British Abstract Painting of the 1860s: The Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton written by Tom Gibbons and published in Modern Painters. Volume 1 Number 2 Summer 1988.

“Art historians generally assume that the first abstract painting was created by Wassily Kandinsky, inspired by Theosophy, in Munich, in 1910. This was the year that Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art. But the art history books will now have to be rewritten: Tom Gibbons shows how Georgiana Houghton, a British spiritualist anticipated Kandinsky by half a century.”

Gibbons’ article in 1988 was the first to stress the importance of Georgiana’s art in an art history context. It highlights the same arguments that still continue today with Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton, Agnes Pelton and other spirit inspired female abstractionists fighting to find their place in art history.

The article gives some an outline of Houghton’s life and an insight into her art from the collection of Houghton’s watercolours at the Victorian Spiritualist Union in Melbourne. They have 35, from 1861-77, which were believed to have been sent out to Australia for an exhibition or possibly via a family connection. There isn’t confirmation of how these works found their way to the VSU, but visit our exhibition page for recent research on this mystery.

Describing the artworks Gibbons states “Our own ability to ‘delight in the intricacy’ of Houghton’s work is enhanced by projecting slides of her paintings, high magnification revealing that despite their small size their effects are never cluttered and that their technical execution is immaculate. The content is not however intended to be merely decorative. Rather, it is visionary, prophetic and symbolic: a vehicle for the communication of transcendental realities lying beyond the world of everyday appearances.”

Gibbons poses Houghton as “a figure of crucial importance in the art history of the past two centuries.” where she finds a place amongst the accepted influences of modern art: Swedenborg, William Blake, the Varley family and Besant & Leadbeater’s Thought-Forms. Houghton anticipated the thought-forms in 1871 when she mentioned symbolically coloured auras in her work for the catalogue of her solo show in London.

Gibbons, in his British Abstract Painting of the 1860s of 1988, suggests an re-interpretation of early modernist abstraction which will include overlooked artists such as Georgiana Houghton. However, it is a slow process as even now, twenty two years later, frustrated art historians are still fighting the same battle.