Georgiana Houghton

1814Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain | 1884London, United Kingdom

Hispano-British mediumistic paintor.

Georgiana Houghton was an active Spiritualist and mediumistic artist during the 1860s and early 1870s, and became one of the movement’s most celebrated figures. She first became interested in Spiritualism in 1859 after an introduction by her cousin to a prominent spirit medium known as Mrs Marshall. G. Houghton was already a trained artist (possibly after studying in France), and had been taking photographs for a number of years, when she was drawn to the darkened room of the seance. Here she would begin her first Spiritualist drawings, firstly with the aid of a planchette, and then freehand. From an early stage, her hand was guided by various spirits whom she called her ‘invisible friends’, ranging from family members to Renaissance artists. Initially her Spiritualist drawings were floral figurations. However, she soon developed a unique visual language, devising an elaborate system of colours that not only pertained to particular moods, but also, inspired by her strong millenarian beliefs, referred to specific Christian symbols – some of which were primarily concerned with the Holy Trinity. The resulting works included representations of figures in the spirit world as well as spiritual “portraits” of friends.

G. Houghton’s spirit drawings, made in watercolour and gouache, were often done in a state of semi-trance, without preparatory sketches, and could take her up to six months to make. Her work would vary considerably across the three decades in which she created her spirit drawings. While her earliest pieces were figurative and floral in design, from the mid-1860s her visual language became more abstract in appearance, more complex and highly developed, as seen in The Spirit of Peace of 1865. Here, already apparent are the characteristic sinuous lines, dots, and delicate gouache and watercolour brushstrokes, applied in several layers. Alongside these works, G. Houghton also produced a number of abstract “portraits” of living people.
In The Spiritual Crown of Annie Mary Howitt Watts of 1867, numerous circles in both dark grey and white are layered over an abstracted background of shapes and lines of colour. G. Houghton is understood to have explained that the closer the friendship with the subject, the more intensely rendered and closer together the lines became. As the years progressed, G. Houghton’s work became darker in colour, as seen in the extraordinary late untitled work from 1872, in which she has created a headlike form out of multiple intertwined lines, spirals, and whorls of white gouache, laid against a backdrop of heavily applied, thick brown lines.

As with fellow Spiritualist artists of her time, a key focus was to articulate the connection between the visible material world and the invisible spirit world beyond. G. Houghton combined the motivations behind her Spiritualist goals with a keenness to present herself as an artist, which culminated in the exhibition of 155 of her works in London in 1871. The exhibition was widely reviewed in the national and Spiritualist press, and remarkably was regarded by some critics in a positive light. This occurred when the most radical art being produced in London was Claude Monet’s paintings of the River Thames and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne series.

Simon Grant

Translated from French by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

As published in Women in Abstraction © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

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