Australian Exhibition of Spirit Art & Artefcts 1885 © Vivienne Roberts 2019
One of the rewards of being an archivist and curator is finding hitherto undiscovered facts about an artist. Whilst researching Georgiana Houghton’s past exhibitions for this website I came across one such gem in the form of a 19th century Australian newspaper cutting. It provided evidence that her work was seen in Australia as early as 1885 and could offer a clue to why Australia is the largest repository of Houghton’s work in the world today.
We are aware of only 46 extant works by Houghton. There are a few in private hands and one in the ABCD Collection in France, but the majority have been preserved in Spiritualist institutions. There are 7 in an album at The College of Psychic Studies (formerly the London Spiritualist Alliance) in London. As Houghton was a founding member of the Alliance in 1884 it is not surprising that her works would be found there. However, the fact that the largest surviving collection of 35 drawings made their way to the Victorian Spiritualist Union (VSU) in Melbourne, Australia has always been a mystery. Several explanations have been proposed, but none have mentioned an exhibition that took place in Melbourne not long after Houghton had died. It was an exciting find that could potentially lead the way to solving the mystery surrounding the provenance of the VSU drawings.
Houghton died aged 69 in March 1884 without leaving a will. Her belongings, including her precious artworks, were left at the mercy of family members who were unfamiliar with spiritualistic matters and had no contact with her spiritualist circles. Also, her closest friend and fellow spiritualist, Mrs Tebb was in Algiers and unable to convey what Houghton’s wishes were for her art. On April 11th, the spiritual press reported their fears for the collection stating: “It is to be regretted that she made no disposition of her effects. Some steps should be taken to have the full collection of her drawings preserved in some public institution. They are well worthy of such care, and as an example of highly artistic work, produced without the usual artistic effort or experience, they are truly wonderful, and a great psychological curiosity”. It also mentioned that her relatives buried Houghton’s body with her stuffed dove and framed wreaths of flowers that had been a precious gift from the spirit world. Her family thought they were “better placed thus away, than to become desecrated by passing hand to hand or into wilful neglect.” Fortunately, there isn’t any mention that her artworks were treated in the same way. Several of the drawings found homes with individual family members, and apart from the ones we know today the fate of the rest is unknown.
It was at this time, on the other side of the world, that an idea was proposed that would fortuitously introduce Houghton’s art to Australia. The Victorian Association of Spiritualists in Melbourne, as the VSU was formerly known, wanted to arrange a celebration for the 37th anniversary of the birth of Modern Spiritualism which had begun with the Fox sisters in 1848. Part of the celebration would be an exhibition which was agreed by the committee in December 1884. In February 1885 they sent word to their spiritualist friends in London to request the loan of artworks and objects for the show. The event took place from March 31st to April 2nd, 1885 at the local Athenaeum. It was a grand event and many artworks were displayed including originals by Houghton of which one, called ‘Elementaries,’ was described in the press as being “graded off from perfect human heads, displaying various emotions, to a single eye which seemed a vortex of intelligence”. There were also photographs of an engraving by Victorien Sardou and mediumistic pencil drawings executed by Houghton’s friend, Alice Pery. There was even a crystal, formerly the property of the late Cromwell F Varley, believed to have originally belonged to Nostradamus. These treasures were reported to have been lent by a man who had not long returned from Europe. This would hint that Georgiana’s art had been introduced to Australia via a spiritualist path, and not, as is often thought, by Houghton’s sister Helen Watt who had settled in Australia in 1868.
What is still a mystery is whether the works on display in 1885 stayed in Australia to form part of the VSU collection or were returned to this gentleman. It’s even possible that they found their way to the recently established College of Psychic Studies, as coincidentally in their collection is an album of original watercolours by Georgiana, several of the original photographs from 1874 of Miss Pery’s pencil drawings and an engraving by Victorien Sardou. What doesn’t fit into that hypothesis is that the unusually described semi-figurative artwork by Houghton called ‘Elementaries’ does not feature in any of the collections that exist today. The key lies in the identity of the lender, but subsequent investigation with the VSU did not find any likely candidates. The search continues, but hopefully another chance discovery of a small snippet of news will shed more light on the mystery.