Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research

Beatrice Irwin (1877-1956)

Beatrice Irwin was born in India in 1877, to British parents. Her real name was Alice Beatrice Simpson. Before she began writing about colour she had a successful career as an actress and chose the stage name Beatrice Irwin. She published three books on colour, including one comprising 'colour poems'. Her work was strongly influenced by theosophy, occultism and spiritualism, but she was equally interested in synaesthesia, artificial lighting, and the potential soothing or healing powers of colour and lighting.

Beatrice Irwin ca. 1903An early promotional picture of Beatrice Irwin as an actress, ca.1903

Beatrice Irwin attended Cheltenham Ladies' College where she graduated 1895 and took the Associate in Arts test in which she placed 5th for that year. She went on through a series of careers starting with being an actor in stage theatre which took her to Cape Colony, as it was known then, touring America, briefly in the then young country of Australia, and performed in Shanghai.

In 1912 she published a book of experimental poetry, The Pagan Trinity (London, UK: John Lane the Bodley Head), which was dedicated to the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, whom she had met earlier. She "performed" some of these poems in stage shows, often in Oriental costume, referencing her multi-cultural upbringing and travels. Having had some contact with theosophists before 1910 she then also encountered a Sufi leader, and then Abdu'l-Bahá, the head of the Baháʼí Faith, a religion she increasingly identified with. This was followed in 1915 by The New Science of Colour. Her final colour-related publication was The Gates of Light: A Record of Progress in the Engineering of Color and Light, was published in 1930, in which she proposed new forms of lighting in interiors, exteriors, gardens, and the performing arts.

After her Baháʼí pilgrimage in 1930 to see then head of the religion Shoghi Effendi, and his initiation of plans to implement the Tablets of the Divine Plan by ʻAbdu'l-Bahá for which she had already shown actions, she devoted much of her later years to promoting the religion in Central and then South America before going on to Mallorca in her last years before returning to San Diego where she died in 1956 (although some internet sources still wrongly give the year of her death as 1953). While she was increasingly occupied with those endeavors, her work on colour, particularly The New Science of Color, was read with great interest by some Australian artists - Roy de Maistre and most particularly Grace Cossington Smith - though largely from a theosophist understanding. She also influenced the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

On 22 March 2021 Alexandra Loske gave a talk on Beatrice Irwin at the symposium Colour & Poetry at the Slade School of Fine Art:

Acting out colour: Science, spiritualism, and orientalism in Beatrice Irwin's work 

A publication with papers from this symposium is in preparation.

Beatrice Irwin's works