From beyond the veil, some mediums claimed that ghosts and spirits guided them to paint and draw. One of them was Georgiana Houghton and her spirit drawings.

Now mainly referred to Spiritualist art, spirit art, mediumistic art or psychic painting, this was and to a certain extent, still is a form of painting or drawing highly influenced by spiritualism. Spiritualism was a movement where connecting with the spirit world was both a performative and at times lucrative business. And the mediums that held these seances had different ways of reaching out to the spirits. One of the ways was by the pen. 

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Although perhaps not the psychic or spiritual part of the art is put much weight in today, the movement had a huge impact on modern art as part of the abstract art department. There are perhaps more famous men behind this genre of abstract art known today, like Piet Mondrian, Vasily Kandinsku, Kasimir Malevish and František Kupka. 

Often overlooked goes the women that may have been the pioneers within this type of paintings and drawings, decades before the textbook pioneers. One of them is Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884)

The Artist and the Medium

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The Spiritualist painter: Georgiana Houghton was both a medium and a trained artist.

She was a British artist and medium born on Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, but moved and lived in London. She was remembered more like an eccentric amateur artist that was more known for her medium role than of an artist. And she gave more credit to the spirits that guided her paintings than to herself as their creator. 

This is also where she produced her first abstract work, or as they called it then, spirit drawings. Many of the pieces remind more of 196 or 1970 psychedelic art then Victorian from the 1860s and 70s. In 1859 she started having these private seances where she allegedly were guided to paint by different spirits and celestial beings. 

Precipitated Paintings

Often, these particular paintings would come during a seance where the medium claimed that it was in fact spirits that guided the artist to produce the paintings. 

When spiritism was at its peak of popularity, it was very common for the mediums to sketch a portrait of the spirit they were in contact with during their seances. Another form of this was by automatic drawing where mediums and other practitioners controlled the body of the artist. 

Georgiana Houghton started her spirit art career first by drawing and then with watercolors. She was one of those relying on an automatic process where she told she was directed by spirits. First she drew flowers and fruits, and was somewhat of a floral artist. This was the one way of painting that was looked at as more of a respectable practice for Victorian artists. But then her style turned to something else entirely. 

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The floral pictures evolved to project the spiritual experience more than objects of the natural world. She had complex pictures with several layers, colors and details. She described the abstract shapes she found in her and colors as sacred symbolism

Not only was spiritualism on the edge of what was perceived as ordinary, at this time, the abstract way of painting was still not a concept, so the reception of the paintings was received more as a curious rarity than art. 

In the beginning, Houghton claimed that it was her dead family members like her sister Zilla that guided her, but as her work evolved, so did her artist spirit guides. And she would later claim that it was the likes of Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio that led her brush. 

The Frauds and the Performers

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Spirit photographs: She was not only a painter that drew her seances. Here she is posing for a photograph, also used a lot within the spiritism movement.

She started gaining quite the notoriety for her paintings and even held an exhibition at the New British Gallery in Bond Street in London in 1871. Although it perplexed the visitors and was an eye opener for many of those watching the exhibition, it was not a commercial success at all. It almost bankrupted Houghton.

Despite this, she spent every day for around three months talking about her paintings to visitors and discussing the meaning behind her sacred symbols and what they could have meant. 

In 1882 she published the book: ‘Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye’. This book featured spirit photographs from many well known spirit photographers that were active in the 1870s like  Agnes Guppy-Volckman, Stainton Moses and spiritualists Alfred Russel Wallace and William Howitt.

There were also pictures from Frederick Hudson, well known for being the first spirit photographer in Britain, but also a well known fraudulent one that was exposed already in the 1870s. The book itself was heavily criticized for featuring dubious pictures where the pictures themselves were unconvincing and could be replicated with double exposure and . 

Her Legacy as the Artist and not the Eccentric

Now, the collection is missing many of her works. Because it is not the museums, galleries or art historians that kept her legacy intact. Most of her works were kept by the Victorian Spiritualists Union in Melbourne. Like so many other women’s achievements they are kept hidden in their diaries, botanical albums and embroideries that not often are looked at as real art. And the irony that she attributes her work to the likes of ghost men speaks echoes with a bitter aftertaste today. 

Although more known for her medium role than that of an artist, her work speaks for itself. Especially when we look at the way the art movement moved in the modern world, and her art were so ahead of its time. In 2016, the The Courtauld Gallery held an exhibition of her paintings where they acknowledged, not only the curious and peculiar origin story behind the paintings, but her craftsmanship and artistry as well. Because no matter how we feel about the spiritualism part, we cannot ignore how in modern art, the pieces we watch in a gallery, can help us see past the realism of the world and our thinking and reach a place in our sub consciousness we otherwise couldn’t see.

Some of Georgiana Houghton Spirit Drawings:

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References

 Image courtesy of Victorian Spiritualists’ Union Melbourne Australia

Georgiana Houghton 

Spiritualist artist Georgiana Houghton gets UK exhibition | Painting | The Guardian

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