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The Medium and the Message

Georgiana Houghton's 19th-century spirit paintings

Georgiana Houghton’s watercolours are intricate, delicate, precise, glowing with colour and uncannily powerful. They are also, to a modern eye, wholly abstract. To Houghton, a Victorian spirit artist, they were not: they were symbolic representations of ‘realities’ invisible to the mortal eye, revealed to her through the medium of the dead or through archangels. However, she also had a firm faith in herself as an artist. This apparent contradiction was partly caused by the complex relationship between spiritualism and the repressed condition of women struggling, not least in the world of art, against an entrenched patriarchy. Many spirit artists were women; it gave them a degree of self-determination, though they were always at risk of being examined for mental deficiency. 

Houghton’s ambition and confidence are evident in the exhibition she organized, in 1871, of 155 of her drawings, at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street, London: a ‘most strange exhibition’, one of the puzzled reviewers wrote. This was her only solo show; although well-known in the spiritualist community in London at the time for her drawings, she never received the recognition as an artist that she longed for, was completely forgotten after her death, and most of her work is now lost. At an unknown date, 35 of Houghton's drawings were sent to Australia, where they may have been exhibited. Now in the possession of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, a group of these were included at a recent exhibition devoted to her work at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

The degree of abstraction Houghton employed makes it all the more surprising that her work has not previously featured in historical surveys of the occult and spiritualist origins of Modernist abstraction. Her work was known to Madame Blavatsky and to John Varley Jr., who illustrated the Theosophist publication Thought-Forms (1901). The journal influenced Wassily Kandinsky and popularized the notion of the colours of the human ‘aura’. In the catalogue for her 1871 exhibition, Houghton wrote: ‘If we had perfect clairvoyance we should see that each spirit (whether in or out of the flesh) is surrounded by an atmosphere more or less luminous.’

To claim that Houghton was a pioneer of abstract art nearly 50 years before Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian is not, therefore, far-fetched. Yet, despite Tom Gibbons’s 1988 article ‘British Abstract Painting of the 1860s: The Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton’, she has not been included in any recent exhibitions of unknown pioneers of abstraction or so-called outsider artists — ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ at the 2013 Venice Biennale, for instance, which featured artists such as Hilma af Klint, Xul Solar and Anna Zemánková.

Medium, or spirit, artists have been something of an anomaly in the catch-all category of outsider art, largely pioneered by the Surrealists and Jean Dubuffet, and remain the least studied. A number of them had some art training — as did Houghton, though we don’t know what form it took. Her own view was that her studies helped, as a kind of short cut, in the realization of her watercolours, which she said would ‘demonstrate to those who are still sojourning on the earth, the glorious flowers that arise in spiritland on the birth of mortals, to grow with their growth’.

The earliest of the drawings, which date from 1861, resemble botanical illustrations with the addition of curved lines representing the actions of the subject — those reaching upwards ‘heading Heavenwards, the downward ones errors’. Although Houghton continued to make ‘Flowers’ of relatives and friends, within a few months she had started to create a series of astonishing and (as we would now view them) more abstract drawings, including The Eye of God (1862) and The Glory of the Lord (1864).Thin lines are drawn with a minute brush in sweeping curves, coils and vortices over rich washes of colour; on the surfaces of some are brilliant, gossamer-like white lines, continuous or in tiny dots that the artist described as ‘pearled forms’. According to Houghton, one of these images was transmitted to her by Antonio da Correggio, another by Titian, but most were from the archangels, usually in groups of seven. Although very occasionally a form resembles an eye or curls and folds suggest wings, feathers or a peacock tail, on the whole there are no obvious representational links. But each mark had meaning for the artist. On the back of The Love of God (1861‒69), Houghton explains what they all stand for: ‘The Hand of the Lord’, ‘the Joys of Heaven’ and so on. Colours, too, had symbolic meanings: yellow, blue and red stood, respectively, for God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Although he was unaware of Houghton, André Breton championed medium artists, and reproduced their drawings in his essay ‘The Automatic Message’ (1933). He called the spiritualists’ drawings and writings ‘magical dictation’: for the Surrealists, these mysterious dictations came from within, from the recesses of the individual psyche, and were clear parallels to their own automatic drawings and texts.

The link between abstract painting and design, decoration and illustration — traditionally regarded as lowly arts and often, therefore, taken up by women — troubled some of its supporters. The Dadaist Hugo Ball — writing in his diary at the height of World War I in 1917 — had a nagging doubt that it was no more than painted carpet or apocalyptic wallpaper. But this was laid to rest by his conviction that artists were the creators of new worlds while the old one was destroying itself.

Houghton’s watercolours conjure entities that have no counterpart in the known world. Seeing them in the flesh can be quite unnerving, as their expressive character is overwhelming. You begin to tune in to their visual language so that a sense of strength, for example, becomes immediately apparent in The Strength of the Lord (1864). Many have a stereoscopic effect, resolving into three dimensions — an effect that was exaggerated by the magnifying glasses available at the Courtauld Gallery exhibition. Immersive and intimate, Houghton’s watercolour drawings are a revelation — even if not in quite the sense she would have wished.

Main image: Georgiana Houghton, The Eye of the Lord 1st September 1870, 1870, watercolour on paper, 51 x 59 cm. Courtesy: Courtauld Gallery, London, and Victorian Spiritualists Union, Melbourne

Dawn Adès is an art historian and curator who lives in London, UK. In 2013, she was awarded a CBE for her services to Art History. She is Professor Emeritus, University of Essex, UK, and a former Trustee of Tate, London, UK. Her recent publications include Writing on Art and Anti-Art (Ridinghouse, 2015).

Issue 5

First published in Issue 5

October 2016
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