It is London in the summer of 1871. Queen Victoria has just opened the Royal Albert Hall in memory of her beloved husband; Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland has just been published, and French refugees from the Franco-Prussian war continue to arrive in the capital. Among them is Claude Monet, who is having a miserable time in the fog and mist. Not far from the Thames views that he had been painting, a fellow artist has just opened her first exhibition of 155 ‘Spirit Drawings’ in a gallery on Old Bond Street, in the heart of London’s art quarter.
She was Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), a 57-year-old London-based middle-class artist and celebrated spiritualist who had for the previous ten years been feverishly working behind closed doors on a series of abstract coloured drawings, which had been produced ‘guided’ by the hand of spirits. Now, with the encouragement of both an artist friend and her ‘invisible friends’, she felt ready to show her extraordinary endeavours to the world.
What she put on display was unlike anything any western artist had made, or any member of the British public had ever seen. The watercolour drawings, a little larger than A4, were intricately detailed abstract compositions filled with sinuous spirals, frenetic dots and sweeping lines. Yellows, greens, blues and reds battled with each other for space on the paper. The densely layered images appeared to have no form, and no beginning or end. There was no traditional perspective to enjoy. There was no mythological subject to interpret; no moral narrative to read, and no hint of portraiture or landscape to scrutinise. Instead, each work was accompanied by a detailed text written in her spidery writing outlining its spiritualist meaning. The drawings were titled accordingly with names such as ‘The Eye of God’ and ‘The Hand of the Lord and Heavenly Hopes’.
Houghton had been formally trained as an artist, possibly in France though we can’t be sure.