Review of Simon Grant, Lars Bang Larsen and Marco Pasi's Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings
Paul Holberton Publishing, 2016
There is a tenebrous, musty gloom surrounding the world of Victorian spiritualism. The lights having been extinguished, the medium – all bombazine and black crepe – enjoins the circle of believers to receive those spirits who even now begin to glimmer amongst them. Soon after, if the many accounts of fraudulent practices are to be believed, that same medium, or one of her accomplices, proceeds to get up to all kinds of shenanigans in the inky darkness, the better to give the sitters their money's worth. Participants hear long-lost voices, have parts of their anatomy caressed, feel the table begin to frolic beneath their hands, smell fragrances, are presented with coins, rocks, trinkets etc. Once the supernatural floor-show is at an end and the various disembodied friends, guides and ghostly pets have trooped back to the life everlasting, it is time to turn up the gaslight. All in all, then, aside from the occasional dancing orb or flickering aura, Victorian séances seem to have been pretty dingy affairs. Yet out of all this monochrome morbidity emerges the kaleidoscopic art of Georgiana Houghton. Or rather, if the lady herself is to be believed, it would be more correct to call it the kaleidoscopic art of those spirits who regularly took Ms Houghton's hand and sent it on a wonderfully prismatic drawing spree. The result is a series of truly vibrant images which have been spoken of in terms of both abstract art and art brut avant la lettre. This summer’s exhibition of Houghton’s work at the Courtauld Gallery, along with the catalogue under review here, should hopefully initiate a long overdue appreciation of this virtuosic body of work.
Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance, the title of the book that Houghton published in 1881, immediately conjures up images of the kind of uncanny domestic pursuits to which this London-based spirit artist living in genteel poverty was devoted. Having been introduced to spiritualism at the relatively advanced age of forty-five, Houghton took to it with a passion, regularly holding séances at her home with a group of like-minded acquaintances to the point where she became, according to Simon Grant and Marco Pasi in one of the catalogue essays, “part of what could be called an inner circle of influential spiritual practitioners in Victorian Britain.” Presiding over many of Houghton’s gatherings was the medium Mrs Guppy, who was something of a celebrity in her day amongst those who took an interest in the “night side of nature” (to borrow Catherine Crowe's phrase for her renowned study of “ghosts and ghost seers” from 1848). In particular, what set the seal on Mrs Guppy's fame was an alleged incident in 1871 when she was suddenly — and unwillingly — teleported from her home into the séance of a rival medium who was up for some paranormal hijinks. As an eye-witness account has it, “there was a loud thump as something heavy dropped onto the séance room table. It was Mrs Guppy, unconscious and dressed only in a nightgown, swiftly followed by some more respectable clothing for her return journey.” Compared to this kind of cross-town extravaganza, Houghton’s spooky soirées were relatively staid affairs. Even so, Mrs Guppy, or rather the spirit clique with which she fraternised, was not averse to a touch of tomfoolery, on one occasion causing “a quantity of snow-covered ice” to land on the séance table, which then had to be removed “in a large dish” by the guests present. Then there was the time when Guppy's ghost squad delivered a “plumy downfall” of feathers to the Houghton residence which, we are told, ended up lying a couple of inches thick all over the parlour as well as, more worryingly, permeating “every crevice.” In Houghton's own words:
“At first it created much laughter and amusement, but fancy the state of men's woollen coats, to which the small particles so clingingly adhered: — then the hair! the velvet dresses! oh! dear, it was a fluffy manifestation, and one not easily to be forgotten.”
Not that the dear departed were always so irritatingly capricious when Mrs Guppy was around. In fact, they could be ever so pleasant, delivering a regular supply of reassuringly anodyne messages for those in the land of the living, as well as, on at least one occasion, very thoughtfully going to the trouble of ensuring that cups, saucers, tea, milk, bread and butter (and biscuits) suddenly manifested in the darkened room so that their earth-bound audience might take some light refreshment.
Such accounts of what went on in these séances have long held a parodic charm, the implication being that the gullibility of our Victorian ancestors beggars belief. Alternatively, their willingness to invest so much hope in being able to make contact with a higher spiritual realm was nothing more than a compensatory response to living in an age synonymous with a widespread and culturally resonant crisis of faith. However, these kinds of sweeping explanations for the nineteenth century's overwrought investment in spiritualism are in danger of glossing over many facets of the whole phenomenon which themselves are worthy of further inquiry. Furthermore, as Lars Bang Larsen and Marco Pasi note, recent academic discourse has pointed to “a renewed sensibility towards the imaginary of which spiritualism is a part,” it being recognised that “there is a cultural, even existential need for the repressed figures of the ghost and the spectral. They are no longer simply seen as insubstantial and inauthentic,” particularly in our age of intangible digital technologies. Maybe, as Larsen and Pasi claim, “we need spiritualism's untimely, hybrid, out-of-place, sensuous imagination to connect us with the many radical ambiguities of contemporary life.” Perhaps it is within the terms of a “renewed sensibility towards the imaginary” that Houghton's spiritually energised art should now be considered afresh. There are certainly precedents for taking seriously the work of artists who claim to have been inspired by supernal beings, sometimes —in the case of William Blake, for example— to the point of alleging personal instruction from them. Whilst Houghton's achievements are not comparable in scale to those of Blake, there is a similarity in the absolute faith in the extra-mundane well-springs of their creativity upon which both insisted, regardless of any sceptical censure that they encountered. Another commonality was that both had the experience of staging a single exhibition of their work which turned out to be a disappointing exercise in lack of sales with a fair bit of derision thrown in. Blake's exhibition of 1809, held above his brother's hosiery shop near Soho, prompted one critic to describe the works on show as “the ebullitions of a distempered brain,” whilst the artist himself was declared to be “an unfortunate lunatic.” In Houghton's case it was the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street which, in 1871, showcased her work in an exhibition — the practicalities of which, from designing the catalogue and organising an advertising campaign through to hammering the pictures into their frames, she took upon herself. Once the show had opened, Houghton made sure that she attended each day to answer visitors' queries about the images on display, as well as expound her belief in the spiritualist cause. Reviewers who came to inspect the pictures were quite starkly divided in their opinions. One of them opined 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,” whilst another, taking a potshot at the fundamental rationale behind Houghton's efforts, bellowed “we should not have called attention to this exhibition at all, did we not believe that it will disgust all sober people with the follies which it is intended to advance and promote.” However, there were at least a few positive notices, with one rather florid reviewer likening one of the works on show to “a canvas of Turner's, over which troops of fairies have been meandering, dropping jewels as they went.” Another went so far as to endorse Houghton as “a clever and tasteful artist...a sincere believer in what she says.” Although she welcomed these more favourable reviews, Houghton was fully prepared to take issue with her detractors, avowing that “the scoffs of the ignorant” were of no consequence, not least because her art “could not be criticised according to any of the known and accepted canons of art.” Whilst this reaction might at first seem like the age-old fall-back position for those whose estimation of their own talents is long overdue a reality check, from this distance Houghton's claims about her exceptionalism appear to have some intriguing substance to them.
So what is it about Houghton’s pictures that elevates them from being merely the curious byproducts of her spiritualist convictions? Primarily it is their skilful and radiant execution, displaying a sense of structural integrity and tonal eloquence which make them utterly cogent even at their most amorphous. Her earliest drawings, dating from the 1860s, differ markedly from her later work in that they feature more readily recognisable figures, resembling intricately exotic vegetation. For Houghton, such images were in fact depictions of flowers that bloomed in the spiritual realm as they corresponded “to particular persons living, or having lived, in the material world” — visual emblems representing the developments of individual souls. Following these more conventionally formal but still engagingly phantasmal representations, Houghton went on to produce pictures that would gradually start to dispense more and more with recognisable figuration, a practice which, as mentioned above, led to her being regarded as something of a proto-abstractionist by later commentators. However, as Grant and Pasi point out, “it is...important to keep in mind that her drawings were never objectless. They are in fact highly symbolic and they represent ‘something,’ even if this something happens to belong to another world and be invisible.” What might now be regarded as dizzying improvisations of line and colour were, for Houghton, representative of an array of sacred subject matter and concomitant emotions. As to the production of these vertiginous compositions, anyone who witnessed her at work on them would, she averred, have been able to see that she was merely the mortal conduit through which they were created. That same witness would note, as she put it, “the fine lines that went on so smoothly and so unerringly under my hand never failing to reach their purposed destination” whilst “fully engaged in conversation with [her visitor]; and there would be sudden changes of detail and methods of manipulation, which clearly did not require my mind to be concentrated on them.” After these sustained periods of distracted creativity, Houghton would often add an extensive and closely written explanation of the compositional factors and symbolism of the work on the back: a finishing touch which only serves to reiterate the point that these weren't just free-form sketches.
If, then, Houghton can be absolved of any prescient instinct for the type of formalist aesthetic which advocated a retreat from figurative art in the twentieth century, it can nevertheless be accepted that her interest in representing an incorporeal nexus which exists in parallel with our physical existence places her on a continuum with modern artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian. Similarly, there is a sense of psychic relinquishment about her intuitive channelling of concepts and images which has parallels with some of the surrealist practices of André Breton et al. Aside from these well known explorers of art's esoteric hinterlands, Houghton can also be compared to Hilma af Klint, a Swedish mystic who has similarly attracted the soubriquet ‘first abstract artist’ for the work she created in the early twentieth century under divine direction, and which was also largely ignored until several years after her death. The kind of inspired alacrity with which the likes of Houghton and af Klint embraced the task of articulating their spiritual visions can also be compared to the dedication shown by the London housewife Madge Gill, whose forty year long outpouring of images under the supervision of her spirit guide 'Myrninerest' only came to light several years after her death in 1961. Such examples serve to show that the metaphysical, in all its varied and elusive guises, has a recurring tendency to encroach on creative practices, both as a source of inspiration and as a means of introducing a disruptive ambiguity into the construction of artistic identity. The otherworldly, it seems, will not leave us alone. In recent times, one of the most intriguing variations on this whole theme has been the artist Susan Hiller’s exploration of the ‘paraconceptual,’ a creative practice defined as “just sideways of conceptualism and neighbouring the paranormal.” In her own words, Hiller is ‘'interested in the legacy of spiritualism and the occult in terms of the future rather than the past;…. I think our world view is very limited and needs a paradigm shift if we are to survive.” A paradigm shift in our world view is something that Georgiana Houghton might well have welcomed, specifically in terms of the need for more people to accept the reality of the spiritual realm which inspired her own captivating art. Not that Hiller advocates the kind of uncritical belief in the supernatural which many of its Victorian advocates often displayed, noting that Freud demystified such belief as an attempt at compensation for “the lost appeal of life on this earth.” Perhaps Sigmund had a point, but then again, he might have found life more appealing had he been present on the night when Mrs Guppy landed slap bang on the séance table. --Mark Jones