For four months in the summer of 1871, the New British Gallery on Old Bond Street in London was filled with paintings unlike any the city had seen before. Swirls of overlapping, whirling lines in a rainbow of effervescent colors filled each of the 155 watercolor and pencil drawings. The first major Impressionist exhibition was still three years out and the absence of figuration in these dynamic compositions was beyond anything being produced in that disruption of academic painting. And it would be decades before full-on abstraction would emerge in the European art scene of the early 20th century, yet here was a whole show of artwork that would not be out of place in 1960s psychedelia. Furthermore, the drawings were created by a woman at a time when paintings of flowers, pastoral landscapes, and portraiture were deemed acceptable artistic subjects for a lady — and she claimed to be guided by the spirits of the dead.
Witnessing the art of Georgiana Houghton today is a visually cataclysmic experience. Looping lines bound across each spiraling composition and the energy behind her hand is palpable across time. These vivid drawings appear prescient, anticipating European artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich who would rattle art with their non-objective forms, bold colors, and geometric experiments in the early 20th century. Art historian Rachel Oberter in a 2006 article on Houghton in the journal Victorian Studies notes that she never employed the word “abstract” to describe her art as it was not present in Victorian artistic vocabulary, still “she most likely adopted an abstract mode of artistic production for a similar reason as many of the pioneers of transcendental abstraction in the twentieth century such as Kandinsky and Malevich: since it does not depict mundane objects, her art is less tied to the natural world, and more able to evoke a less tangible plane of spiritual existence.” In other words, to depict her channeling of the spirits, she needed to create a visual language that portrayed an unseen force rather than the visible world.
Born in 1814, a full century before Mondrian wrote that to “approach the spiritual in art, one will use as little of reality as possible,” Houghton can seem like an artist out of time. Yet her work was very much part of a 19th-century artistic moment, just one not often examined in the rise of abstraction in art. One of many “artistic mediums” active in the 19th century, she created her art as a direct part of her participation in Spiritualism. Along with fellow artists like Anna Howitt Watts who surrounded religious figures with luminous organic forms and Jane Stewart Smith who spent years on her tableaux of mystical scenes, she engaged in séances and trance-states to create her art, albeit work that was much more radical than her contemporaries. All of these spirit artists used their media, whether drawing, painting, or sometimes embroidery, to give a form to something which many people doubted was there.
That many spirit artists were women is significant. In Spiritualism, they attained places of power, opportunities, and community when options for women were few, especially for those like Houghton who chose to stay unmarried. As artists, they worked in alternative spaces that have been ignored or not taken seriously in cultural history. When they were not welcomed into the art salons, they achieved expressive freedom in séances; when they were not invited into the art schools, they came together in collective ritual. When rejected by the Royal Academy and other galleries, Houghton organized and paid for her own exhibition.
Most days of the 1871 show, Houghton was there in the gallery, ready to share the intricate meaning behind the watercolors in discussions with visitors. Holding up a magnifying glass to the vortexes of color and line, she would explain how the works were channeled through her contact with the spirit world. Some of her earlier pieces featured organic forms like flowers, but even these were symbolic, often expressing the life and actions of a deceased person who guided the drawing, whether a departed family member or late luminaries like the composer Felix Mendelssohn. If viewers were to see the back of these drawings they would find extensive explanations made through automatic writing. “The Eye of God” — an exultant work of lines unfurling like fern fronds — has text stating that it was guided by Italian Renaissance artist Correggio who “endeavored through Georgiana’s hand, to represent The Eye of God, in the Three Persons of the Trinity.”
It was very important to Houghton that visitors to the 1871 exhibition would have this context. An over 30-page catalogue was printed for the show and included an extensive index on color symbolism, such as crimson lake for love, orange cadmium for moral courage, emerald green for self-control, and cobalt blue for truth. Houghton wrote that she offered this guidance not just for comprehension of the tangles of vibrant forms; it was also presented “[i]n the hope that many will follow my example and strive to develop themselves as drawing mediums.” Her work may have been singular in its exuberant expression, but she hoped others would follow on this path where she’d found so much fulfillment and joy. Still, as she explained, the drawings only “faintly shadow forth” the “glorious hues” of “a speech transcending mortal language.”
Visitors probably would have already known something of Spiritualism, which had by then rapidly spread from the United States to England, bringing table rapping, tapping, and tilting in its communications with the dead. The movement’s genesis is largely placed in upstate New York in the 1840s where two young sisters — Kate and Margaret Fox — knocked on their bedposts and heard thudding noises in response from a presence believed to be a ghost. As the sisters toured the United States, they conducted wildly popular séances and inspired others to take up mediumship. Arriving alongside advances in communication like the electrical telegraph and transatlantic cable, Spiritualism caught on as a religious innovation that broke down the barriers between earth and the afterlife. In the 1850s, just as messages that formerly took days to cross the Atlantic by ship were transmitted in only minutes via Morse code (a tapping not dissimilar from the rapping of a séance), Spiritualism gained prominence in England. One of the methods that materialized in Spiritualist séances was automatic drawing, in which a medium’s hand was guided to sketch by spiritual contact, which was how Houghton created her art.
Many Spiritualist mediums were Christian women who had few options for leadership within mainstream religion. Houghton herself was very religious and her spirit drawings frequently referenced doctrines like the Holy Trinity through “sacred symbolism” and included biblical passages in their accompanying texts or titles. She found solace in Spiritualism after the sudden death of her beloved sister Zilla in 1851. In her grief, Houghton, who had some training as an artist, lamented, “I felt as if I should never again use pencil or brush.” Then in 1859, she discovered Spiritualism and a way to “be thus reunited to the many dear ones whom I had lost.” Two years later, she also recovered her artistic voice.
Houghton had heard about a medium practicing automatic drawing and inquired through planchette whether Zilla, who was an artist, could guide her hand. Instead of her sister, she was put in contact with the spirit of “a deaf and dumb artist” named Henry Lenny, who led her pencil through the movement of the planchette “to form various curved lines” first in black, then in blue. Gradually, a strange flower was taking shape on the paper. It was the first of many artistic collaborations Houghton would have with the spirits. In the years that followed, she would encounter the spectral presences of Renaissance artists like Titian and Caravaggio (although never producing anything similar to their work) and archangels who ushered Houghton deeper into phantasmagorical expression. In 1861, she painted “Zilla’s Flower,” with blue petals “because she was true and steadfast” and yellow lines representing her late sister’s actions that erupted from the flower’s center, some going down for her errors, but many going upwards for those “which led her towards Heaven.”
In her 1881 book Evenings at home in spiritual séance, Houghton ecstatically described her art as something channeled, a force that flowed through her: “No one can figure to themselves my delight when […] I beheld the lovely array of the whole of those works that had grown under my own hand, with daily new revelations of unknown beauties and unsuspected truths.” She added that she rarely paused to closely inspect these drawings, often moving on to the next once the séance was complete. Later, “I discovered forms, and designs, and distances, that had been utterly undreamed of, and I realised yet more fully the Love that had bestowed such a gift upon me.” She emphasized that these compositions were never planned and completely spontaneous. While this perspective seems to disregard her artistic agency, it resonates with the 1920s Surrealists who would follow in adopting this automatic style of drawing. Historian Marco Pasi, who has worked on exhibitions of Houghton’s art, proposed that this “transferred authorship” allowed her a liberty of creation: “In doing so she could radicalise her artwork and make alien objects that could not be placed at the time in which they were made.” Whether or not it was her intent, by dismissing her authorship, Houghton was able to publicly create art that never would have been acceptable for a Victorian lady.
Some 1871 critics were awed by these otherworldly drawings, with one proclaiming them the “most astonishing exhibition in London at the present moment.” Others, however, did not quite know what to make of this art that was so different from the rest of Victorian visual culture, especially with its accompanying whiff of the occult. One bemoaned that “a visitor to the exhibition is alternatively occupied by sad and ludicrous images during the whole of his stay in this gallery of painful absurdities.” Houghton took this in stride, writing that “my Exhibition baffled them utterly, therefore they sometimes took refuge in unseemly words about what they did not understand.”
The spirit art display was a failure financially, too, consuming most of Houghton’s savings. Perhaps it was not a surprise, as other recent, if less extreme, experiments with abstraction had been similarly ridiculed. When J. M. W. Turner exhibited his whale paintings in 1846, in which the dark shapes of the great cetaceans were blurred in tumultuous seas, there were caricatures of him painting with a mop and the complaint that there was “no form for the eye to dwell upon.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s moody Nocturne works were viciously attacked by critic John Ruskin who declared in 1877 that the artist was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Nevertheless, Houghton was committed to Spiritualism and visually manifesting a contact that defied death. Shortly after the exhibition, she began collaborating with England’s first spirit photographer, Frederick Hudson. Together they created numerous spirit photographs — images in which an apparition appears on the developed picture — with Houghton acting as a medium. She also encouraged the practices of other artistic mediums, such as Alice Mary Theodosia Pery who sketched torrents of enigmatic faces in pencil. Despite this strong attachment to her community, after she died from a stroke in 1884, her singular work was soon largely forgotten. A substantial number of those pieces exhibited in 1871 are now lost. The largest known group of her drawings is held by Australia’s Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, acquired after they were brought to the country for a 1910 exhibition.
It’s often in collections and archives outside of mainstream institutions where work by artists like Houghton survives. And almost 150 years following the 1871 exhibition, she finally received London’s acclaim in a celebrated show at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2016. It followed an exhibition featuring her art at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia, in 2015, and led critics to ask if she should be considered as the first abstract artist.
While Houghton would not have called her art abstraction — it was a protocol for contact with another realm — it’s important that the reassessment of her legacy has caused a shift in the understanding of the long-dominant narrative about modern art. Recently, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York hosted a blockbuster exhibition of the work of a fellow spiritualist — Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (as covered for Nightingale by Jason Forrest) — who similarly engaged in abstraction years before Kandinsky’s compositions. Houghton and af Klint did not know each other, but they both acted as mediums in séances, and each found in abstraction a way to express experiences that were transcendent. The art world may not have been ready for Houghton in 1871, but by finally recognizing her vision in using art to portray something divine, that history can expand to reconsider artists long pushed to the margins.