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Spirit-Generated Art, 1871: Far-outside Outsider Art

JF Ptak Science Books    Post 1402

Houghton219 This slim booklet,  Catalogue of the Spirit Drawings in Water Colours, Exhibited at the New British Gallery, Old Bond Street (London: 1871), offered descriptions of the work of  Georgiana Houghton (b. 1814), an artist who in some way communicated with the spirit world, and allowed her art to be guided by it. She writes in the very first paragraph of her catalog's introduction, "the execution of the Drawings my hand has been entirely guided by Spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced..."  She explains that the spirits were definitely those of dead people, and after having heard of such possibilities of communication as early as 1859 set out to "obtain mediumship"  by holding hands with her mother at a small table for some months on end waiting for contact--which of course she says happened.  Sundays worked best, "as we should then be less disturbed by evil influences".   The spirits would communicate at first by table movement, then tapping,  and then through the alphabet by the use of a planchette. So it seems to me that given that she had abandoned her own input in the creative process (even though she had a history of formal art education or instruction), and that the inspiration she received seemed not to be her own, that Miss Houghton was an outsider-Outsider artist, pursuing the spoken artistic needs of others, and then providing her own interpretations of the forms and colors. (We offer the original copy of this catalog at our blog bookstore.)

It seemed that Miss Houghton was inspired by the spirit drawings of a Miss Wilkinson--it was then that she sought the artistic guidance of a dead artistic sister though without success, and then from a dead brother.  It was the brother who brought her into contact with dead Henry Lenny ("a deaf and dumb artist") who then guided her hands at first with the planchette, then with a pencil, and finally to watercolors. 

After ten years of her own spirit drawings, Miss Houghton produced for herself a four-month show at the New British Gallery on Old Bond Street, exhibiting 155 of her works, all exhibited in rented frames for the occasion.  Her reviews seem to have been very-light and  mixed at best,  and for all of her effort and trouble, she sold only one painting,  She did however produce a catalog of the exhibition, which was a great aid to the viewer as the interpretations of the meanings of the forms and colors that Miss Houghton used were written on the backs of the artworks, which were hidden from view by the frames--many of the paintings' meanings were annotated in the catalog.


Miss Stoughton was hardly alone in this field of representing what seems to have been a very actice after-life of the dearly departed, though it seems that not as many participated in her own brand of automatic representation than other methods of spirit communication.  She did appear at the beginning of what would become a significant culture of spiritualism, with spiritual manifestation, telepathic communication from one person to another and then to the dead, thought transference and  magnetisation.  The evidence of spiritual contact was produced on high levels, not the least of which were seances in which the dead appeared as floating ghosts filled with quiet or phantasmal groans and noises, sometimes luminous, sometimes leaving the medium's body as colored smoke, sometimes appearing as an electric spark, or an imprint on a photographic plate, or an aural shadow produced in iron filings, or an impression made in clay or other accepting materials2.  They offered possibilities for hope and belief that are no less vigorous than our own today, save for their technological limitations.  (An interesting article, "Proof Positive, the Photomatic Body in fin-de-siecle Science, by Alessandro Violi, can be seen here.)

There is a very interesting article on Houghton and the exhibition by Rachel Oberter called  "Esoteric Art Confronting the Public Eye:  the Abstract Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton" which was published in Victorian Studies 48.2 (2005) 221-232.  About the pre-Abstract abstract and proto-impressionist work, Oberter says:

"Given the lack of abstraction within Victorian visual culture, watercolors such as those painted by the artist Georgiana Houghton in the 1860s and 1870s seem shockingly out of place. In her work The Eye of God from 1862, we see a tangle of transparent straight, wavy, and spiraling lines flowing out of the left corner of the paper and up from the bottom edge of the page as white filaments float across the surface. No recognizable forms appear; all that is visible are lines and colors—yellow, sepia, and blue. There is an organic quality to the undulations, a sense of microscopic detail, and a feeling of being in a deep-sea world or otherwise mysterious place. The vagueness of the imagery contrasts with the specificity of the title, which evokes a dense underlying symbolism. Houghton attributed meaning to particular shapes, colors, and directions in her paintings. While her works were abstract, they remained representational."

"The most important tools for decoding these works are the explanations that Houghton wrote on the backs of the drawings [above] . These elaborate descriptions provide a key to the symbolism in the drawing, clarify the message of each work, and name the spirit who acted as Houghton's guide in the creative process. Houghton believed that these explanations were written by the spirits through her hands; they are automatic writings that complement her automatic drawings. The same spirit who inspired the drawing provided the interpretation on the back—the explanations, one could say, came directly from the source."

The catalog does give Biblical references for every one of the works, giving at least a location in the Bible for every artwork.  There are occasional (though sparse) longer descriptions of the work, though the great majority give Biblical citations for what each of the paintings represents. 

Also of interest is Ms. Oberter's description of the gallery event:

"...in 1871 she exhibited her works in a more formal venue: she organized an exhibition at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street in London. The exhibition, entitled "Spirit Drawings in Water Colours," lasted for four months and consisted of 155 of Houghton's watercolors. She rented frames for the occasion and hung the watercolors against the walls of the gallery. This arrangement meant that the backs with the explanations would not have been visible. Yet it was still critical for Houghton that she convey this hidden information to her viewers. In her autobiography Houghton recalled: "The chief object aimed at in this Exhibition, was not so much to display the wondrous powers of the unseen intelligences, as to manifest unflinchingly to the world that true Spiritualism is inextricably bound up with the religion of the Sacred Scriptures" (Houghton, Evenings 2: 53). It was not enough for Houghton that the drawings serve as proof of communication between spirits and humans; it was also important that they convey the relationship between Spiritualism and Christian theology, particularly the insights that the spirits give about God and the Trinity."

 The artwork of Miss Houghton is an interesting blip in the history of Victorian art, and I'm not exactly sure what to say about it.  It certainly occurs during the first wave of Impressionism, and is wholly different from that new art form as well as the high Victorian fashion of the time; it also is entirely non-representational, an abstract art that precedes that revolutionary phase by about forty years.  Its a little puzzling to me, especially since Miss Houghton seems to have escaped virtually any sort of lasting review or critique.  But again Mrs. Stoughton is not alone in the non-representational art field apart from the automatic spirit manifestations--for example, in addition to an enormous literary output, Victor Hugo produced some 4,000 pieces of art, some of which are exceptional examples (to my mind) of non-representational art that came in a period decades before the Kandinsky and the rest.  Here is Hugo's "Evocation of an Island":

Evocation of an island Painting - Evocation of an island Fine Art Print

He was certainly outside the mainstream of Victorian art, and even well outside that of Impressionism. 

There was also Hilma of Klint (b. 1862), a woman who like Stoughton also represented the spirit world through her art, and who began painting in non-representational and abstract ways beginning in 1897/8, an example of which is below:

  Hilma klint

Miss Houghton went on to improve her representation of the spirit world through photography, a very wide selection of her work being available at the Keith De Lellis Gallery, here.

In the realm of extra-sensical belief, I'm not so sure that these brands of spiritualism would be too much different from any other belief in things that cannot be seen, or heard, or felt in any detectable way, a prayer by any other name.


1. Our catalog was the property of William Crookes (with his bookplate, and with a signed inscription to him from "Miss Houghton")  who was an eminent British chemist and physicist and a pioneer in the field of vacuum technology (and remembered now mostly for the Crookes Tubes and his superior approach to experimentation).  He was interested in spiritualism from about the year 1869, pursuing it until his death in 1919.  He was hardly alone in his interests among highly-paced British intellectual elite:  Alfred Russell Wallace, Lord Rayleigh, Oliver Lodge and William James were all extremely interested in the spiritualism phenomenon.  Curious. 


Imprints of ghost hands and faces
Imprints of ghost hands and faces produced by Eusapia Palladino, from Bozzano, Ipotesi spiritica, 1903, in C. Lombroso Ricerche..., 1909


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Replies to This Discussion

I just recently sold a book for a client on the same subject. It is a very unusal aspect to both art and literature. Most people today would "shrug" it off as nonsense. This is mostly due to Houdini's insight, and his telling of the tricks of the trade that he witnessed.

I wonder about the values of any of this art in today's market?


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