Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings, by Simon Grant, Lars Bang Larsen and Marco Pasi


Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is a catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition devoted to Georgiana Houghton’s drawings held at the Courtauld Gallery this summer, curated by Simon Grant, Lars bang Larsen and Marco Pasi.  Houghton (1818-84) was a dedicated Spiritualist in London who took up drawing in watercolour and ink as a means to bridge the gap between the living and the afterlife, making one explicable to the other.  She was in effect a landscapist of a higher plane.  The results are astonishing, and the catalogue’s major pleasure is in the reproductions of a number of her watercolours.

In their accompanying essay ‘“Works of art without parallel in the world”: Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings’, Grant and Pasi provide an informative overview of Houghton’s life, the development of the Spiritualist movement, and her growing involvement in it following the death of her sister Zilla.  Houghton began experimenting with drawing in 1861; her early works are more figurative, appearing to be botanical studies, though they do not represent concrete reality but are symbolic character analyses, depicting flowers and fruits within the spirit realm that express a person’s life, character and thoughts.

Quickly the linkage between recognisable objects and her flowing style is broken as she moved into non-representational drawing, ‘sacred symbolism’ as she termed it, swirls of colour, lines and dots formed in sinuous patterns which are always controlled, never wild.  If they are aesthetically pleasing, Houghton would have argued that this reflects the spirit world’s harmony.  Many of the titles she gave them refer to God and Jesus, others to living individuals: family, friends and notables, including royalty.  The single representational exception to her new direction is the December 1862 The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, startling because He looks remarkably like a woman sporting a hipster beard, a likeness communicated through Houghton by St Luke.

The drawings’ backs contain information such as a title, date, and the length of time it took to complete, and lengthy and glosses on some to guide the viewer, automatically received by Houghton from an impressive range of spirit helpers.  The commentaries are not adjuncts, rather they are integral to the work as a whole; as Grant and Pasi suggest, such a symbiotic relationship between word and image is reminiscent of William Blake, an important figure in Spiritualism’s pre-history.  Thus we know Houghton was guided by individuals including famous painters such as Titian and Correggio, and the less famous one Sir Thomas Lawrence, all working in a style completely dissimilar to what they were doing while incarnate.  There was the obscure, such as Henry Lenny, and a grander group of archangels and Biblical characters.  She claimed she could draw while holding a conversation, to reinforce the claim that these were not originating in her conscious mind.

Unlike the bulk of art made with a Spiritualist motivation, Houghton was keen to bring her productions to a wider public and in 1871 she took the bold step of funding an exhibition at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street, where she exhibited 155 drawings for almost four months.  She was on hand nearly every day to engage with visitors and promote the cause.  Sadly her efforts in mounting and promoting the exhibition met with limited success.  Some reviewers were hostile, but Houghton was impervious, at least in print, arguing with justification that as her works stood outside conventional canons of art, the vocabulary normally used to assess pictures could not apply to hers.  Other reviewers were more positive, though they assessed what they saw either in terms of harmony of form or by analogy with the natural world’s complexities, rather than the spiritual content.  She sold only one piece, and the enterprise nearly bankrupted her.  Yet as Grant and Pasi say, in a real sense it was a success because it brought her work to a wide audience in a gallery setting, and validated her identity as an artist (which she described herself as in the 1871 and 1881 censuses).

The Courtauld show was the first public exhibition of her drawings since then, though on a greatly reduced scale.  That is because posterity has not been kind to Houghton’s output.  The Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne has 35, though how they ended up there is unclear.  An album containing seven is held at the College of Psychic Studies (CPS) in London.  Another four are in private hands.  Those are all that is left, under a third of those she is known to have produced (as indicated by the number displayed in 1871), plus the unknown quantity she did afterwards.  Hopefully the exhibition’s publicity and the book will cause collectors and institutions to examine their holdings, and further works may come to light.

Grant and Pasi claim she had been forgotten after her death and her drawings ignored until recently, a situation the exhibition and book were designed to rectify.  This neglect is certainly true regarding the drawings, though her involvement in spirit photography had kept her name alive to a certain extent.  Grant and Pasi touch lightly on her involvement with photographer Frederick Hudson at the end of their essay, but prior to the rediscovery of her drawings her 1882 book Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye Interblended with Personal Narrative had been an important source of information for scholars of spirit photography, and its six plates have been widely reproduced.

A second essay, by Larsen and Pasi, ‘Spectres of Art’, is more abstract than Grant and Pasi’s introduction, bringing in references to Theodor Adorno and Jacques Derrida.  The authors make the intriguing point that a romantic view of creativity considers artistic inspiration to be outside norms of rationality, so why was what Houghton and others of that ilk did treated differently, and deemed to be of lesser value?  Unfortunately, to answer the question their essay veers off into a discussion about Nazism and the occult as expressions of irrational elements within capitalism, and the renewed interest in paranormal subjects within the ‘media mainstream’ today both as compensatory consolation for our alienated state and as an expression of countercultural trends which have existed since the 1960s: we live in haunted times, and so on.

Thankfully they eventually move on, noting that what has survived – or been identified – is a tiny fraction of what must have been produced, considering the number of references to be found in the Spiritualist press.  They ask if spirit art has any cultural value outside the confines of the Spiritualist community.  While not true to say it has been ignored entirely by the wider ‘cultural establishment’, they concede that little attention has been paid to it, and apart from examples held by organisations such as the CPS and the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Australia, most has been gathered into collections of outsider art.  They consider the concept of outsider art (art brut) to be a useful way to consider spirit art in general.  But as they continue, we know Houghton had had some training as an artist, so while her work may previously have been exhibited in an outsider art context in recent years, the label obfuscates as much as it illuminates.  I would add that to categorise her in outsider terms says more about the art world’s structures and economics than about spirit art’s place in the wider field of artistic creation.

It also means that Houghton’s productions have been largely pigeon-holed (but her motivation ignored).by the art world as examples of abstraction, or as eccentric products by a middle-aged spinster disengaged from the real world in a delusional pastime, rather than the sincere expression of her spiritual values.  In terms of both categories, Larsen and Pasi compare Houghton with Hilma af Klimt, herself the subject of recent interest, but find the notion of ‘anticipation of abstraction’ to be problematic, both because it implies an outdated idea of a steady progression of artistic development, and also because abstract artists such as Kandinsky theorised their practice in a way Houghton and Klimt did not.  However, for Houghton her drawings were not abstract but neither were they untheorised; they were concrete realisations of the spirit world as she tried to find expression for what is ineffable.  Contemporary artists may tip the hat to people like Houghton and Klimt and draw on (or plunder if you prefer) Spiritualism in their own work, but they do it from the outside, which may allow them to repurpose the form, but to use it to address aspects of this world, not as a link between this world and the next.

Ultimately, the Courtauld exhibition provided a contrast in purpose with the 1871 display.  For Houghton it was an opportunity to promote her belief in a spiritual reality for which the drawings were produced as evidence.  The objects were secondary to the message.  For the Courtauld Gallery, according to the foreword by its head, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, ‘this exhibition forms part of a strand of programming that concerns itself with alternative histories of drawing.’  Here the intended message is secondary to the objects.  Whatever one’s perspective, it was a pleasure to visit the Courtauld, busy on the afternoon I attended, for a probably unique opportunity to see works that had made the long journey from their home in Australia back to London where they were produced.  There were 21 paintings dating from 1861 to 1875, drawn from the collections of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, the CPS, and one from a private owner, and these are reproduced in the catalogue.

No exhibition is complete without a marketing effort, and the Courtauld Gallery did a good job, aided by the beauty of Houghton’s work (cards are also available at the CPS).  You could buy Houghton-themed postcards, prints, greeting cards, tea towels, jewellery, and a tote bag to put it all in.  Such enterprise is necessary to support the institutions who care for and display archival material, and this way more people are exposed to Houghton’s drawings than she could ever have dreamed of; but it is ironic that pictures considered to have no monetary value during her lifetime, as witness the failure of her exhibition, should now represent a useful income stream for others.

For those unfortunate enough not to have been able to see the originals at the Courtauld, the book accompanying the exhibition is the next best thing, though it is not a complete survey of Houghton’s oeuvre.  The densely-written texts on the back, also reproduced, are hard to read and would have benefited from typed transcriptions.  What would be helpful now in understanding Houghton’s work and the context from which it emerged is a greater awareness of the history of spirit art in general.  The recent exhibition at the CPS was a good start, but perhaps there is scope to do for art what Le troisième oeil: La photographie et l’occulte (The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult) did for photography, in terms of a touring exhibition and accompanying lavishly-illustrated large format book.


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