LONDON — Frenetic spirals of color and swirling sinuous lines characterize the disembodied ink and watercolor works by Georgiana Houghton, currently on show at the Courtauld Gallery. It is astonishing to learn that these visionary spirit drawings, evoking André Masson’s surrealist automatic drawing in the 1920s and the trance-like psychedelic art of the 1960s, were produced in Victorian England.
In 1871, Houghton organized an exhibition in a gallery on Old Bond Street displaying 155 of her paintings produced over 10 years. The show received lukewarm reviews and only one piece was sold, ruining her financially. Houghton’s abstract patterning represented an uncompromising and radical deviation from existing artistic norms in England. This was a time when the Pre-Raphaelites were in vogue and where the public could barely get their heads around Impressionist art. (James Whistler’s 1871 “Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea,” which depicted a single figure dissolving into the effect of light on the water, had offended the Victorian public with its perceived lack of detail.) Within the tangled lines of Houghton’s spirit drawings, there was no hint of the figuration and allegory that defined accepted art practices.
Following her death in 1884, she was forgotten by the male-dominated art world. Today only 40 of Houghton’s works are known to exist and the exhibition of 21 paintings in Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings draws primarily on the biggest single collection housed at the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne.
Being a female artist in the second half of the 19th-century presented its own challenges, but Houghton’s lack of recognition may have a good deal to do with her spiritualist convictions which lay at the core of her art practice, leading her to renounce personal authorship of her paintings. Instead she attributed her talent to the glorious figures of the spirit world, the majority of whom happened to be male. She believed herself to be a ‘medium’ through whom spirits, ranging from saints and archangels to dead Renaissance painters Correggio and Titian, could communicate with the living.
Houghton began spirit drawing in 1861, a decade after Maria Hayden arrived in Britain to spread the spiritualist message from its roots in New York. Great swathes of society were inspired by the possibilities spiritualism seemed to offer. This included the educated elite such as Henry James, Conan Doyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Queen Victoria who attempted to communicate with her husband Albert following his death in 1861.
Houghton found no conflict between spiritualism and her Christian faith. Rather, God’s revelations were manifested through her spirit drawings. The exhibition begins with her early works which were loosely figurative, resembling flowers that, she writes, were relatively simple representations of the spirit world, relying on identifiable forms. As with all her works, she insists that these were led by “spirit guides,” including her beloved dead sister, Zilla Warren and her dead brother Warrand Houghton. Soon, however, Houghton’s complex floral spirals transform into more abstract theological notions. Beginning with “The Holy Trinity” (1861), she accesses what she calls “Sacred Symbolism” through kaleidoscopic configurations in vibrant forests of color conveying God’s “wondrous attributes.” These are often overlaid by cobwebby strings of miniscule white dots winding across the paintings as if capturing an ephemeral vision of divine transcendence. From this moment onwards Houghton abandons figuration.
The one exception is “The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1862), in which the face of Christ emerges from the jubilant tangle of twirling lines, vivid red, yellow, and blue. On the back of the painting, the artist explains that her hand was guided by Saint Luke.
The curators of this stirring and unusual exhibition draw attention to the radical abstraction of Houghton’s art. Indeed, the tumultuous storms of color prefigure the intensity of the abstract work of Hilma Af Klint, Kandinsky, and Malevich. However, Houghton’s spirit drawings are in fact highly symbolic. The colors and whirling forms always seek to unveil something, albeit from an invisible, divine realm. On the back of most of her works, Houghton included a handwritten explanation, with illustrated annotations of the abstract forms. In “The Risen Lord” (1864) Houghton writes that the lower part corresponds to the virtues and sufferings of Christ’s life on earth whereas the upper part, dominated by arabesque white threads represents his ascension into heaven. In 1817, she was present throughout her exhibition to explain the meaning of her paintings to visitors.
The modern-day public has no Houghton present at this exhibition to elucidate her phantasmagorical paintings. And yet it is precisely in her absence and with the passage of time that her labyrinthine works are liberated from their didactic origins and are able to spin new meaning. No longer a mere medium for spirits, Houghton may now be recognized as a radical woman who challenged artistic norms and the patriarchal order as she continues to disturb and inspire the contemporary imagination.
Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN) through September 11.