Georgiana Houghton
Courtauld Gallery, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Wonderful scribble-scrabbles”

England, for the Victorians, was a very different place to the irreligious, multi-cultural country we have become. Then we believed ourselves to be a ‘great’ Empire that would, forever ‘rule the waves’. It was a society where the majority still believed that God created the world in seven days, yet one in the midst of huge technological change where rural communities were leaving the land to work in Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’, powered by new-fangled machines that threatened their traditional way of life. Steam, speed and noise came to represent modernity. It was a time of social rigidity as well as social upheaval, where the rich man sat back comfortably in his castle, while the poor man doffed his cap obsequiously at the gate. Fuelled by privilege, hypocrisy and secrets – as was evident in the treatment of women and children and its hidden sexual practices – Victorian society had not yet seen Europe torn apart by two World Wars. Yet death was an ever-present threat. It hovered over childbirth and the lives of infants who might, at any moment, be snatched away by infectious disease.  That the Victorians were obsessed with death is, therefore, hardly surprising.

It’s against this backdrop, along with the loosening of the bonds of the Anglican Church, the shifts in intellectual thought and the new range of scientific innovations that spiritualism took hold. Séances and mediums became popular as a way of making contact with the departed.  It would be easy for us to mock spiritualism as a bit of irrational 19th century jiggery-pokery conducted by the unscrupulous, in darkened rooms swirling with miasmas, in order to extract money from the naive and malleable. But its popularity was more significant than that.  The 19th century developed an especial interest in animal magnetism, in madness and criminality, as well in an attempt to discern where the real self resided, exemplified in Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The studies of Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), the Cambridge scholar who founded the Society for Psychical Research were, in many ways, precursors to Freud’s later investigations into the unconscious. In his posthumously published Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death, Myers discussed ideas of creative genius with special reference to automatic drawing, which, he suggested, sprung from the ‘subliminal’ as opposed to the ‘supraliminal’ of normal consciousness.  Spiritual mediums used trance and automatism to tap into this psychic reservoir. According to Myer artistic inspiration came from a ‘subliminal uprush’ when combined with a ‘supraliminal stream of thought’ – an idea that would later be developed in the language of James Joyce and the art of Surrealists such as André Breton.

It is this milieu that produced Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), a single woman from a respectable middle-class family who created some of the most extraordinary art of the mid-19th century, a body of rich, abstract, symbolic works that have largely been forgotten today which, in her own words, were “without parallel in the world”.

Born on 20th April 1814 in Las Palmas, on the Island of Grand Canary, the seventh child of George and Mary Houghton, her merchant father was to lose most of his money in a series of misconceived commercial ventures.  Georgiana trained as an artist but gave up art after the death of her beloved younger sister, Zilla Rosalia, which followed only a few years after the loss of her nine year old brother, Cecil Angelo. It was during this period of grieving that she met a neighbour, one Mrs Marshall, a well-known medium, and attended her first séance. The experience was a revelation and Houghton spent three months ‘training’ as a medium. Soon she was practicing ‘table-tipping’ and began to make a series of small free-hand images of ‘spiritual’ flowers and fruit, led by a diverse range of ‘spirit guides’. The first of these was a deaf and dumb artist called Henry Lenny. Later her guides would become more exalted and include Titian and Correggio. Whilst her early work has something of the feeling of Victorian botanical paintings the content is never realistic but always imagined. For Houghton all the colours and shapes had a symbolic meaning, one easily understood by spiritual beings but that for “dwellers upon earth” required interpreting.

Houghton soon became part of an inner circle of influential spiritual practitioners. Those who became involved ranged from dabblers to those exploring spiritualism’s scientific significance. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an aficionado and Queen Victoria was said to have tried to contact her dead husband Albert through a medium. For many female mediumship was seen as springing from the fevered imagination of an unstable mind, whilst for others it was a sign of female intellectual independence.  Spiritualism appealed to suffragettes and bohemians alike, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and J.M. Whistler. Like many 19th century mediums Houghton was keen to show that the practice was compatible with her Christian beliefs, which were influenced by the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) who claimed to be able to see the spiritual world directly.

After beginning, in 1862, her “Sunday evening pen and ink drawings” under the direction of her spirit guides, she went on to produce a series of richly patterned compositions in watercolour and gouache that the Daily News was to liken to “tangled threads of coloured wool”. Having no real art historical context her work was little understood. Yet her mesmerising lines, bold colours and fluid forms, always produced with the aid of a spirit guide, are extraordinary precursors to the abstract art produced in the 20th century by artists such as Kandinsky. The back of many of these works are covered with complex drawings and closely written notations that explain their spiritual provenance and echo the otherworldliness of William Blake’s visions. Houghton was to remain single all her life and, it might be suggested, in Freudian terms, that her work was produced as a result of sexual repression or hysteria, not dissimilar to the ‘organismic’ ecstatic visions experienced female Catholic saints.

In 1871 Houghton organised a large exhibition of 155 of her sprit works. This was received with a mixture of bafflement and hilarity and nearly broke her financially.  Though there were those who had a more appreciative insight into what she did. The writer Margaret Oliphant described them as “wonderful scribble-scrabbles”, while a member of the art group set up by Houghton, entitled ‘Sisters in Art’, described her work as “some of the most delicate, beautiful drawings ever done by a woman’s hand.”

Until this current exhibition at the Courtauld she’d largely been forgotten, her work not seen in this country for 150 years. Today less than fifty of works are known and the majority of these – for no documented reason – have ended up in the collection of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia. An  album, with a few further examples, is held by the College of Psychic Studies in London and a single drawing is part of the ABCD collection, a private ‘art brut’ collection based in Paris, with a further three in private hands.

Although the Christian context in which she made her work is of much less relevance to us today, her fluid forms and mesmerising colours have close connections with the way 20th century artists developed the language of abstraction and also reverberate in the work of contemporary women artists such as Susan Hiller and Chiara Fumai.  Georgiana Houghton’s work is unlike anything normally associated with female Victorian art. These rich spiritual visualisations not only reveal something of the Victorian mind but show a radical spirit way ahead of her time. This is a very welcome exhibition, one that will bring this extraordinary aartist to a wider public.


Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny
August 28th 1861
Watercolour on paper, 51 x 42 cm
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
Glory be to God c.1868
Watercolour on paper, 49 x 55 cm
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
The Eye of the Lord (reverse) c.1864
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia
(The inscription names Titian as Houghton’s spirit guide)

Portrait of Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
Courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies,London

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