A review of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House.
The Courtauld Gallery is showing an exhibition of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings until 11th September. Houghton was active in London in the 1860’s and 1870’s as an artist and spirit medium. Like many of her contemporaries she was in thrall to the world of spirits and the means of communicating with it through the veil which, they believed, separated its inhabitants from us. According to Houghton the spirits of her lost sister, angelic beings and great masters such as Titian and Correggio guided her hand as she created her work, in much the same way as the surrealists believed that automatic writing was a product of the unconscious mind. There is no evidence of her undertaking a formal art school education, but she was accomplished in painting floral water colours which would have been part of the repertoire of any well-brought up girl of the age.
The drawings are largely abstract, composed of swirls, spirals and dots, astonishing to the eyes of their Victorian audience. Although Houghton applied her colours in many layers, the images are flat, anticipating the work of artists, such as the impressionists, who were to abandon the rules of formal perspective in later decades. She used a palette of bright greens, yellows, blues and reds. Although abstract in appearance, Houghton said they portrayed the actual world of the spirits and were designed to encourage healthy, spiritual development in the viewer through their spellbinding effects.
An exhibition of 155 drawings was mounted in Bond Street in 1871 in the hope of bringing greater attention to this method of communication with the spirit world and making Houghton’s fortune. However, it seems the material world was not yet ready for them, as they were viewed as something marvellous but aberrant and the exhibition proved financially disastrous for the artist.
As a member of the 21st Century audience, I was aware of how prescient Houghton seemed. The lack of perspective, the use of abstract forms and colour to induce an aesthetic effect in the viewer rather than attempting to mimic reality, all foreshadow the major movements of impressionism and abstract expressionism which came to dominate the rest of the Nineteenth Century and the first half of the Twentieth. As far as I know, none of the artists involved in these movements ever identified her work as an influence.
On a purely personal level, the bold colours and flatness of the images called to mind Matisse’s drawings, paintings and cut-outs. I was also struck by a similarity I perceived between Houghton’s portrait of The Lord Jesus Christ, a particularly meek and mild depiction, and Matisse’s sketches of Madame De Pompadour.
The spirit drawings seem to be an unusual choice of material for display at the Courtauld. Some consider Houghton an “outsider” artist (http://www.kathybarry.co.nz/MUMA_believe_not_every_spirit.pdf), whereas the Courtauld is a pillar of the art establishment, housing a prestigious institute of post-graduate education as well as the gallery. One of the curators, Marco Pasi, is an expert in the history of the Hermetic Tradition and the links between Houghton’s preoccupations and that philosophy, with its foundations in Neoplatonism, magic and the conjuring of spirits, might explain in part the decision to mount an exhibition of her work at this gallery.
Elsewhere, I’ve come across an attempt to reclaim her as a lost feminist heroine driven to cloak her genius in a narrative of spirit guides and heavenly visions (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jun/15/georgiana-houghton-spirit-drawings-review-courtauld) by the patriarchal art forces prevalent in Victorian England. Maybe the power of the drawings lies in their complete isolation from the mid to late Nineteenth Century art world, making them far more susceptible to the projections of modern viewers than more conventional works produced in the same period.
Jane McChrystal © 2016.