How many times do you go to an exhibition, especially in England, and end up talking to practically every other person in the room whilst looking at art? Not too often, I suspect! But that is exactly what happened as I went around a small and remarkable exhibition, "Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings" at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Each of us was so astonished and fascinated that we all talked to each other at one point or another, standing in front of a drawing, all of us marvelling at these pieces. The title of one of the introductory chapters, by Simon Grant and Marco Pasi, is "Works of Art without Parallel in the World", and indeed these watercolours/gouache, small works of art, are exactly that. One has no other points of reference in art. This small body of work, miraculously preserved, mostly by the Victoria Spiritualists' Union in Melbourne, Australia, dates from mid-19th century when Georgiana Houghton created them.
She came from a middle-class English family who had fallen on relatively hard times. She trained as an artist, along with her beloved younger sister. When this sister, Zilla Rosalia, died very young, in 1851, Georgiana was still grieving for her in 1859, so a friend put her in touch with a well-known spirit medium. She was so struck by her one session that she decided herself to train as a spirit medium. This she did very rigourously, with the backing of her mother and underpinned by her deeply-held Christian belief. In due course, she evolved from "table tipping" to creating, initially, freehand semi-realistic images in watercolour and gouache that were "led" by a number of spirit guides, as she called them.
Georgiana's first works were communications, she believed, with family members, under guidance from a man called Henry Lenny, described as a "deaf and dumb artist".
Later work, in 1861, was guided by many other spirits and Georgiana became more assured and more ambitious in this work in which she believed very deeply. She was so serious about all the symbolic nature of these works that behind each one, she wrote out extensive explanations of what everything meant, and who was her guide and guardian as she worked on it.
From semi-realistic images of flowers and fruit at the beginning, Georgiana evolved to what we would term abstraction, with an amazing welter of swirling, assured lines, luminous and compelling. As you go around this exhibition at the Courtauld, there are large magnifying glasses available with which to view the works. As you look, there are no hesitant lines visible, even the finest "pen line" in watercolour, no erasures nor alterations. It is just astounding. Granted, the image sizes are within the sweep of a hand, but nonetheless, that does not explain this phenomenal sureness of hand. Nor the inventiveness of these energetic swirls, filigree, curlicues.
After a period, Georgiana added in white gouache fine, spiderweb-like lines and pearled beads of white which added yet a further dimension to these intense swirls of energy, passion and belief. It is breathtaking work! Only one realistic image appears in one piece - a face of Christ. Otherwise everything is abstract; yet, to Georgiana, apparently, it was all representing what her spirits told her to do. She claimed to carry on complicated conversations with on-lookers while working "automatically" on her drawing, with her guide using her as a medium to create the work.
By 1871, with a large body of work completed, she realised her dream of exhibiting these drawings in London, at her own expense. Georgiana spent every day at the exhibition, explaining, answering questions and trying to convert people to the spiritualist cause. Nonetheless, the exhibition totally baffled most of the press and much of the public and was not a financial success in any way. Poor Georgiana was up against prevailing work being shown by the pre-Raphaelites or Whistler - it was very different from her work.
She did not return to spirit drawing for several years after the show debacle. When she did, the work was far denser and far less lyrical, to my taste. Nonetheless, her role in the spiritualist world remained central to her and she was well-known in spirit medium circles. She died in 1884, and only the works preserved in Australia, and one or two others in Europe are known to us today.
The other aspect of these remarkable drawings is their abstract nature. De facto, she was decades ahead of Kandinsky, for instance. She was also much earlier than the other surprise artist discovery of recent times, another single woman artist who also believed her art was channeling spritis, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). Granted, Georgiana did not set out to create non-realistic art as such, but she did achieve a body of work totally different, radical and to our eyes today, abstract.
As I walked out of the Georgiana Houghton exhibition, I decided it was almost academic whether this was abstract art, or even how she had created it. It was just astounding, elegant, passionate and fascinating work that any artist would be very proud indeed to claim.