In the Victorian Era, British artist Georgiana Houghton made vivid paintings in watercolor, pencil, and ink on paper. Her small to medium sized work consisted of colorful swirls, dots, spirals, feathery marks, scrolls, lattice work, traceries of delicate lines, and assorted shapes and forms of visual energy. Her work is truly one of the earliest examples of abstract art in modern times.
Houghton was trained in classical art but gave up painting after the death of her younger sister in 1851. Ten years later she developed an interest in spiritualism and the occult and began to make art again. She worked with colored pencils and watercolors on paper, making patterns of jewel-like motifs. Their density depicted otherworldly realms and were among the first non-figuative, abstract art in the western world. Houghton called these works her ‘spirit drawings’.
Houghton and author Victor Hugo (b. 1802) were dabbling in pure abstraction in the mid-19th century some fifty years before Hilma af Klint (b. 1862), who has been described as the inventor of abstract art. Yet Houghton’s work predates the work of Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich by half a century.
Like Victor Hugo and Hilma af Klint, Houghton was painting an invisible spirit world. All three artists used color, line, shape, and form to explore their personal representations of reality – just not the reality that the human eye could see. She had only one exhibit in her lifetime in 1871 when ten years of her work was shown on Bond Street in London. The reception for her abstractions was poor, and her work was ridiculed.
The Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia is the primary repository of her work, which resurfaced in a 2016 exhibition at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. There were 22 of Houghton’s works shown. Many had her texts written on the back of each painting, which explained how her spiritualism found its way into each work. At the exhibit viewers were invited to use magnifying glasses to see and appreciate her delicate markings. Texts were able to be read since the works were encased in glass allowing viewers to see both sides of a painting.