a combination of the influence of the Surrealists, who often used such absurd names, and her desire not to draw attention to herself or detract from Percy Harris’ political career. She would sometimes refer to Jesus Chutney as another person, but in context the usage seems to have been more akin to Hunter Thompson’s frequent use of “Dr. Gonzo” as a literary alter ego than a magical influence along the lines of Blavatsky’s Hoot Koomi. 

1942-43 were difficult years for Harris and Crowley. Harris had now put a half decade of work into the Thoth Tarot, and made several exhibitions without Crowley’s consent. Crowley, who saw himself as the font of knowledge and project lead, was angry. Harris began asserting that it was she, the wife of an MP, who had commissioned Crowley for the catalog work.  She was concerned that Crowley intended to publish the work through Agape Lodge in California, which was by that time the only functional branch of O.T.O., and she had little respect for the California group. 

Crowley naturally proclaimed himself the winner in their clash of wills, but it seems to be Harris who ended up to the better. She emerged from their conflict with a legal conflict which acknowledged her role in the project. The same period saw strife between Lady Frieda Harris and her husband, apparently friction over her extensive relationship with Crowley. The two had financial difficulties and she was forced to end a stipend she had been paying to Crowley.  Nevertheless by late 1943 Harris had reconciled with both men and she was once again at work with Crowley.

Harris’ production of the Thoth Tarot is well known to most Thelemites. The cards were never published during her lifetime or Crowley’s, though they were exhibited on several different occasions, partially in an attempt to attract sponsors to the work. Crowley’s name was kept out of the picture as it was feared his reputation could affect the likelihood of the project gaining sponsors, and might also affect her husband’s political career. 

Harris was a friend of Crowley’s until his death, visiting him in the Socialist Communal home of Netherwood where he spent his final years. She was also a correspondent of Gerald Yorke who came to be Crowley’s principal literary executor, and left the Thoth Card paintings to Yorke, who saw them safely enshrined in the collection of the Warburg Institute. She remained loyal to Crowley’s memory, criticizing John Symonds uncharitable biography of Crowley.

Lady Frieda Harris died in Sringar India on 11 May 1962, after having befriended Indian dancer Ram Gopal in 1951 and moving closer to and collaborating with him on several additional projects. Whitehouse writes, “Harris dedicated herself to her magical studies, endeavouring to progress through the grades of his magical orders. However, despite her Masonic connections, she found the structure of the O.T.O. too constricting, favouring a more natural approach to mysticism and meditation…Harris was incapable of separating the mystical from the mundane, nor could she repress her sense of humour, despite potentially detrimental results,” concluding “Instead of becoming a dedicated Thelemite, she finally understood that her true path was ‘the inspiration, concentration & joy one experienced in painting.'”(Whitehouse, 2020, p. 150). The author also notes that she disqualified herself as a speaker on Thelema, refusing an offer to lecture on the subject at Canadian Women’s Colleges.

In this sense, Whitehouse means that she did not remain a dedicated disciple of Crowley, working within the traditions he established. We would consider that, in this regard, she represents a bridge between the narrow world of Thelema as established by Crowley and the larger world of Thelema in the latter half of the 20th Century and the present day; the world of Thelema as it transitioned from a doctrine tied to Crowley to an element of contemporary culture through Parsons, Cameron, Kenneth Anger, Robert Anton Wilson and others. Her doctrine of “inspiration, concentration & joy” speaks far more strongly to the spirit of Thelema than any number of formal affiliations. Whitehouse, D. (2020). ‘Mercury is in a Very Ape-Like Mood’: Frieda Harris’s Perception of Thelema. Aries, 21(1), 125-152. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15700593-02101005