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  • Esoteric Art Confronting the Public Eye:The Abstract Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton
  • Rachel Oberter (bio)

The term "Victorian art" commonly brings to mind narrative works rich in anecdotal detail. Abstraction seems far away, part of a different century and a different place—twentieth-century Germany, Russia, and France, not nineteenth-century England. Some well-known Victorian artists did begin the process of abstraction—James McNeill Whistler, Albert Moore, and other artists associated with the aesthetic movement minimized subject matter and placed greater emphasis on the material qualities of painting. Yet even aestheticism remained figurative, as the product was never fully abstract. Given the lack of abstraction within Victorian visual culture, watercolors such as those painted by the artist Georgiana Houghton in the 1860s and 1870s seem shockingly out of place. In her work The Eye of God from 1862 (fig. 1), we see a tangle of transparent straight, wavy, and spiraling lines flowing out of the left corner of the paper and up from the bottom edge of the page as white filaments float across the surface. No recognizable forms appear; all that is visible are lines and colors—yellow, sepia, and blue. There is an organic quality to the undulations, a sense of microscopic detail, and a feeling of being in a deep-sea world or otherwise mysterious place. The vagueness of the imagery contrasts with the specificity of the title, which evokes a dense underlying symbolism. Houghton attributed meaning to particular shapes, colors, and directions in her paintings. While her works were abstract, they remained representational.

Born in the Canary Islands in 1814, Houghton spent most of her life in London, working as an artist and a Spiritualist medium.1 In her youth, Houghton had trained as a painter, but she gave up her artistic practice in 1851 when her youngest sister died. In 1859, still in mourning for her sister, Houghton became attracted to Spiritualism and especially to the idea that the spirit survives after the death of the body and can communicate with the living through a human medium. [End Page 221] For Houghton and many other middle-class Spiritualists in Britain, Spiritualism did not replace Christianity, but rather enriched long-standing Christian beliefs.2 As Houghton became immersed in Spiritualism, she saw it less as a tool for dealing with death and more as a vehicle for clarifying aspects of Christian theology.

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Figure 1.

Georgiana Houghton, The Eye of God, 1862, watercolor on paper. Victorian Spiritualists' Union, Melbourne, Australia.

In 1861, Georgiana Houghton became a "drawing medium." First using pencils and then switching to watercolors, she created automatic or "spirit drawings" (Catalogue 4, 30). While in a trance, her hand moved involuntarily, supposedly channeling ideas from the dead and expressing them in visual forms. Her spirit guides were initially other artists and later said to be "high spirits" such as archangels. Houghton and other Spiritualists believed that these spirit guides provided the content of the drawings, while Houghton herself was responsible for their style.3 Houghton's artistic career was rejuvenated by her new technique and what she believed to be her ability to communicate with spirits. At first Houghton produced highly stylized flowers and fruits representing the spirits of loved ones, such as The Flower of Warrand Houghton (her brother) from 1861 (fig. 2), and then she moved on to abstract designs, her so-called "sacred symbolism" (Catalogue 11), which dealt with loftier ideas about Christianity. The word "abstract" was not part of the artistic vocabulary of the time, and Houghton never wrote [End Page 222] about why much of her work was not figurative. Yet 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. Also worth noting with regard to Houghton's choice of non-representational forms is that as a female artist, she was unable to attend life-drawing classes; her one remaining drawing...