"In the execution of my Drawings my hand had been entirely guided by the spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced".
So said Georgiana Houghton in 1871. Georgiana was an unexpected, and quite possibly accidental, precursor of abstraction in art. Her art is coloured, and dominated, by her claim to be a Spiritualist medium. Spiritualism emerged in the 1850s so Houghton (1814-1884) was around at just the right time for it.
As opposed to the rather woolly meaning it's often ascribed now the mid 19th century variety was characterised by a belief that, via mediumship, communication with the dead could be achieved.
She said her hand was guided by Renaissance artists and angels. Unlike other Spiritualist artists who mostly made figurative works she went, primarily, down the abstract avenue. Not pure abstraction a la Jackson Pollock etc; but a symbolist abstraction. Everything meant something.
In 1871, the year of her quote above, she hosted an exhibition at London's Old Bond Street gallery. Some critics salivated. Others were non-plussed. Perhaps the most generous praise came in the form of this sentence:- "works of art without parallel in the world". A quote from the artist herself. So she wasn't, on the whole, particularly modest.
Although, not long after her show, she was broke. The cost of hosting the show nearly ruined her. She painted little afterwards and, on her death 13 years later, fell into obscurity.
The Courtauld Gallery's retrospective is an interesting look at an otherwise obscure artist and a period of time in the British art world I knew very little about. It takes a very neutral non-judgemental approach to her claims for psychic abilities. I'd like to have seen them questioned more.
For example it's hard to take the assertion that 1870's Eye of the Lord was created with the contribution of seven archangels seriously. But let's cast aside such doubts for a while. Georgiana Houghton went on to say that she regarded these seven as the eighth of ten sets of archangels and, somewhat self-aggrandisingly, adopted for herself the title 'The Sacred Symbolist"'.
Four years ealier it was Titian (the 16th century Venetian master) who got the credit for another Eye of the Lord, above. Here, perhaps, she was being modest. Saying she wasn't good enough to do this on her own. Certainly not before the invention of spirographs anyway. The repeated circles represent 'three eyes conjoined' - the all seeing Trinity.
An Olympiad prior to that, in 1862, her Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (look at his silly hair!) is the only known 'portrait' of hers. The swirling lines are intended to show Christ's many acts of mercy and compassion. Neither Titian nor the seven archangels were on this job but no less than Saint Luke himself. In Christian tradition the first icon painter.
Her first guide was Henry Lenny. Not to be mistaken for the creator of Theophilus Wildebeest and former husband of Dawn French he was described by Houghton as a deaf and dumb artist. The closed purple buds express his good intentions, unfulfilled during his spell on Earth.
Below we see a tribute to her deceased sister Zilla Warren from 1861 and another tribute to another dead sibling, Warrand Houghton, created in 1865. With two siblings (and an uncle too, who also gets a flower) passed away you begin to see why Houghton may have taken so much comfort in Spiritualism.
These early family tributes were painted, she said, when her 'own spirit was too much clogged with earthliness to grasp the mysteries beyond the veil'. Within a couple months these mysteries were obviously grasped and everything changed. Her Holy Trinity was her first sacred symbolist work and it very much set the tone for that which followed. The entwined bands of yellow, blue, and red represent the father, son, and the holy ghost. On a less celestial sphere she notes that it took 8 hours and 54 minutes to complete
Coreggio (16th century, Parma school) gets his due for 1862's Eye of God. The fine white trails/dots, or 'pearled forms' are symbolic of God's many 'wondrous attributes'.
By the time Sir Thomas Lawrence (who was barely cold, having only been dead for 30 years) was drawing her pictures for her she was no longer writing lengthy symbol translation keys on the back of them. Hoping her audience was familiar enough with her work and language to decipher for themselves.
It wasn't just angels and long dead artists she had a thing for. She was a bit of a royalist brown-noser too. Not content with creating a luxury edition of her catalogue for Queen Victoria (who, along with Conan Doyle and many others, had been fooled by the Spiritualist scam) she created the below work, The Flower of Victoria, Princess Royal of England, in 1864 for said Victoria who was, remarkably for someone deemed worthy of Houghton's attention, alive at the time.
From the mid-1860s she produced monograms of various individuals.This one's for Atlantic telegraph engineer Cromwell Varley (1828-1883) who was another with a keen interest in Spiritualism.
So, the art's pretty good but was she a fraud or did she genuinely believe what we, now, can see is evidently mumbo-jumbo of the highest order? There's no way of knowing. Her friend Frederick Hudson used double exposure negatives to trick people into thinking he'd caught ghosts and spirits on camera. He was exposed himself - more often than his negatives - as a fraud and a conman.
The jury appears to be out on Houghton. While she undoubtedly talked a load of horseshit it's entirely possible she did so with the best intentions and it's always harsh to judge people from the past by today's standards. I don't doubt there are things most of us hold dear and sacred now that will look ludicrous to future generations.
In the end, she's long gone and it doesn't really matter anymore. Either by accident or design she created a body of work that's quite different to anything else of its time. I enjoyed looking at the art and I even enjoyed reading about her hokey belief system. That'll do for me on a sunny afternoon.