georgiana houghton and tommy guppy
Georgiana Houghton with Tommy Guppy and spirit, photographed by Frederick Hudson in 1872. © Collection of The College of Psychic Studies, London.

Georgiana Houghton: Pioneering Spirit was published in Psychic News July 2016

Spirit art is generally perceived to have played a marginal role in the history of art. Although some observers acknowledge Spirit art had a considerable influence on Surrealism, it has remained virtually ignored by the mainstream art world and is usually consigned to reside under the umbrella of outsider art.

The exhibition of Georgiana Houghton’s abstract drawings, created mediumistically in Victorian Britain and currently on show at London’s Courtauld Gallery, will no doubt be the catalyst for a debate amongst art historians as to the rightful place in history of this artist and her astonishing artworks. Whatever the decision, Georgiana will now be recognised as the doyenne of spirit art and by some as a pioneer of modern art. So, who is this remarkable woman, garnering so much interest 130 years after her death?

Georgiana was born in 1814 in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, the seventh of twelve children of Anne and George Houghton. She grew up in London and spent time overseas due to her father’s work as a merchant. Little is known about her early life except that she was trained as an artist and gave up painting when her sister Zilla, also an accomplished artist, died in 1851.

In 1859 she attended a seance at the home of a well known medium, Mrs Mary Marshall, and from that moment Georgiana had unwavering belief in Spiritualism. She developed her own skills as a medium, starting with table tipping and receiving messages by the alphabet and planchette. By 1861 she was directly speaking in the voice of the spirit and spirit drawing. Her aim was to communicate with family and friends that had passed away, but she soon wanted to share her ‘delightful gift’. She began to speak out publicly, spreading the word of Spiritualism through her art, photography and writing as well as playing a prominent role in Spiritualist societies and regularly contributing to the Spiritual press.

Georgiana’s Spiritualist path was not always smooth. In 1861 she attended a seance where she showed her drawings. One attendee, an American medium, Manuel Eyre, felt compelled by spirit to urge Georgiana to give up her drawing mediumship because “the action of those brilliant colours would be injurious to the brain, and produce all kinds of dreadful calamities”. Georgiana responded that she would continue as long as her own spirit guides were supportive of her drawing mediumship, although the encounter did prompt her to reduce her artistic activity to just three hours a day. Her spirits told Georgiana that her “previous education had been given as a preparation for the work I was to do, and having in former years been accustomed to drawing flowers from nature, with all their brilliancy of colouring, my brain was already trained to bear what my eye was fitted to receive”.

It was not the end of the matter, as a short while later a Dr Dixon called upon Georgiana, ostensibly to talk on the subject of Spiritualism. However it soon became evident that a question had been raised as to her sanity. She challenged him outright and after a “tolerably lengthy interview he took his leave, with the words, both in Latin and English, that I had a sound mind in a sound body”.

Fortunately moments like these were rare and Georgiana had the strong support of several family members and a growing number of Spiritualist friends who were impressed with her spirit art and respected her ardent involvement in the movement. She developed her own seance circle and was invited to join many others where her mesmeric powers were frequently called upon to entrance others and facilitate mediumistic activity. She collected and promoted the art of other mediumistic artists and shared her skills and knowledge. Mediums such as Barbara Honywood and Alice Pery were among many others that benefited from Georgiana’s encouragement. Wednesday afternoons at home were given to a steady stream of visitors hoping to see her drawings and discuss Spiritualism. Before long Georgiana found herself entertaining aristocracy such as Lady Milford and Countess Poulett as well as prominent Spiritualists such as Sir Charles Isham, William Stainton Moses and Emma Hardinge Britten.

Georgiana’s reputation continued to rise and on the 4th January 1867 she was invited by the famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home to give a lecture at the opening of the Spiritual Athenaeum in London. The subject of the lecture was spirit drawing and Home had originally planned to give the lecture himself but, acknowledging Georgiana’s expertise, Home asked if she would take his place. As well as the lecture there were several spirit artworks on show, including two of Georgiana’s Monograms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It was Georgiana’s first exhibition and public account of her work.

Spurred on by this first taste of recognition, Georgiana’s creativity increased and four years later, in 1871, the hard work culminated in a four month exhibition at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street. The show consisted of 155 spirit drawings celebrating 10 years of her drawing mediumship. Georgiana framed the treasured works herself, wrote the catalogue, including a special edition for Queen Victoria, and attended the show nearly every day to be on hand to discuss her work and inform a new audience about Spiritualism. The show was a financial disaster with only one sale and one commission totalling 50 guineas. However Georgiana was delighted by the many visitors, especially the artists who were “struck by the harmonies of colour and novelties of manipulation”. There was also a high level of interest in Spiritualism giving Georgiana ”ample reason to believe that in the vital purpose of the exhibition the success has been far beyond what I could have hoped.”

Georgiana’s achievements did not stop at spirit art and just months after the exhibition she found herself at the start of a new phase of mediumship in England – spirit photography. On March 7th, 1872, through well-known Spiritualists Mr and Mrs Samuel Guppy, Georgiana met the photographer Frederick Hudson, who just a few days before had achieved England’s first spirit photograph. It thrilled Georgiana and she became a regular visitor over the next few years, making over 250 visits to Hudson’s studio where her mediumistic skills were apparently utilised to bring forth the spirits that appeared in the photographs. Hudson was occasionally exposed for having superimposed staged images of ‘spirits’, but his supporters maintained that many of the images were of recognised departed loved ones.

This new phenomenon attracted massive interest and Georgiana’s involvement did not go unnoticed amongst Spiritualist circles. Her tireless energy, honesty, passion and unstinting support for the cause led to a rise in her status. She was elected onto the council of the British National Association of Spiritualists in 1874 and went on to publish three books about her Spiritualist activities before becoming a founding member of the London Spiritualist Alliance, known today as the College of Psychic Studies.

Shortly after the founding of the London Spiritualist Alliance, Georgiana died after suffering a stroke. Although her accomplishments were considerable there were several ideas she didn’t get the chance to realise. She had been developing thoughts for another book and had pioneering plans to form a society of spirit artists whose “numerous varieties of style among drawing mediums would ensure a considerable amount of interest”. Georgiana believed that this interest would reduce the prejudice against Spiritualism. It is a fascinating prospect, Georgiana and her contemporaries Elizabeth Wilkinson, Anna Howitt Watts, Alice Pery and Barbara Honywood would have undoubtedly been founding members. It begs the question – if one spirit artist like Georgiana can undermine the history of modern art, what would the impact of a whole society be?

Georginana Houghton: Pioneering Spirit © Vivienne Roberts 2016