I’ve recently been giving a couple of talks on Sunday afternoons in the gallery; it’s a great way of meeting some interesting people, and having a lively discussion about the works on display. My recent topic of conversation has been the Georgiana Houghton exhibition, a collection of 21 watercolour drawings that the British artist produced (ostensibly) through contact with the spirit world in 1860s to 1870s Victorian London. Houghton claimed to be in touch with various spirits including high Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Corregio, as well as deceased members of her immediate family, such as her brother Warrand, sister Rosalia and uncle William.
Her ‘spirit drawings’ are remarkable products of Victorian culture, and were produced about the same time that Claude Monet was painting the river Thames in an Impressionistic fog. If the fruits of his labour were seen as radical to a contemporary gaze, then how must a Victorian public have responded to Houghton’s endeavours, with their exotic colours and forms? Not very well at all is the answer. When she mounted an exhibition of her work in a gallery on Old Bond Street in 1871, critics responded with confusion, outrage, dismay, and bewilderment.
Nevertheless, Spiritualism had become very fashionable at the time in Victorian London, centred on the belief that contact with an ‘afterlife’ was possible through mediumship practices including séances. This fascination with the spirit world is unsurprising given the Victorians’ preoccupation with death. Not only did they introduce bells to coffins – lest any poor soul should be buried alive – but Victoria, following Albert’s death in 1861, elevated private mourning to a public level when she began to dress solely in black. With social and cultural upheaval in Victorian London, many women were beginning to enjoy greater private and public freedoms at home and work, and the dark environment of the séance room was a potentially liberating space for them to reside. Scientific expeditions were also gaining momentum during the period, alongside the doctrines of ethnography and anthropology, all of which reflected a desire to see and understand the surrounding world and, in doing so, find out more about the origins of man. It is perhaps only inevitable then that a question was also beginning to emerge of what might exist beyond life, and whether there was a contactable spirit realm.
Houghton’s work is fascinating for its pioneering use of largely abstract forms, which place her drawings closer in aesthetic terms to those of Kandinsky, or the Dadaists’ automated drawings produced in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps a contributing factor in her lack of recognition – until now – is not simply that she was a woman, but that she was producing these works 60 or 70 years too soon, before the existence of intellectual frameworks such as Freudian psychoanalysis that might have been used to understand and contextualise her drawings. I wonder if Houghton might even have been a synaesthete – there is something incredibly emotive and multisensory about her use of colour, shape, line and form.
But it is important to remember that these drawings are far from abstract. For the artist, they were highly symbolic, and she produced detailed explanations on the backs of each of them, painstakingly pointing out the different representational forms to the viewer.
Whilst Houghton is perhaps not an obvious choice for a dress historian, there is something about the thread-like lines and vibrant colours of her drawings that draw me in on a very visual – and unequivocally tactile – level. Professor David Lomas recently observed what he described as the ‘hair-like’ forms present in many of these images, suggesting a connection to be made with Victorian hair jewellery, and pointing out the interconnected processes of looking, and wanting to touch, but potentially also being touched by, Houghton’s spirit drawings.