We tend to think of abstract art as a relatively recent phenomenon, something sprung from the psychedelia of the 1960s and yet one woman was a hundred years ahead of her time, the spiritualist artist Georgiana Houghton.
Houghton was born in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, in 1814, the seventh of twelve children of the merchant George Houghton and the family variously lived in London and Madeira, as well as the Canary Islands.
Little is known about her early life or how, or if, she received any training as an artist but by 1859 she had become an ardent and well-known promoter of spiritualism and was producing what she called spirit drawings at private séances which she claimed was a means of channelling and expressing communications with the dead.
Houghton would draw complex, colourful and layered watercolours that anticipated the works both of abstract 20th-century artists and the later automatic and unconscious drawing of the Surrealists.
She initially said she used deceased members of her family as spirit guides, such as her late sister Zilla, but later communed with the Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio. Whatever the truth, the results were quite extraordinary.
In 1871, Houghton hired a gallery in Bond Street to exhibit 155 of her drawings and spent every day there for three months to discuss them with visitors. The public reaction was mixed, one newspaper calling it ‘the most astonishing exhibition in London at the present moment’ while the Daily News said ‘they deserve to be seen as the most extraordinary and instructive example of artistic aberration’.
Despite the publicity, the exhibition was not a commercial success and almost bankrupted Houghton, but she continued with her spirit drawings until her death in 1884.
About fifty of her works are known to exist, most of them in Australia, and the rest might still be out there somewhere. Meanwhile, a solo exhibition of Houghton’s spirit drawing opened at the Courthauld Institute of Art last year, the first time they had been displayed in the UK since 1871.