In the wet summer of 1871, the artist Georgiana Houghton exhibited 155 of her spirit drawings in central London. It was unprecedented in both scale and content. At great financial cost to herself, Houghton (1814–1884) single-handedly staged the show in the hope that her artistic manifestations, guided by the hand of her “invisible friends” would not only further the cause of Spiritualism but also signal her arrival as a serious artist.
Sadly, it was not to be and, not surprisingly, critics found her seemingly abstract work hard to accept. As one critic put it:
if readers were to imagine such a thing as an accurate copy of coloured and white ‘Berlin’ wools, all tangled together in a flattened mass, framed and hung round a gallery, some idea could be formed of the appearance of this most strange exhibition.
Another described her artwork as a “sad and ludicrous… gallery of painful absurdities”.
Audiences of the day were more accustomed to the frothy yet restrained narratives of the Pre-Raphaelites, while the most radical art on view at the time of Houghton’s exhibition was Whistler’s controversial “Nocturne” paintings. While these artists flourished, Houghton sold only one picture from her exhibition and was almost bankrupted by the process.
To today’s viewers it is hard to appreciate not only the radical nature of her vision but also her determination and willpower to convince others of her talent. About her life, we know surprisingly little to date. We don’t know if she had formal training as an artist, though her early iterations of the spirit drawings that show flowers and fruits suggest she may have followed many other women of her time to train as a botanical artist.
Houghton was born on April 20, 1814, in Las Palmas, on the island of Grand Canary. The seventh child of George and Mary Houghton, she went on to spend much of her life in London in genteel poverty. Her merchant father had lost money in an unspecified crisis. Like many of her time, she came to spiritualism and spirit drawing through a recent death in the family. In Houghton’s case this was her sister Zilla (who had herself been an artist) and, through a chance meeting with a near neighbour, the celebrated spirit medium Mrs Marshall, Houghton soon found herself propelled into practicing the art of the séance, often alongside her mother. By October 1861 she had her first appearances from “high spirits” – her “appointed guardians” Zacharias, John and Joseph.
Houghton was spurred on by her deeply-held Christian faith, and validated her purpose in those terms. Her great aim was, as she wrote in her autobiography Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance (1881), “to show ‘What the Lord hath done for my soul’ by granting me the Light now poured upon mankind by the restored power of communion with the unseen”.
Houghton would go on to develop these multi-layered drawings with increasing complexity. Moving away from the simple, organic-like shapes, she would introduce sinuous lines and spirals, as well as minute white dots applied with a tiny brush. Nothing in art was comparative at the time, although one of the more positive reviews that Houghton received for her exhibition compared her style with a canvas of JMW Turner’s “over which troops of fairies have been meandering, dropping jewels as they went”.
Image caption: The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ 8 Dec 1862