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Georgiana Houghton: A Pioneer of Modern Abstraction

Georgiana Houghton was a British artist and spiritualist medium who created some of the most astonishing abstract artworks of the 19th century. She claimed that her paintings were not the product of her own imagination, but the result of direct communication with the spirit world. In this blog post, I will explore the life and work of this remarkable woman and artist, who anticipated the abstract art of Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and others by half a century.

Houghton was born in 1814 in Las Palmas, Gran Can aria, to British parents. She was the seventh of twelve children, two of whom died in infancy. Her father was a foreign merchant who frequently travelled overseas, while her mother was a devout Christian who instilled in her children a strong sense of faith and morality. Houghton showed an early interest in art and received some formal training, but she did not pursue it as a career. Instead, she devoted herself to charitable and religious activities, such as teaching Sunday school and visiting the poor.

In 1859, Houghton attended her first séance and became fascinated by spiritualism, a movement that emerged in the mid-19th century that claimed that the living could communicate with the dead through mediums. Houghton soon developed her own mediumistic abilities and began to produce what she called “spirit drawings” in 1861. These were abstract watercolor paintings that she made under the guidance of various spirits, such as deceased relatives, famous artists, angels and even God himself. She believed that these drawings were not only artistic expressions, but also visual proofs of the existence and influence of the spirit world.

Houghton’s spirit drawings are remarkable for their complexity, vibrancy and originality. They consist of intricate swirls, loops, spirals and curves of different colors that form harmonious compositions. Some of them resemble flowers, fruits or flames, while others are completely non-representational. Houghton explained that each element in her paintings had a symbolic meaning that related to the spirit who inspired it or the message it conveyed. For example, she wrote that “the circle represents God without beginning or end”, “the spiral represents the life of man”, “and the red color represents love” and so on.

Houghton was not alone in producing spirit art in Victorian England. She was part of a network of female mediums and artists who shared similar practices and beliefs, such as Anna Howitt Watts, Elizabeth Wilkinson, Barbara Honywood, Catherine Berry and Alice Pery. These women challenged the conventional norms of art and society by creating unconventional artworks that expressed their spiritual visions and experiences. They also claimed a degree of authority and autonomy that was rare for women at the time, as they asserted their direct connection to higher powers and their ability to reveal hidden truths.

In 1871, Houghton decided to exhibit her spirit drawings to the public at the New British Gallery in Bond Street, London. She hoped that this would attract more attention and appreciation for her work, as well as spread the message of spiritualism to a wider audience. She displayed 155 paintings with detailed explanations of their meanings and origins. However, the exhibition was not a success. Although some visitors were intrigued or impressed by her paintings, many others were baffled or amused by them. The critics were mostly dismissive or hostile, calling her work the most astonishing and amusing caricature of art. Houghton also failed to sell any of her paintings, except one that was bought by a friend. She lost a lot of money on the exhibition and was deeply disappointed by its outcome.

Houghton continued to produce spirit drawings until her death in 1884, but she never exhibited them again. Her paintings were largely forgotten or ignored by art historians for over a century. However, in recent years, there has been a renewed interest and appreciation for her work and its significance. Several exhibitions and publications have featured her paintings and explored their historical, artistic and spiritual contexts. Houghton is now recognized as not only a pioneer of spirit art, but also of modern abstraction, as she anticipated the formal and conceptual innovations of later artists who were also influenced by spiritual themes. Houghton’s spirit drawings are not only remarkable artworks, but also fascinating documents of a woman’s life, faith and creativity in the 19th century.

See her beautiful paintings at: Georgiana Houghton | Ballyhoo Art Posters

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