Saturday, 27 August 2016

Review: Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld Gallery

There are exhibitions that catch your eye because they are just so unexpected.  With most Victorian art shows I'm delighted to see pictures I'm familiar with and others I've never seen but I don't expect to be wonderfully baffled.  Well, all that changed yesterday when we visited 'Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings' at the Courtauld Gallery, London...

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) was a spiritualist artist, which means that she channeled spirits that painted through her, making her the medium (in many senses of the word) for automatic writing and visions of the spirit realm.  Her hand was guided by different spirits, sometimes her family, sometimes great artists such as Thomas Lawrence and Titian, sometimes even angels and other heavenly bodies, and the pictures took many hours to complete.  The complexity and many layers of paint and ink reveal a view of the after-life and different worlds that is both recognisable and startlingly abstract.  All this in 1860s England.  Blimey.

The Holy Trinity, 29th November 1861
I was aware of the growth in interest in the spiritual in the 1860s because Fanny Cornforth became a medium for Rossetti.  I also had seen those slightly ropey spirit photographs with gauze escaping from people's mouths and double exposure images of women shrouded in sheets.  The art of spiritualism however had completely escaped me and I still have difficulty quite understanding how we are not hailing Houghton as the mother of abstraction.  I mean, look at The Holy Trinity and tell me that you are not reminded of Vorticism or Futurism.  It could be aeroplanes, ocean liners, all that modern world stuff.  Instead it is the hand of a middle-aged lady compelled by the power of God to make shapes on a page.
Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 28th August 1861
I was going to go to Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern, but look at some of Houghton's flowers and fruit, almost a century beforehand.  Massive and abstract, dense and lush in colour, her worship of the Lord is expressed in fluid lines and often sensual shapes. The gallery is filled with these glorious canvases, some on double-sided stands so that you can see the dense writing on the back of the paper.

Reverse of The Eye of the Lord, 22nd September 1866
This is a difficult exhibition to review in many ways as it is completely mind-blowing.  It is also an almost perfect exhibition - if you like Victorian art, you'll love it but also, if you like modern art, you'll love it.  If you have an interest in religious art, it's a winner, but if you love spiritualism of any and all sorts, it's fabulous.  I'm struggling to think of who wouldn't find something to enjoy in this roomful of Victorian lady pictures.  That's a bold claim indeed.

Detail of Glory be to God, 5th July 1864
The problem for Houghton was that she  thought the same as me and so rented an expensive gallery in Bond Street in 1871 to show her wondrous paintings.  The critics were dazzled and puzzled but loved it, but it was a massive commercial failure and nearly bankrupted her and her attempts to popularise the art of spiritualism were never realised. Mercifully, her work was preserved both by the Victorian Spiritualists' Union in Melbourne, Australia and the College of Psychic Studies, London.  This exhibition is the first time since 1871 that her work has been shown in this country and I think it is high time we welcome back an astonishing artist who was so ahead of her time.

The Eye of the Lord, 22nd September 1866
I took Lily-Rose with me (as is our way to expose the poor child to as much Victorian art as possible) and was slightly worried that there were no seats in the gallery as her patience is as limited as most 10 year olds and so she tends to just sit when she's had enough.  However, she went from picture to picture chatting away to herself and when we caught up to her she was saying all the things she could see in the pictures.  She loved it, picked out a postcard to take home at the end and could tell us more about the pictures than what was on the label.  I am now considering renting her out to the Coutauld.  Kids will love this as it is bonkers spirograph with hidden faces, eyes and all manner of different patterns thrown in. As I said, I am struggling to see who won't be blown away by Georgiana Houghton and her visions.

The Glory of the Lord, 4th January 1864
If at all possible go and see this exhibition, as you will not see anything else like it.  It is just astonishing, utterly mid-blowing and visually arresting.  Whether you believe in the her claims of spiritual direction or not the fact that a fifty year old woman was producing ground-breaking abstract art in Victorian England should be enough to get you there.  If you told me tomorrow that it had been a hoax, that it was from the 1960s or the work of someone with a spirograph and time on their hands I would probably find that easier to believe than these works coming from a religious woman at the time of Queen Victoria.  It's an artist leap that is inexplicable and has to be seen to be believed.  

Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is on until 11th September at the Courtauld Gallery and information can be found here.


  1. I may be posting this twice, my apologies if I am. Any way here goes. I have come across this Fascinating lady before, but I can't quite remember where. My best guess would be in my collection of 'Man Myth and Magic' magazines back in the 70's. A great source of refference for obscure artists etc.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx