Helena Blavatsky and the Enigma of John King

In early March 1875, HPB wrote General Lippitt that she would be sending him a self-portrait of John King, in which he appeared "on his balcony, in Summer-land" (HPB Speaks I, 57). In bright colors over white satin, the painting shows centrally the head and part of the trunk of a black-bearded man wearing a turban and white garments. (See John King’s self-portrait.)

He is standing on a balcony surrounded by foliage and a large flower garland. In the background, to the right, there are some pale human figures and, to the left, a building which reminds us of a castle by a lakeshore. In the picture, John King is holding a large book with signs on its cover, while the symbols of Solomon and a swastika are shown on the column of the balcony. It is important to note that these two symbols are also present on the TS logo and in HPB’s crest. Gomes informs us about the picture that:

"This picture is preserved at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, India. The colors are still remarkably bright for its age; only in one place has the satin become discoloured. It was brought over to London in June 1893 by W.Q. Judge, then general secretary of the American Section of the society, as a present from General Lippitt to Annie Besant". (Gomes 1987, 211)

Olcott was there at the time and described how the portrait was made in a letter to General Lippitt (HPB Speaks I, 78). Madame Blavatsky purchased a piece of fine white satin in the appropriate size: 1 yard square (0,91m²). This was placed over a board, together with brushes, paints and water. The material was covered with a cloth and left overnight in the room dedicated to the "spirits".

By morning, the whole upper part of the portrait and John King’s face had been outlined and there was some coloring around the human figures in the background. Next, John King asked HPB to begin painting a flower garland around the picture, as if it were a frame. Madame Blavatsky, however, did not work very fast. She said: "I work very slow when he does not help me or do it himself." (HPB Speaks I, 57) Thus John King became impatient with her work and dismissed her. When he called her back, HPB found the whole upper foliage and the marble balcony already outlined and she began working on the foliage and, hence, limited herself to painting this part of the picture. Olcott wrote:

"John doing everything else himself – piecemeal, sometimes by day and sometimes by night. I was in the house most of this time and on more than one occasion sat near her [HPB] while painting, and with her stepped out for a few minutes while the spirit artist drew some portion of the picture, beneath the cloth that was spread over its face. The Greek and Hebrew words and the cabalistic signs were put in last of all." (HPB Speaks I, 78)

By early April the painting had been sent to General Lippitt with a request that he never part from the portrait, and not let "too many persons touch it, not even approach it too close." (HPB Speaks I, 65). Madame Blavatsky remarked on Lippitt’s reaction to the painting:

"I am glad you like Johny’s picture, but you must not call him a Turk, for he is a noble dear sprite and loves you much. It is nobody’s fault, if you did not see him till now, as he is in reality, and always thought him to be like the old Jewish half-materialised phyz. you were generally treated to at the Holmes. In London only, he appears as he is; but bearing still on his dear countenance some likeness to his respective mediums, for it is hard for him to change completely the particles drawn by him from various vital powers." (HPB Speaks I, 65)

An interesting note is HPB’s remark that "In London only, he appears as he is". At a séance with medium Williams held in London in March 1873, a portrait of John King was also outlined, and it is quite similar to that made for Lippitt, except for the flowers and the background around the main figure (Cooper, 145). This indicates that John King’s self-portrait must have reproduced very well the image that he wanted to show of himself to the public.



Blavatsky, H.P. H.P.B. Speaks, vol. I, II. Ed. by C. Jinarajadasa. TPH, Adyar, 1986.

Gomes, M. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. TPH, Wheaton, 1987

Cooper, J. Theosophical History, vol. 7, n° 4, October 1998.

Published by Blavatsky Archives.

Online Edition copyright 2001 by Marina Cesar Sisson.