Georgiana Houghton (1862).
Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884) claimed her artistic talent came from the dead. Houghton was a spiritualist, a medium and (apparently) a self-taught artist though there are suggestions she may have had a basic training in art. Houghton said her drawings and watercolors were the product of her communication with the spirit world. She took part in séances, where she sat with paper, pencils, and gouache, and drew her pictures from the energy, words, and images the spirits used to communicate with her. Her first spirit guides were deceased relatives and friends, in particular, her late sister Zilla. She drew their spirits as fruit and flowers. Later, she said her spirit guides included the Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio which were mighty fine talents to commune with. Often, on the back of her pictures, she explained how her drawings were made—on one occasion explaining how Titian had worked through her to create a picture. Whether we believe Houghton’s supernatural claims is irrelevant. What is important is Houghton’s artwork which is mesmerizingly beautiful, utterly original, and denies any easy classification—though some critics have (perhaps rightly) described Houghton as “arguably the first ever abstract artist.” Houghton was producing her abstract image long before Kandinsky and Mondrian and even another spiritualist Hilma Af Klimt, who is also often credited as the first Abstract artist.
Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1814, little appears to be known of Houghton’s early upbringing until around 1859 when she started producing her “spirit drawings” during private séances held in the homes of fellow spiritualists. She used these séances as a means to focus her artistic talents and produce her astonishing watercolors and undoubtedly believed she was communicating with the dead. It should be noted that it was very difficult for women to become artists in Victorian society. The art world was dominated by men who excluded women from their guilds and art clubs that promoted their work. Women had to find other ways to express themselves and their talents. Houghton found hers through the ethereal world of the spirit world. At a time when figurative and narrative art was the dominant genre, Houghton’s strange, swirling, peacock-feathered watercolors look like the psychedelic creations of some hip 1960s artist. She was expressing a deeply private world—a belief system and her feelings towards it. Many of her drawings featured the eye an all-seeing God which is arguably a reflection of her own subconscious feelings about the unrelenting and controlling male gaze of the world in which she lived. There are also the expected drawings of her religious icons like Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Houghton’s work draws attention to the role of women within society by creating an alternative space through ritual. The perceived irrationality of Spiritualism has in the past been used as an excuse to systematically belittle the importance of Houghton (and other female artists such as Hilma af Klint) within a history of abstract art. Houghton’s strange mediations between individual self and the collective otherworld foreground a feminist investigation that complicates common tropes of hysteria and feminine theological excess as dangerous or disturbed.
Houghton’s seemingly frenetic, yet highly deliberate, and beautiful watercolours accept as legitimate that which lies beyond the bounds of conventional experience, and offers a fascinating context for an array of contemporary artists who are interested in the spaces between dream, afterlife and living reality. Artists such as Joachim Koester, Matt Mullican and Jess Johnson absorb both shared cultural and personal memories through the aesthetic of ritual to interrogate notions of the world beyond.
Houghton thought her work important enough to organize a self-financed exhibition of 155 pictures at a gallery on Bond Street, London, in 1871. The exhibition received mixed reviews—one critic in the Daily News described Houghton’s pictures as “the most extraordinary and instructive example of artistic aberration.” The show was a failure and almost bankrupted Houghton. This, together with her unfortunate association with the fraudulent spiritualist Frederick Hudson—a man who faked photographs of ghosts and spirits—saw Houghton cruelly dismissed as a charlatan and oddball by the art world. Houghton continued making her spirit drawings until her death in 1884. She would have been forgotten had not the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia, exhibited 35 of paintings in 1910. This led to sporadic exhibitions of her work over the past century most recently at the Courtauld Gallery, London in 2017. However, the bulk of Houghton’s startlingly beautiful artworks are either lost or hidden away in private collections.
‘The Flower and the Fruit of Henry Lenny’ (1861).
‘The Flower of Warrand Houghton’ (1861).
See more of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings, after the jump…