Review: Georgiana Houghton, Courtauld Gallery

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You wait years for an art exhibition on the works of a medium and then two come along in quick succession… No sooner has the Serpentine Gallery exhibition on Hilma af Klint closed then the Courtauld has opened this new show on the work of Victorian spiritualist Georgiana Houghton.

Though the two women did not know each other – Georgiana working in Victorian England whilst Hilma lived in Sweden – but, like Hilma, Georgiana looked to the spirit world to guide her hand. Moreover, on several occasions she named specific spirits she channelled, whether they be her dead sister, the great Master, Titian, or even Saint Luke.

And who am I to argue?

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Georgiana’s works are radically abstract. Profoundly so. Unlike Hilma, there is little in the way of discernible form in any of her works. Yet, beyond the waves, pure abstract lines and a colour palette without harmony, it is possible to identify development in Georgiana’s style, and evolution in her work.

In the early years, you sense a botanical touch to her watercolours: Lines flow out like curved ferns, thick blends of green coming together into a narrow tip. Some, with their scattered tiny white rings form in patterns similar to, what we would recognise now, as octopus’s tentacles.

But this evaporates as Georgiana’s experience builds and her works evolve into paintings of pure abstraction. Swirls of white lines flow across rivers of blue, reds and greens.  In others, fireballs of many shades of red spin across vivid yellow skies. Georgiana noticed this too, remarking that it took her time to let go of any connection to form she recognised and fully trusting the spirits to lead her.

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It would be easy to assume that Georgiana’s connection to the spirits was momentary and these works, full of flow and drive, were produced in periods of great frenzy – but it seems not. These pieces often took days to complete.

At the time, there was quite an interest in Georgiana’s works – unorthodox as they were. In 1871 she put on a show of 155 of her spirit drawings. The critic from The Era newspaper pronounced it to be “The most astonishing exhibition in London at the present moment.” But the works bewildered many more and the show was a commercial failure.

Sadly, less than fifty of her works now remain. That the Courtauld have brought so many of these together is very impressive, and it affords us the opportunity to be as admiring and perplexed by her output as her peers, but also to see her as a pioneer – a woman artist whose pure abstract form predated the likes of Kandinsky and Mondrian by half a century.

Courtauld Gallery, London to September 11, 2016

Admission: Free with General admission to the Gallery (General admission: £7)

Image Credits:

  1. Georgiana Houghton (1814 –1884) The Eye of God c. 1862 Watercolour on paper, 54 x 44 cm Victorian Spiritualists’ Union Melbourne, Australia (The inscription on the reverse names Correggio as Houghton’s spirit guide)
  2. Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) The Flower of William Harman Butler, October 23rd 1861. Watercolour on paper, 51 x 42 cm. Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia
  3. Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) Glory be to God c.1868 Watercolour on paper, 49 x 55 cm Victorian Spiritualists’ Union Melbourne, Australia

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