Nineteenth-century visionary artist Georgiana Houghton believed in the healing qualities of her art, and she educated religious teachers and clergy about the nature of her spiritual images. This article examines Houghton’s mediumistic paintings and seeks to demonstrate how her experimentation with vibrant colors and manipulation of form prefigured early modernist painting techniques. In addition, this analysis expands on how Houghton transformed her knowledge of the tenets of Spiritualism, which she amalgamated with her understanding of the science of botany to produce flower form spiritual portraits that she later developed into complex visionary abstracted pictures.
Oberter, Esoteric Art229. Thirty-five of Houghton’s mediumistic paintings were donated to the still-active spiritualist community Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia in the early twentieth century. The watercolors line the wall of the meeting room, with a photograph of the text on the back hung below each watercolor.
Houghton, Evenings at Home1. 71. Houghton demonstrated a balanced perspective in her examination of Spiritual practice in the nineteenth century and believed that unbiased research was a necessary component to the progression of the movement. She wrote about the development of The Dialectical Society, which held one of its first meetings on 13 April 1869: “A very important step was now taken, which was an evidence how rapidly Spiritualism was making itself felt, so that it could no longer continue to be quietly ignored as a fallacy of fraud.” Houghton’s capacity to think critically was demonstrated when she wrote that the Dialectical Report had been “formulated into a volume” that she considered a valuable source of information and she did not “at all mind the antagonistic element it contains, because everyone who enters upon a study of the subject ought to see all that our opponents have to say, and their own common sense may sometime shew them what great unfairness is often exhibited. Besides which, we want no blind believers” (see Evenings at Home 1. 261–263).
Shteir, Cultivating Women13–15. In England, the artificial system for classifying plants that was promulgated by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus gave botany a boost, and the Linnaean system played a central part in making botany accessible to different groups and levels of enthusiasts. Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné) based his taxonomy on one diagnostic feature of a flower—the reproductive part. Linnaeus’s sexual system, as it was called, assigned taxonomic centrality to the part the flower plays in plant reproduction. He divided the plant kingdom into classes and orders by singling out the male and female reproductive parts of plants. As a theory about forms of order in nature, the Linnaean system, like any explanatory system, had many social meanings and was used for several different often contrasting purposes. An occasional poem from the 1780s, for example, represented Linnaean botany as a panacea for social disorder. One example describing the “Backwardness of the Spring Accounted For” depicts Jupiter descending to earth on May Day to look for signs of a burgeoning new season. Jupiter finds instead that Flora’s kingdom is in disarray, in a “confusion of Manners and Morals.” Flowers are acting out of turn, not respecting their elders and betters; the “Vagabond Fungus,” for example, is treading “on the toes of his highness the Oak.” See David E. Allen, The Naturalist in Britain.
Keeble 164–177. See also Stearn, “John Lindley” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Robert M. Hamilton has gathered and transcribed one thousand letters by John Lindley, many held in the Crease Collection of the British Columbia Archives and Records Service, Victoria, British Columbia (“John Lindley, Father of Modern Orchidology”: A Gathering of His Correspondence Issued in Installments in the Orchid History Reference papers). Lindley focused his scientific and academic study of botany on men, but he did not exclude women entirely as an audience and wrote his Ladies’ Botany: or, A Familiar Introduction to the Study of the Natural System in Botany.
Shteir, Cultivating Women96, 159. Mary Roberts’s one introductory botany book, Wonders of the Vegetable Kingdom Displayed (1822), is saturated with references to what she referred to as the new religiosity. Roberts writes about topics in plant physiology, including perspiration, roots, plant nourishment, motion, and the dissemination of seeds and extensively develops the theme of plants as moral and religious emblems. As her title might suggest, descriptions of plants such as the Oriental poppy serve “spiritual purposes”: “Like the brilliant poppy [man] is not the flower of a day. The seeds of piety to God, and benevolence to man, are ripened in his bosom, destined to germinate and blossom in a richer soul, the garden of immortality” (see Roberts 72).
Shteir, Cultivating Women159. For more information on the language of flowers tradition in England, see Beverly Seaton, “Considering the Lilies: Ruskin’s ‘Proserpina’ and Other Victorian Flower Books” 256; and chapter six of The Garden in Victorian Literature by Michael Waters.
See Alex Owen, “Medicine, Mediumship and Mania”139–167; Judith R. Walkowitz, “Science and the Séance: Transgression of Gender and Genre in Late Victorian London”; and Rachel Oberter, Spiritualism and the Visual Imagination 86–87.