Victorian Abstract: Georgiana Houghton's Spirit Drawings to go on show at The Courtauld

By Mark Sheerin | 02 March 2016

The Courtauld prepares to show how Victorian medium Georgiana Houghton pre-empted Abstract Art with her Spirit Drawings

Dramatic abstract watercolour which resembles extravagant plumage
Georgiana Houghton, The Eye of God, c.1862© Victorian Spiritualists' Union Melbourne, Australia
The dead come back to visit us and nowhere is that more true than within the realm of culture. Most believe that it was Kandinsky who invented abstraction in 1911. But in recent years several undead rivals have emerged. The battle for this place in art history is being fought from beyond the grave.

In 1906 Swedish artist Hilma Af Klimt painted visual impressions of her esoteric beliefs. And as early as 1871 Georgiana Houghton took her own cue from the spirit world and put together what, for the time being, must be the western world’s first ever show of abstract watercolours.

Some 155 of her colourful if spooky and schematic paintings went on show at the new British Gallery on Old Bond Street. Only one sold and now only 50 or so remain in known existence. So it seems the market has worked with the passing of time to erase Houghton from our collective memories.

Abstract watercolour with mesh of white contour-like lines
Georgiana Houghton, Glory be to God, c.1868© Victorian Spiritualists' Union Melbourne, Australia
Yet this summer she has a show at the Courtauld. And for those of us without access to a ouija board, she can no longer be ignored. You don’t have to sign up to the spiritualist patter to lose yourself in the ineffable.

Of particular interest are the passages of automatic writing on the back of each work, which relates the meaning of each visual. Readers will discover some quite formidable spirits guiding Houghton’s brush. These include Titian and Correggio, two giants of representation.

So, come June you can pay your respects to Georgiana Houghton, the world’s first abstract artist. Just don't bet against 21st century art historians finding yet another precursor.

Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is at the Courtauld Art Gallery from June 16 to September 11 2016. Admission £9. Open 10am – 6pm daily.

Semi-abstract watercolour of vegetation
Georgiana Houghton, The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861© Victorian Spiritualists' Union Melbourne, Australia
Abstract painted design with icon-like face of Jesus
Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1862© Victorian Spiritualists' Union Melbourne, Australia
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