Robert Boursnell, Richard Boursell, spirit photographer, 

 Medium Robert Boursell.


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 Robert Augustus Boursell Medium 

Richard Augustus Boursnell - Spirit Photographer


Robert Boursnell  occupied a prominent position in the middle period of the history of Spirit Photography. He was in partnership with a professional photographer in Fleet Street, and is said to have had psychic markings, with occasional hands and faces, on his plates as early as 1851. His partner accused him of not cleaning the plates properly (those were the days of the wet collodion process), and after an angry dispute Boursnell said he would have nothing more to do with that side of the business. It was nearly forty years later before he again got markings, and then extra forms, with his photographs, much to his annoyance, because it meant injury to his business and the destruction of many plates. With great difficulty Mr. W. T. Stead persuaded him to allow him to have sittings. Under his own conditions, Mr. Stead obtained repeatedly what the old photographer called "shadow pictures." At first they were not recognized, but later on several that were thoroughly identified were obtained. Mr. Stead gives particulars of precautions observed in marking plates, etc., but says that he attaches little importance to these, considering that the appearance on the plate of a recognized likeness of an unknown relative of an unknown sitter a test far superior to precautions which any expert conjurer or trick photographer might evade. He says:

Again and again I sent friends to Mr. Boursnell giving him no information as to who they were, or telling him anything as to the identity of the person's deceased friend or relative whose portrait they wished to secure, and time and again when the negative was developed, the portrait would appear in the background, or sometimes in front of the sitter. This occurred so frequently that I am quite convinced of the impossibility of any fraud. One time it was a French editor, who, finding the portrait of his deceased wife appear on the negative when developed, was so transported with delight that he insisted on kissing the photographer, Mr. B., much to the old man's embarrassment. On another occasion it was a Lancashire engineer, himself a photographer, who took marked plates and all possible precautions. He obtained portraits of two of his relatives and another of an eminent personage with whom he had been in close relations. Or again, it was a near neighbour who, going as a total stranger to the studio, obtained the portrait of her deceased daughter.

In 1903 the Spiritualists of London presented this Medium with a purse of gold and a testimonial signed by over a hundred representative Spiritualists. On this occasion the walls of the rooms of the Psychological Society in George Street, Portman Square, were hung with three hundred chosen Spirit Photographs taken by Boursnell.

With regard to Mr. Stead's point about the "recognized likeness," critics declare that the sitter often imagines the likeness, and that at times two sitters have claimed the same "extra" as a relative. In answer to this it may be said that Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, for instance, ought to be the best judge whether the picture was a likeness of his dead mother. Dr. Cushman (of whom we shall speak later) submitted the "extra" of his daughter Agnes to a number of his friends and relations, and all were convinced of the likeness. But irrespective of any certainty about the likeness, there is overwhelming evidence that these supernormal portraits really do occur, and in thousands of cases they have been recognized.

In this silver gelatin photograph is F C Barnes and and the extra is Elizabeth, Empress of Austria taken 1908.

At the time in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Robert Boursnell was said to be Britain's busiest Spirit Photographer.

This quiet unassuming old man would often say to his sitters he could see the Spirits coming forth whilst he was taking the photograph.




Robert Boursnell

Couple with the Spirit of an Old Family Doctor who Died Around 1880

Taken on the January 3, 1893

Boursnell claimed to have made spirit photographs as early as 1853, when “extras” appeared on portraits he was taking. The photographer, it was said, did not recognize the supernormal nature of these interlopers and blamed their appearance on improper cleaning of the glass used in the negative. One day, in a fit of anger, he dashed the negative to the floor, damning both the glass and the people who appeared on it. The “extras” did not return until 1886, when Boursnell became acquainted with Spiritualism.

Because spirit photographers and mediums were subject to prosecution in Great Britain, Boursnell handed a printed slip to his patrons which denied the “extras” were spirits--instead, it proclaimed, they were “shadows in the background.” Critics charged that the same spirits appeared unchanged in different photographs, a sign of fakery. That revelation seems to have made no difference to Boursnell’s supporters.

A hundred of Boursnell’s Spirit photographs were exhibited at the Psychological Society in London, and in 1903 the Spiritualists of the city of London presented the photographer with a signed testimonial and a purse of gold.

The mount of this photograph was inscribed, “Taken by R. Boursnell in London Jan. 3, 1893. The Spirit is an old family doctor who died around 1880.”

A photograph by the 'Spirit Photographer' Robert Boursnell (London,1898) showing Robert James Lees with a Spirit Friend.


A similar image was published in the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle on 28th November 1929. It is likely that it was a Boursnell photograph that the Chicago Sunday Herald-Times illustrator used in the notorious Jack the Ripper article published 28th April 1896.

Boursnell was investigated by the Spirit Photography Commission set up by the Daily Mail in 1908. The Commission was comprised of Spiritualists and technical experts from the photography industry. A member of the group, Mr A P Sinnett, recounted how he was photographed by Boursnell. Sinnett purchased a package of negatives from a shop chosen at random, then opened them and loaded one of the plates into the plate holder and camera by himself. After the exposure, he watched as the negative was developed in the darkroom. Sinnett says he also examined the camera and found it "certainly free from tricks--I do not see how I could have been cheated under these conditions."

Sinnett was already well-known in occult circles, having conducted years of correspondence with "adepts" in the Spirit World. This correspondence, known as "The Mahatma Letters," took place through the mediumship of Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy.

Despite Sinnett's testimony, the Spirit Photography Commission could not reach agreement on the validity of Boursnell's work.


Boursnell, Robert Augustus

Born 1832. Died 1909.


Boursnell, Robert Augustus

Born in Peterborough 1832.

Md 1. Elizabeth (b Lambeth 1831).

1 son & 1 daughter.

Md 2. Margaret (1843 - 1908).

5 sons & 1 daughter.

STUDIOS: 1. 58 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith 1891 - 1901.

2. 15 Richmond Road, Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith 1902 - 1909.

1861: photographer living at 89 Union Street, Lambeth Walk, Lambeth.

1881: photographer living at 62 Aldridge Road, Newington, Southwark.

1891: photographer living at 58 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith.

1901: as above.

Specialised in "spirit" photography.

Boursnell started his career with John Clarke (q.v.) in 1853 at the old Strand Theatre, managed by Tom Payne.

Died in Fulham 1909.

LITERATURE: Mr Boursnell's pictures. IN Borderland Vol 3 1896 pp 446 - 448, illus; Shadow pictures and "dorchagraphy" (writing on photographic plates without the use of a camera). Mr. Boursnell's success. IN Borderland Vol 4 1897 pp 33 - 34, port; Mr Boursnell's latest. A psychic photograph of an Indian advertisement. IN Borderland Vol 4 1897 p 433; Spirit photography. IN Photogram Vol 5 1898 p 320; Concerning a spirit photograph. By an old correspondent. IN Light Jan 13 1901 p & January 19 1901 pp 31 - 32; H. Blackwell Spirit photographs. IN London Magazine Vol 23 February 1910 pp 504 - 511, illus (inc portrait of Bushnell p 504); James Coates, Photographing the invisible. London, 1911; (Stanley de Brath). The photographic mediumship of Robert Boursnell. IN Psychic Science Vol 6 1927 pp 100 -112, illus, port; Fred Gettings. Ghosts in photographs. London, 1987. pp 29 - 35, illus, port; Cyril Permutt. Beyond the spectrum London, 1983. pp 33 - 36, illus.


More photographs taken by Robert Boursnell are in the photographs section.


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