Georgiana Houghton was a spiritualist medium who was trained in classical art but gave up painting after the death of her younger sister in 1851. A decade later, after she had become aquatinted with spiritualism she began once more to put coloured pencils and watercolours to paper. However, this time she said it was spirits of the dead who were guiding her hand. Through her mediumship she was acquainted with several Renaissance artists, as well as higher angelic beings. Houghton became the vessel through which they could exorcise their otherworldly aesthetic desires.
The nineteenth century with its ghosts and clairvoyants was the golden age of communion with the spirit world. The afterlife was figured not just as a sacred waiting-room but a place in which spirits continued to ‘live out’ their afterlife – evolving and communicating as they did when they were living. There was a seance in nearly every drawing room, including at Buckingham Palace. The spirits were believed to possess knowledge about moral and ethical issues that transcended our own. – This belief is almost palpable from the mesmeric, twisting force behind Houghton’s brush – her visual language is one of prepossessing immediacy.
In 1871 Houghton rented a gallery in Bond Street and presented 155 of these works to a bewildered London audience. Houghton funded the project with her own money and for two months met visitors in the gallery to speak with them about her work. However, only one painting sold and now only 50 or so remain in known existence.
The critic from The Era newspaper pronounced it to be ‘the most astonishing exhibition in London at the present moment.’ The Daily News likened the works to ‘tangled threads of colored wool’ and concluded that ‘they deserve to be seen as the most extraordinary and instructive example of artistic aberration.’
John Ptak acquired one Houghton’s gallery catalogues from an 1871 art show in London. In her annotations, Houghton explains her unconventional aesthetic process –
In the execution of the Drawings my hand has been entirely guided by Spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced.
Houghton set out to ‘obtain mediumship’ by holding hands with her mother at a small table for some months on end waiting for contact— Sundays, she believed, worked best, ‘as we should then be less disturbed by evil influences’.
Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, (detail), 1862, courtesy of The Victorian Spiritualist’ Union Melbourne, Australia.
Houghton transferred authorship and agency to the spirits. In doing so she could radicalise her artwork and make alien objects that could not be placed at the time in which they were made.
This summer, the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House will mount an exhibition of Georgiana Houghton’s work. The exhibition will be opened from the 16th June to the 11th September 2016 and will be open daily from 10am-6pm.
Ptak, John F, ‘Spirit-Generated Art, 1871: Far-Outside Outsider Art’ (JF Ptak Science Books // Blog Bookstore, 1933)
Larsen, Pasi and Grant, Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings (Paul Holberton Publishing, 2016)
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