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Sally-Anne Huxtable (London Metropolitan University & Chair, Design History Society): 'The visual and material culture of fortune telling, and the figure of the fortune teller in Britain, 1919-1939'

This research looks at the popular visual and material culture of fortune telling and the depiction of fortune tellers between the World Wars in Britain, including souvenirs, magazine articles and giveaways, pamphlets, games, cigarette cards, and mass produced glass and ceramics. It will explore the idea of the Romani Fortune Teller as an exoticised and gendered figure of both fantasy and fear that, nevertheless, offered a sense of authenticity and veracity in an age when narratives of science, materialism and modernity increasingly predominated in everyday life. It will argue that fascination with divination and the figure of the seer was more profound than just ‘escapism’, and that the persistent belief in the enchantment of everyday life was a bid for imaginative and individual freedom and agency, and a refusal of materialism in an age of increasing mechanisation, urbanisation, and uniformity. 

This research is part of a larger body of work I am undertaking on the relationship between design and the occult in late nineteenth and early 20th century Europe, particularly examining the intersections with ideas of race, colonialism, exoticism and authenticity. The work includes a special issue of Journal of Design History, Design and the Occult, due in early 2025.

Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable is a Norfolk-based art, design and cultural historian, heritage specialist and curator who is currently an Associate Professor at London Metropolitan University and the Chair of the Design History Society. Both her academic and non-academic work focus on the intersections between spirituality and belief, folklore, visual and material culture, colonialism, and landscape, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. She was formerly Head Curator of the National Trust where she led the work on the links to slavery and colonialism at NT properties. She was also formerly Principal Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design at National Museums Scotland, and has worked for, and with, organisations such as Tate, Dallas Museum of Art, Museo de Arte de Ponce, and the Universities of York, Bristol, and Northumbria. 

The Work in Progress seminar explores the variety of subjects studied and researched at the Warburg Institute. Papers are given by invited international scholars, research fellows studying at the Institute, and third-year PhD students.