Given that the Courtauld Institute and Gallery, both part of the premises of London’s iconic Somerset House, boast such an impressive and art-historically significant permanent collection, any temporary exhibition hosted within the space must be not only mindful of the location and its heritage, but equally must be seen to be doing, and saying, something different. Potentially never has this been executed as dynamically as with Courtauld Gallery’s summer showcase, ‘Spirit Drawings’, a series of works by eighteenth century spiritual medium, Georgiana Houghton.
Interestingly, the majority of pieces in this one-room show are in fact watercolours, in contrast to what the title suggests. This is not the only curatorial paradox in the show, as it is stated that Houghton did not want viewers of her work to be inundated with technical or background information, but for us to become accustomed to her style, palettes and various meanings through her aesthetic consistency. However as is the norm for highly popular institutional art shows, the viewer is made aware of every technique used by the artist, (or ‘medium’ as she would have preferred) as well as the exact date of each piece. This is a rather divisive strategy, given Houghton’s personal requests, yet ultimately one that ensures each visitor is equally informed of this abstract, highly unique body of work. Most evident of these ideas is found in pieces in which Houghton believes to have been guided by the spirit of a named individual, such as the first painting, ‘Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny’. Knowing that certain colours, visual textures and symbols were employed to convey particular idiosyncrasies in Lenny’s character is certainly essential in understanding the exhibition fully. As Houghton’s work was largely forgotten after her death, and works have not been shown since her self-funded and promoted exhibition in 1871, the Courtauld’s curators can comfortably assert that a primer of ‘Spirit Drawings’ is required at the beginning of this public showing.
While circulating around the gallery, it is refreshing and exciting to lose context of the time, which was something that feels apt given that Houghton believed that none of the work she produced was courtesy of herself; instead, spirits of loved ones and renowned people facilitated the painting, bearing similarities to Surrealist automatism. This said, while it is easy to get lost in the transfixing aesthetic of the paintings, various elements of the work such as religious symbolism bind Houghton’s thoughts, beliefs and oeuvre succinctly. Arguably it is up to the individual viewer as to whether this work is still potent today, or whether it is merely a captivating look back into an historical moment.
The exclusive nature of works in ‘Spirit Drawings’, in that they have been so rarely seen, further increases the value of witnessing the works amongst the Courtauld Gallery collection, as these almost psychoanalytical paintings find themselves amid works by Lucien Freud, Vincent van Gogh et al and present a melancholy narrative of overlooked themes and talent from a refreshingly alternative angle. Intriguingly, the curators include a small detail towards the end of the show about Houghton’s immaterialised ambition of organising a group exhibition of Spiritualist artists, which very much leaves the metaphorical door open to ensure this work is neither forgotten nor left dormant in archives.
By Issey Scott
Georgiana Houghton ‘Spirit Drawings’, until 11 September 2016, at Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN. Daily 10am-6pm.