The Victorian spiritualist claimed her abstract watercolours were guided by spirits of the other realm.

While it is not uncommon for painters to attribute the influence of Italian Renaissance artists in their work, for Georgiana Houghton this claim had a far more literal meaning.

A prominent medium in Victorian England, Houghton believed that drawing could be channelled as a method of communication with the spirit realm. Inscribed on the back of her vivid watercolours are declarations that her hand was guided by long-dead friends, family members and the ghosts of Titian and Correggio.

Largely abstract, Houghton’s paintings echo the radical aesthetics pioneered by Kandinsky and his contemporaries in the 20th century – yet predate them by more than half a century. In fact at the time they were produced, these works were almost completely unprecedented.

In 1871 Houghton exhibited her paintings at a gallery in Bond Street to a perplexed London audience. Critics were appalled by what appeared to be ‘tangled threads of coloured wool’ and derided them as ‘the most instructive example of artistic aberration’.

The exhibition was a commercial failure, putting an end to Houghton’s ambitions to popularise spirit drawing among the public. The small body of her work that is known of today is held by the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Australia, and this display at The Courtauld Gallery marks its first UK showing for nearly 150 years.

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