Laura Gascoigne

The mediums who pioneered abstract art

A new exhibition at the Drawing Room is opening up the canon to the visionary work of assorted cranks, crackpots and old dowagers

The mediums who pioneered abstract art
Eat your heart out, William Morris: ‘Abstracted Flowers’, date unknown, by Madge Gill. Credit: London Borough of Newham
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In the 1850s Britain was hit by an epidemic likened by The Illustrated London News to a ‘grippe or the cholera morbus’. It came from America rather than China and afflicted the mind rather than the body. The craze for table-turning was sparked in Hydesville, New York, in 1848 after two young sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, claimed to hear mysterious rappings in the floor of the family home and attributed them to a spirit called Mr Splitfoot.

Epidemics are by nature democratic, respecting neither education nor class. Eminent naturalists, scientists, novelists and social reformers were gripped by the grippe. When unseen forces such as electromagnetic waves were being discovered, who was to say they might not include channels for communication with the dead? In an age when few families, rich or poor, were untouched by premature bereavement there was a predisposition to belief. Spiritualism assumed the status of a religion presided over by a new class of mediums, mainly women, who seemed the natural conduits for spirit guides.

The fad might have left no physical trace had it not gelled with another Victorian female pastime: watercolouring. In 1856 Anna Mary Howitt, who had studied at Sass’s Academy with Holman Hunt and Rossetti, had a large-scale history painting of ‘Boadicea Brooding over her Wrongs’ rejected by the Royal Academy; when Ruskin told her to stick to painting pheasants’ wings, she had a breakdown and began making spirit drawings. Howitt never showed her drawings in public, but Georgiana Houghton was more ambitious. After losing a much-loved sister in 1851, Houghton had sought solace in table-turning and during seances began to make watercolour drawings with complex biomorphic patterns under the reported guidance of various spirits, including Titian and Correggio. In 1871 she exhibited 155 of them in a Bond Street gallery. Only one sold, and her most favourable critic compared her work to ‘a canvas of Turner’s over which troops of fairies have been meandering’. But two years ago an exhibition at the Courtauld renewed interest in Houghton, proposing her as a female pioneer of abstraction.

Now the same curators have collaborated on a Hayward Gallery Touring survey of two centuries of mediumistic art, with a first stop at London’s Drawing Room exploring the ‘potential to reveal what lies beyond the confines of the visible’ through works on paper by 26 artists, living and dead. The timing could not be better. There’s nothing like an IRL epidemic to spark an unhealthy interest in the beyond; the show coincides with the publication of a new Taschen tome on tarot and a tantra exhibition at the British Museum. It’s a New Age fest.

Women artists outnumber men by 17 to nine, but the show’s presiding genius, almost inevitably, is William Blake. It opens with one of his Visionary Heads, ‘The Spirit of Voltaire’ (c.1820) — the spectral product of a late-night sitting with John Varley — and a shadowy little ink drawing, ‘Laces and Ghosts’ (1855–6), by Victor Hugo from the period when the author of Les Mis — a prolific and highly inventive amateur artist — was experimenting with seances while in exile on Guernsey. Both are dwarfed by a monumental canvas by Augustin Lesage, a coal miner from the Pas-de-Calais who took up painting aged 35 in 1911 under instruction from his dead three-year-old sister. Lesage’s dizzyingly intricate ‘Symbolic Composition’ (1924) suggests massed ranks of Mighty Wurlitzers in the Egyptian style that seems to have resonated with spirit artists, perhaps because of its link with arcane cosmologies. It inspired the architectural settings of the mediumistic drawings of Walthamstow housewife Madge Gill, begun in 1918 after the loss of a son to the Spanish flu. Sometimes six yards long, Gill’s trademark black and white drawings crowded with female faces were said to be guided by the spirit of a Babylonian high priest called Myrninerest. They caused a sensation at the Whitechapel Gallery’s open exhibitions of the 1930s and 1940s. The coloured ink drawing on show here is smaller and more beautiful, a free-flowing design of plant forms in dark greens and purples that would make a fabulous furnishing fabric. William Morris, eat your heart out.

This is the sort of show where one makes discoveries. It was my first encounter with the work of Austin Osman Spare, an occultist ignored by the wider art world but something of a cult among death metal fans. His masterly draughtsmanship was matched by a maniacal imagination: in his fine pencil drawing of an awakening youth from the 1920s Michelangelo’s ‘Dream’ meets Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. A working-class prodigy who won a scholarship to the Royal College, Spare never tamed his inner outsider artist and developed his own magical philosophy. He was far too weird to get on in the art world, though he had a brief moment of celebrity during the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 when one news report hailed him as a precursor with the headline: ‘Father of Surrealism: He’s a Cockney!’ He capitalised briefly by releasing a set of surrealist Racing Forecast Cards but never thought much of surrealism or psychoanalysis, writing off Freud and Jung as ‘Fraud and Junk’.

You’re tempted to agree when you see the rather weedy surrealist drawings by Yves Tanguy and André Masson hanging beside his. The surrealists adopted the practice of automatism but discarded the spiritualist beliefs that fuelled it; while André Breton reproduced the 79-year-old Mme Fondrillon’s ‘Dessin Médianimique’ (1909) as a frontispiece to his surrealist magazine in 1925, he pooh-poohed mediums as pathetic old dowagers. He threw out the baby with the bathwater: without a motive force an automatic drawing is just a doodle, all method and no madness.

Surrealism got it wrong: art’s real enemy is not consciousness but self-consciousness. The contemporary artists in the next room adopt various strategies to escape its scourge — Anne Lislegaard made her 1990s ‘Liberty Bells’ drawings under hypnosis — but their work, too, seems to lack conviction. The exception is Ann Churchill (see p31), a former Vogue stylist who began making automatic drawings in the 1960s while her baby napped, inspired by a painting by Spare she had picked up on a market stall. Now in her 70s, she had her first solo show at Richard Saltoun last November. Her ‘Large Feather Scroll Drawing’ (2010), a vertical landscape of mountain-shaped feathers containing seeds of other mountains and planetary systems, uses the format of a Chinese scroll painting to enshrine esoteric ideas about life forms in nature. With its glowing colours and engrossing composition, it’s a truly ravishing piece of work.

The takeaway from this exhibition is that artistic inspiration doesn’t need to make sense to us if it motivates the artist. It’s one of a series of recent shows opening up the art historical canon to the attempts of assorted cranks, crackpots and pathetic old dowagers ‘to articulate realities beyond those with which we are familiar’ that are proving surprisingly popular with the public. An exhibition of the Swedish mediumistic painter Hilma af Klint broke all attendance records at the Guggenheim, New York, in 2018; now a film, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, is about to be released. A top student at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Art in the 1880s, the 5ft-tall af Klint was later inspired by spirit guides to create vibrant 10ft visualisations of the building blocks of life that anticipated — and dwarfed — the abstraction of her fellow theosophists Kandinsky and Mondrian. The film’s conclusion is that art history needs to be rewritten to accommodate this female pioneer who believed in ghosts. Certainly art historians should be more forgiving of artists’ foibles, for without them they would be out of a job. As the art critic Julia Voss wisely points out in the film: ‘If we start saying that artists with visions are not artists, then there’s very little art history left.’

Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist As Medium is at Drawing Room until 1 November (by timed slot, Wednesday–Sunday). The film Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint will be released in selected cinemas from 8 October.