The Victorians were obsessed with spirits and the dead. They held seances to try and communicate with lost loved ones, and took pictures with ghostly apparitions in them. They even photographed the bodies of those who had passed away, propping them up in poses to make it appear as if they were still animate.
These times gave way to Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), a self styled medium and artist, who believed that spirits guided her hand when producing her paintings.
Houghton’s works, which she called Spirit Drawings, are currently on display at The Courtauld Gallery, in London’s Somerset House. She used the drawing process to channel correspondence with the spirit realm. She claimed to have been guided by a range of entities, from higher beings like angels, to family members and renaissance artists.
The show is mostly the artist’s abstract watercolours. The detail in the images is intricate and obsessive. Houghton uses layers of swirling paint, to produce what looks like spirograph wormholes, held together by pieces of thread. She was making abstract art around fifty years before people began to use the term. The level of unbridled expression in the exhibition seems at odds with our understanding of Victorian culture as stiff and proper.
On the back of the drawings, the artist goes into detail about which spirits guided her through which parts of the process. The Courtauld Gallery have cleverly presented the front and back of some of the works by putting them in a screen visible from both sides.
The blurbs which appear next to the images don’t question the purported nature of Houghton’s work. The tone throughout the exhibition is of suspended disbelief. Her art is being received as she meant it to be.
‘The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ’ is the only image on display which features anything like a realistic face. From a distance, Jesus looks to have been portrayed in the style of a pop star spray painted onto a fairground ride. The earliest pieces on display have the most basis in the material world.
Like a William Blake poem, Houghton’s paintings of plants are concerned with spirituality in nature. Blake also claimed to draw inspiration from communicating with the dead, but not in as much of a direct and instructive way as her.
In the 130 years or so since her death, Georgiana Houghton has faded into obscurity. In 1871, she had the first and only gallery show of her creations in her lifetime. It turned out to be the only one on home soil until now. Today there’s an infinite amount of abstract art out there, but her’s stands the test of time.
It’s a frantic, enticing storm, which still stirs up feelings that are otherworldly.
Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is on display at The Courtauld Gallery until 11th September
Students and under 18s go free