Georgiana Houghton – Spirit Drawings (The Courtauld Gallery, June-September 2016)

One of the surprises of the recent Georgiana Houghton exhibition at the Courtauld, especially for those attracted solely by the epic-looking posters on the Tube, is how small her works are. None of the drawings exceed 50cm in height, and many are taller than they are wide.

The magnifying glasses provided gratis by the Courtauld seem to change these measurements. They don’t just make them seem larger, almost human-size: they change the frames and boundaries themselves. Hold the glass to your eye and the corner of the drawing’s frame gets sucked into the frame of the magnifying glass. The picture is no longer rectangular but receding, and you feel you might be receding with it – such is the fluidity and force of direction of her gouache lines.

Almost all the paintings are watercolour and gouache on paper; the rest are ink inscriptions on the back of the paintings, or in some cases drafts of the final products, such as The Spiritual Crown of Mrs Oliphant.

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The Spiritual Crown of Mrs Oliphant (final version, 1867)

‘The Spiritual Crown of So-and-So’ is a recurring title. Houghton, who’d lost four of her nine siblings by the age of 45, saw herself as a medium, helping people connect with the spiritual realm but seeing herself simply as a vessel for afflatus. Sometimes this inspiration was being channelled from her antecedents, among which she included Titian (who “guided” her 1866 work The Eye of the Lord), Royal Academy of Arts president Sir Thomas Lawrence (The Sheltering Wing of the Most High, 1862), or the deaf and dumb artist Henry Lenny (Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861). Often she credited her work to archangels. Navan the Extender, Misrael the Hastener, Ferdael the Imaginative and Morglen the Serious are all credited on the back of her 1870 work The Eye of the Lord. All four archangels are impervious to Googling, suggesting that she may have made them up – an idiosyncratic approach to religion that informs much of her work.

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The Eye of the Lord (1870)

The Eye of the Lord is a particularly interesting painting. The eye is located in the lower third and centre of a soft-edged trapezoid, making it look like the profile view of a sperm whale’s head. Houghton’s marine imagery does not come only in cetacean forms: there are the cephalopodic tentacles of The Love of God, the lambent jellyfish of The Risen Lord and the nautili of The Glory of the Lord (all 1864 drawings).

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The Risen Lord (1864)
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The Glory of the Lord (1864)

These visual echoes of natural forms mark a maturation from her early works, which in the very early 1860s were predominantly floral. Even these, less abstract than her later art, were intimately linked to human sensibilities: the finely rendered plants captured in Flower of Zilla Warren and Flower of Warrand Houghton functioned as a kind of biomass for representations of her siblings that still tingle with electricity. All her floral works are characterised by fine yellow filaments, lightly drawn yet always erupting from the ovaries, covering swathes of the canvas in thin yellow threads.

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Flower of Zilla Warren (1861)
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Flower of Warrand Houghton (1861)

By the autumn of 1862 these threads (biological, material) had given way to white spidery ones (spiritual, spectral) – ‘pearled forms’ that for her symbolised God’s ‘wondrous attributes’. There is a clear development from her 1862 work The Eye of God to the aforementioned Sheltering Wing of the same year: the lines in the latter cascade into each other, somehow seeming both careless and determined, with plenty of layering of lines and line textures – a kind of superposition.

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The Eye of God (1862)
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The Sheltering Wing of the Most High (1862)

By 1864 she’d developed further still: in The Glory of God, iridescent white dominates rather than flavours the piece, its milky strands forming tunnels and spirals that seem less random and more fractal than the lines in her earlier work. Unbelievably fine line-drawing is on display here: inspection through the magnifying glass reveals many of the lines were done by pointillism.

It’s surely no coincidence that the works most covered in limpid trails of white all have ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ in the title: Glory Be To God, The Risen Lord, The Love of God and The Strength of the Lord, to name a few. Far more unexpected – and more fascinating – is how her work prefigures, no doubt inadvertently, our modern representations of the working of the brain. (As it happens, ownership of the artworks is shared by the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union and the College of Psychic Studies.) The white strands resemble nothing so much as dendrites, charged with unconscious signals and messages, flinging out contingent neural pathways that fly through bursts of colour. To the post-Enlightenment viewer, though Houghton may not have intended it, it’s a powerful reminder of the mysteries of the nervous system and of the equal necessity – possibly even the symbiosis – of rationality and spirituality, empiricism and instinct.

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Rat’s brain cells. Image: Gerry Shaw

Indeed, much of her work can be seen as a by-product of European Romanticism, though her best work was done after most of the great Romantics had died. The Monogram of Cromwell Varley reveals a darker side to her work, with less light and less white. It is nonetheless fiercely abstract, like most of her art. Varley’s initials are faintly discernible, roundly contorting their way up and down the paper – ‘recognisable,’ in Houghton’s evangelical phrasing, ‘by those who have not yet accepted Spiritualistic teachings.’ She rarely got specific in her religiosity. Her 1862 work Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ is an exception, and comes with a curiously demystifying note: on the back she explains that each funnel, spiral and set of entrails corresponds to a religious figure or concept, including Luke, John, Revelations and The Acts. Her spirit guide for this work was Saint Luke, who in Christian tradition is seen as the first icon painter. Portrait took 28 days to complete.

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Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (1862)
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Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (annotations on the reverse)

After her 1871 exhibition at the New British Gallery on Bond Street – a self-funded exhibition that hollowed out the unmarried 57-year-old’s savings, and resulted in some critical acclaim but only one sale – Houghton took a four-year break. When she returned, it was with less transformative and less fluid results. The few ’70s works we have hold no surprises; an untitled work of August 1875 looks like onions lying on their side. But since only 40 or so of her works have survived, we must take what we can get. Houghton herself stated, in her matter-of-fact way, that her work was ‘without parallel in the world’, and she was right. It took the world quite some time to catch up.

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