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Healing Vibrations through Visionary Art

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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.

Abstract

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.

Circles are the highest symbols … Fragments are all parts of circular bodies, as a piece of granite rock is a part of those primitive formations that encircle the earth. Atoms gyrate upon their axes and follow the line of their strongest attractions. Things move in spirals … Sea-shells are built up spirally. Vines ascend forest trees spirally. Particles of steel flying toward a magnet move spirally. This law, with few exceptions, applies to atoms, worlds, systems, civilizations, and all those historic cycles of ever-recurring spiritual epochs and eras that distinguish antiquity.

Peebles, Seers of the Ages 191

In the mid-nineteenth century, British artist Georgiana Houghton produced abstracted and mystical paintings that incorporated layer upon layer of intricately rendered and interconnected circle and spiral shapes that revealed nineteenth-century visionary ideas about the transcendental value and universal meaning and significance of circles.1 Houghton believed that she worked in collaboration with ethereal beings and she expressed ideas about the nature of the spiritual realms though her work.2 Her experimentation with vibrant colors and manipulation of form prefigured early modernist painting techniques, and the visionary nature of her pictures also foreshadowed mediumistic paintings produced by contemporary artists of the late twentieth century.3

The infinitely mutable qualities inherent in visionary imagery offer opportunities for both artists and viewers to transgress boundaries of time and topography, and thus, in the case of Houghton’s imagery, to imagine spatial manipulations in many different ways through her treatment of space and transformation of fixed and individual subjectivities. Interstitial space is theorized as existing as a window through which to renegotiate and perhaps re-conceptualize interpretations of the material world.4 Houghton’s images, conceived of as the product of discourse between the material and spiritual spheres, disrupt borders created by physical constructions of time and space. Houghton believed that her art, a synthesis of Spiritualism, religious conviction, and artistic practice, culminated in intricately rendered drawings and paintings that encouraged spiritual enlightenment and healing in viewers.

Houghton wrote in detail about the healing qualities that she believed her mediumistic paintings possessed, and she trusted that they were endowed with immense spiritual power. She wrote that unseen entities impressed upon her which drawings would most benefit particular viewers and that these individuals, simply by being in the vicinity of her spirit pictures, would experience sensations of healing (Houghton, Evenings at Home 1. 59). Houghton wrote that although people of the material world were too often absorbed in their day-to-day lives to be aware of the inherent spiritual power of her art, she believed that viewers: “nevertheless benefited both bodily and mentally by coming within the influence” of her mediumistic paintings.5 She taught that if viewers spent time in contemplation of her images they would eventually gain understanding of the symbolic intention embedded in her spirit drawings and would experience both physical healing and an intense spiritual awakening (Evenings at Home 1. 61). Even writers for the local Spiritual journals who made light of Houghton’s paintings commented on the “spiritualising influence” of her pictures:

There is a group of nine pictures in the right-hand corner which exercise a most wonderful influence on the mind of the beholder. A calm, peaceful, harmonious, spiritualising influence steals over the consciousness. The cares and animosities of life seem to flee away and a new and higher atmosphere is respired … This, indeed, is the special merit of these works. They grow upon the affections the longer they are examined, and though no tangible description of the effect may be possible, yet you feel the spirit has been enriched and gratified by the result.

“Miss Houghton’s Exhibition of Spirit Drawings” 296

Houghton’s abstracted watercolor The Omnipresence of the Lord (1862) (fig. 1), which appears to vibrate from beneath the surface of the pigment in a transcendental sweep of energetic line and color, is an example of an image that was meant to activate self-healing and transcendental experience in viewers. Houghton’s drawing exudes a timeless quality, depicting a space in which time and place are irrelevant. Her image emanates an ethereal luminosity as though light rather than tint was used to create the background over which spiraling white lines guide the viewer’s eye throughout the surface of the image. Houghton’s multiple layers of interconnected lines over color oscillate between order/disorder, recession/advance, movement/stasis, material/immaterial, instantaneous/continuous, moment in time/eternity, resolve/dissolve, figurative/non-figurative, order/chaos, temporal/spatial, interior/exterior, and microcosm/macrocosm, producing a sense of multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and multi-temporal spaces.

Applications of vibrant yellows, reds, and greens appear to pulsate beneath coils of bright streaks that help to integrate unbound energies with stabilizing influences. Houghton’s image relates notions of the mechanisms of the interior body in the form of active cells, and essentially what we might now perceive of as molecules and DNA sequences, while it simultaneously envisions star and planetary evolutions of the cosmos. Her visionary picture suggests a miraculous and supernatural space; a tempest; a transformative fissure harboring no inhibitions or constraints, whose surface both conceals and reveals the notion of profound mystery. An absence of straight line in favor of strong interchangeable curved contour produces a harmonious patterning and acts to create a compelling ebb and flow or centripetal/centrifugal component to the image, drawing the viewer’s eye towards several interconnected vortexes while simultaneously redirecting the gaze over the entire surface of the picture plane.

The vigorous mark-making produces ambiguous vacillations between representations of physically dense three-dimensional qualities that appear to dissolve and then reappear out of flattened, shallow, two-dimensional spaces. Houghton, despite the energetic convergence of line and color, maintains a meditative balance of serenity in chaos through her use of a harmonious system of compositional lines. The configurations of overlapping lines and forms appear to lead the viewer on a roller coaster ride throughout the canvas while they also serve to maintain control over the deeper more mysterious components of the image. Houghton’s use of dark tones in greens, blues, and reds serves to intensify and to contradict the various shades of yellow pigment that lead the eye towards the background of the picture and also suggest the existence of unknown territories, while they simultaneously offer respite from the powerful energetic force embodied in the whirl of line.

d40162228e195

Figure 1

Georgiana Houghton. The Omnipresence of the Lord, 1862. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 19, 4 (2015) ; 10.1163/15685292-01904003

Houghton’s use of a combination of analogous and complimentary colors and repetitive, rhythmic, circular shapes unifies the content of her image and constructs a finely tuned and harmonious balance between order and chaos. In addition, the frame serves to contain the powerful force so as not to overwhelm the spectator while simultaneously suggesting the trajectory of continuity outside the confines of the border. Finally, she constructs a diagonal line that divides the cluster of active vortexes through which rays of white-hot energy emerge on the upper left of the image from the lower right part of the picture, revealing a still active yet comparatively serene and peaceful surface. Her use of a strong diagonal creates an asymmetrical balance while drawing attention to depth through subtle perspective conveying a sense of movement and speed.

The idea that ethereal entities had the capability and the desire to communicate with individuals in the material world was a familiar concept for Spiritualists in nineteenth-century Britain, and the method by which this was accomplished was widely disseminated in published articles and books on the subject. One unidentified author, for instance, whose information was received through spiritual entities in the form of automatic writing, described the phenomenon as “sufficiently well known” (Glimpses of a Brighter Land vii). The author wrote that it was common practice to expect intelligent communication between the living and the dead “through the medium of movement of physical objects, pro-ceeding from intelligences wholly independent of the persons present” (vii). In addition, various messages in the form of writing and drawing were verified absolutely as having been received by “disembodied entities” (ix). Houghton practiced as a professional portrait and landscape painter before she became fascinated with new opportunities offered by nineteenth-century spiritualist belief systems. Beginning in 1861, she spent time experimenting with different methods of communicating with unseen entities and attended and later conducted regular séances where she participated in automatic writing and drawing sessions.

Houghton was not given to fantasy, and she demonstrated her interest in spiritualist practice while she maintained an open but critical approach to messages that professed to have originated from the spirit world. Over time, Houghton became convinced that she did indeed communicate with disembodied entities, but although she asked for advice from spirits, she did not believe that their “changed conditions,” which placed them “beyond that of the earth,” made them infallible; she weighed carefully any advice they offered before she either “accepted or rejected” it.6 Houghton became proficient using pencils at first in her automatic drawing sessions and soon after began to experiment with paintbrushes and watercolors.

During this preliminary learning period Houghton discovered that spirits communicated representations of everyday life in symbolic form. Her interest in symbolic representation through spiritual guidance was augmented by information gathered by other Spiritualists of the period who had published treatises in the form of Spiritualist texts and journals offering detailed information on the symbolic significance of various visual forms. Spiritualist symbolic reference differed from those of the Symbolist tradition espoused by modern symbolist and abstract artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Edvard Munch, and Kazimar Malevich. The latter had absorbed the writings of philosophers such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Maeterlinck, whose work was informed by ideas that focused heavily on “the gloom of the Spiritual atmosphere” or the “laws of duality and correspondences in synesthasia” (Kandinsky 30; Tuchman 32). In contrast, mediumistic artists who also considered themselves Spiritualists believed that the symbolic meanings inherent to their visionary work supported ideas of spiritual love, goodness, and purity; these ideas were thought to promote celestial wisdom and were embedded in the forms and lines that made up various visionary images. The symbolic meaning of red, for example, could be “spiritual love”; white, “purity and goodness”; while blue was reserved for references to the “the celestial dwelling place of the Almighty” (Glimpses of a Brighter Land 25). Houghton augmented her study with information that she came to believe was channeled from the highest spheres of the ethereal world. During her lifetime, she actively promoted and exhibited three core forms of the mediumistic symbolic watercolors that she believed resulted from her intercommunion with unseen entities including representations of God the Father, The Holy Trinity, and spirit flowers and fruits.

A number of Spiritualist texts supported the idea that mediumistic writing and drawing was provided “through the passive hand of the Medium” without the intervention of any “mental volition on his or her part” and compared the artist to a mere device of communication who was “simply used as a machine” (Glimpses of a Brighter Land ix). Houghton, however, adhered to information obtained through automatic writing sessions that stated that spiritual entities did not usurp the will of the medium. “Yet think not by this we control your actions. You can act and think, and we only try to influence your actions through your mind, to purify and raise the tone of thought; to ennoble your ideas, and help, not force, you to progress.”7 Houghton did not suspend conscious control or act merely as a passive instrument exploited by active autonomous spirits. She addressed the implication that she was a passive recipient of spiritual control, and provided an account of a particular instance in which she believed that one of her spirit guides had dared to imply that she took no part in the construction of the mediumistic paintings:

[the unseen entity] told me that I was “only a machine,” to which I demurred, and brought him to acknowledge that I had taught him much about modern colours, although he guided my hand in the use of them, but I could always leave off when I pleased; so he admitted his error, and promised never to call me a machine again.

Evenings at Home 1. 20

Houghton’s hand might be guided by the spirits but it was her knowledge of contemporary social conditions and writings and her skill with the use of modern colors and drawing techniques that produced the finished painting. Houghton’s ability to establish and maintain a sustainable working synchronization between medium and spirit entity was attained through a meditative process that facilitated a cohesive fusion between her energy and that of the attendant spirit guide. It was this process, she believed, which resulted in a collaborative effort between the material and the spiritual that culminated in the production of powerful healing images.

Houghton actively promoted her paintings during a period in which nineteenth-century women artists were denigrated and the rise of socialist imperatives and women’s suffrage were beginning to take root. She wrote letters to the most prominent and widely read Spiritualist magazines of the era, including Medium and Daybreak, the Spiritual Magazine, and the Christian Spiritualist, to encourage support for her exhibitions, in part because she believed that her art works were intended as inspirational messages for the public.8 She was also keenly aware that, “some persons may question the utility of spiritual art” but believed that “we need in this world something more than mere food and clothing, and drawing is one method by which our invisible friends have illustrated many new thoughts” (Evenings at Home 2. 111). Houghton persevered despite trivialization of the importance of her art by male art critics who professed a belief in the existence of life after death yet disparaged the symbolic content of her pictures. She gained inspiration from the spiritualist gatherings that she attended and admired the “the grit of the energetic workers in Spiritualism, those who had borne the brunt of the battle from the beginning; never having been daunted by the unpopularity of the cause they had espoused, nor by the ridicule to which it had subjected them” (Evenings at Home 1. 83). She joined with the most enthusiastic of Spiritualists who wanted to share “some striking fact of their own experience to contribute to the general store of knowledge.”9 In solidarity with other Spiritualists who worked tirelessly to educate the public about Modern Spiritualism, Houghton exhibited her pictures on a regular basis during afternoon receptions that she held at her home, and also in an exhibition held in the more formal venue of the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street in London.

The idea of an active presence as inherent in visual art that depicts spiritual content is not a new concept; it was an important component in the production of sacred imagery in Byzantine, Medieval, and Western European art from the sixth to the thirteenth centuries. Images used for devotional purposes and that decorated interior sacred spaces were venerated as capable of performing miraculous acts, and in some cases were believed to have originated in the heavenly spheres. Some pictures were considered archeiropoietic, meaning that they had been produced through the hand of God and in so doing had been spiritually transformed through divine intervention.10 Houghton believed that her watercolors embodied similar active transformative energy that could be accessed by the viewing public. She described an event that she believed exemplified the healing potential of her visionary images:

[Mrs. Rolls] took home her picture, and one day when a friend was coming to see her, who did not know that she had it, she took it into the sitting-room, still wrapped in its papers. After some little time, the young lady said, ‘It is a most curious thing, but I feel just as I do when I am looking at Miss Houghton’s drawings.’ Mrs. Rolls then told her that she really had one in the room, and produced it to be admired and enjoyed. I was much interested when I heard of this circumstance, for although I know how great is the power emanating from these drawings, for they are filled with spirit from the guiding influences, yet people are in general too completely material to be aware of it, but they are nevertheless benefitted both bodily and mentally by coming within the influence …

Evenings at Home 1. 61

A number of members of the artistic community in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain were involved in Spiritualism—including critic John Ruskin and artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Phoebe Traquair, William Holman Hunt, James Tissot, and G. F. Watts.11 Paintings such as Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1864–1870), for example, in which he depicted his wife Elizabeth Siddall in a medium-like trance, suggests knowledge of some of the tenets of Modern Spiritualism.12 The innovative abstracted qualities of Houghton’s visionary pictures, however, eclipsed figurative representations of Spirituality produced by artists such as Rossetti.

Houghton’s title, “The Omnipresence of the Lord,” offers insight, if not to the meaning of her picture then to the possible sources that informed the meaning of her image. She made no secret of her devotion to Christianity and to the teachings of the Bible, which she easily amalgamated with her Spiritualist beliefs, and she took pride in her ability to provide clergymen of every denomination insight into the spiritual significance of her drawings. Houghton conceived of her images as inspired by scripture but also as active, productive extensions of her interpretations of Biblical writings. In her role as a teacher to male clergy, Houghton disrupts boundaries that prevented women from taking part in ecclesiastical functions of the church. She also made clear that she was as committed to Spiritualism as she was to Christianity. She wrote:

When I go away, I shall have no objection to the commonplace chronicle of “died, on such a day,” for we literally do have to pass through the change called death, and no one who is either a Christian or a Spiritualist, and I thank God that I am both, considers that death signifies annihilation; it is simply the dissolution of the mortal form, from which the spirit has been liberated.

Evenings at Home 1. 270

Houghton believed that clergy might benefit from close readings of her visionary images, which she believed had been delivered to her from spirits that dwelled in the highest and most powerful realms of the heavenly spheres. She wrote about the impact these spiritual messages might have on clergy:

A clergyman friend of mine asked the spirits of what benefit a belief in Spiritualism could be to him, and was told that it would give him the certainty of the hereafter; to which he replied that he already had that, and the answer was, “Yes, with your reason, but this gives vitality to it.” And that is just what it seems to me. We believe what the Bible teaches us, but Spiritualism brings all those past events into our daily life, and links us so closely with all those who have been God’s agents in the past, that thousands of years seem but as yesterday, and those whose names have hitherto been only as words, we recognise as among our friends.

1. 61–62

Houghton’s status as a visionary artist provided an avenue through which she reinterpreted and built upon androcentrically dominated religious texts in her form of symbolically profound visual production.

Her revelations support the work of earlier progressive speakers and writers such as John Wesley (1703–1791) whose sermons focused on the supremacy of God. Wesley’s works were published several times during his lifetime and continued to appear in print long after his death.13 Wesley was one of several prolific writers on the subject of Christian virtues within the context of everlasting life and he often included and expanded on well-known quotations from the scriptures. He recognized the incredulousness of sustaining a belief in the existence of an afterlife while he also publically affirmed his conviction that God was spirit, all-knowing and eternal.

Indeed, this subject is far too vast to be comprehended by the narrow limits of human understanding. We can only say, The great God, the eternal, the almighty Spirit, is as unbounded in his presence as in his duration and power … he is said to dwell in heaven: but, strictly speaking, the heaven of heavens cannot contain him; but he is in every part of his dominion. The universal God dwelleth in universal spaces … he regulates the motions of the heavenly bodies, of the sun, moon, and stars; that he is … The all-informing soul, that fills, pervades and actuates the whole.

“On the Omnipresence of God” 139–140

English critic John Ruskin’s book Modern Painters, published over a course of five volumes from 1843 to 1860, inspired the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and would have been accessible to other practicing artists including Georgiana Houghton.14 Ruskin also endorsed the idea of the ubiquitous omnipotence of God:

He is equally in all, or without all. Many have been the disputes among philosophers whether there be any such thing as empty space in the universe; and it is now generally supposed that all space is full … But the Heathen himself will bear us witness … ‘All things are full of God.’ Yea, and space exists beyond the bounds of creation … even that space cannot exclude Him who fills the heaven and the earth.15

Although Ruskin wrote that no mortal could convey the essence of the power of God he also believed that a sense of the omnipotent nature and glory of God might be conveyed through an inspired combination of color and light. Houghton’s visionary picture presents a visual representation of Ruskin’s conception of that which is omnipotent and therefore unknowable.

Clergy absorbed Houghton’s teachings and they attended exhibitions of her images, and artists who did not necessarily understand the symbolic content of her pictures were, nevertheless, fascinated by her innovative technical proficiency and focused on the abstracted style of her visionary pictures.16 Artist Frederick Wilson (1858–1932), a contemporary of Houghton’s, offered, for example, an insightful perspective when he wrote about his impression of her art, commenting in particular on the “beautiful workmanship” of Houghton’s “spiritual flowers” which he characterized as a “new revelation.”17 Wilson admired Houghton’s ability to apply color which he considered especially extraordinary because of her successful use of the “most powerful combination of primary colours” that produced a convincing representation of a “mystified rainbow” as well as the effect of her groundwork “awash in a blend of colours” (193). He was equally intrigued by her capacity to achieve and maintain cohesiveness in her paintings without benefit of outline. Wilson wrote that Houghton’s foundation provided the perfect ethereal background for the “curves, spirals, floats of colour, curlicews, shell involutes, and ramifications” that filled the surface of her canvas (193). He was inspired by Houghton’s use of scriptural texts as an explanatory tool for her spiritualist paintings in which titles such as Glory be to God, The Hands of the Holy Ghost, and Eye of God were meant to help clarify the content of her pictures (193). Wilson valued Houghton’s technical ability, but despite her inclusion of referential material intended to support understanding of the content of her pictures, and his best efforts to comprehend the symbolic nature of her forms, her mediumistic images, for him, bewildered “all attempts at explanation or resemblance” (193).

Wilson’s belief that many of Houghton’s mediumistic pictures were “professedly religious” was reinforced by her use of titles that had been informed by her knowledge of religious scripture. However, Houghton’s attempts to clarify the spiritual sense of her paintings through the use of what she considered to be relevant scripture did not always meet with success. Despite his enthusiastic response to her images, for instance, Wilson confessed that he could find no correspondence between the content of Houghton’s paintings and the text that was meant to inform them. Nevertheless, he remained passionate and was particularly enthusiastic about Houghton’s representations of spirit flowers and fruits in which every line and color professed meaning. Wilson drew correlations between Houghton’s explanation of the significance of particular colors used in her images and his own study of the meaning of colors that had been recently published in a popular Spiritualist journal. Despite his own inability to discern the meanings inherent in Houghton’s paintings, Wilson conceded that viewers initiated in the complex symbolism of Spiritualism would “doubtlessly trace the resemblances through the previous intuition” through “a common language of the initiated” (193).

Houghton believed that her visionary art works were augmented by her experiences in the material world, which included her familiarity with contemporary literature and especially texts that focused on botany.18 She would certainly have had access to books that included poetic descriptions, exemplified by the following excerpt, that express the symbolic value of flowers:

Flora’s light-pictures are never repeated; her kaleidoscope is always turning. Flowers are the universal moralists; not one but has its lesson, its sermon, or its song … Faith and duty, and love and hope, and peace and gladness, smile on their dewy faces; fading in quiet hands, they speak of death; creeping over low green graves; they whisper of immortality. They are the emblems alike of feasting and mourning, of speech and silence, of sorrow and hope, of grief and love.

Mancoff 147

Botany became a popular and fashionable activity beginning in eighteenth-century England and enjoyed cultural status as an activity that combined amusement with improvement. The simplicity of the Linnaean sexual system for naming and classifying plants according to the reproductive parts of flowers helped to bring botany into prominence. During this period, women took advantage of their access to studies of horticulture. They collected plants, represented them in images, and wrote popular books on botany. As a result, the study of flowers and plants became widely associated with women and was consequently coded as feminine.19

Concurrent with Houghton’s interest in floral representation and her spiritual development was the growing fashion for books about the language of flowers which offered women a way to combine botany, art, and morality. Consequently, the results of women’s interest in plants and flowers permeated diverse social, moral, religious, literary, and spiritual ideologies during a time when the ongoing industrialization of the English landscape encouraged, in defense of nature’s destruction, a new passion for horticulture, floriculture, and botany. One particularly significant example of this was the enthusiasm for ferns, developed between 1840 and 1860, which blended aesthetics, science, art, and even fashion. Women collected ferns while walking through the woods; they bought tropical specimens from nurserymen and dried and pressed them, making them fundamental features of their front parlors; they filled albums with pressed flowers of every variety and decorated breakfast and drawing rooms with cases filled with live and exotic specimens. They also produced flower forms out of hair, wax, wool and yarn, paper, and even shells, and used the flower motif in the production of wallpaper, fabrics, and tile designs (Shteir, “Gender and ‘Modern’ Botany” 29–38).

John Lindley, eminent professor of botany, wrote widely-read books that were meant to instruct women about how to appreciate his conception of the language of flowers, and insinuated a mysterious symbolism that he believed was inherent in many flowers and plants:

The power and wisdom of the Deity are proclaimed by no part of the Creation in more impressive language than by the humblest weed that we tread beneath our feet; but we must learn to understand the mysterious language in which we are addressed; and we find its symbols in the curious structure, and the wondrous fitness of all the minute parts of which a plant consists, for several uses they are destined for. This, and this only, is the “language of flowers.”20

The systematic vocabulary of this “language of flowers” was further popularized through the dissemination of small decorative books that listed symbolically coded messages represented by specific flowers.21 Some of the earliest and most influential of books on the language of flowers were written by women and published in the early nineteenth-century. These texts included annotated lists of flowers and trees, which described the author’s perception of the symbolic meaning of each flower or tree.22 Artist and writer Eliza Eve Gleadall, for example, published The Beauties of Flora (1834–1837), which consists of forty folio-sized lithographs of flowers that were drawn from nature and embellished with botanic, poetic, and emblematic material. The flowering plants are characterized in her writings as affording “a chaste recreation” for youth, blending “information with amusement.” Gleadall also taught that “there is religion in a flower,” which can be discerned by becoming familiar with the symbolic significance of particular flowers and plants. The garden wallflower, for instance, is representative of “Fidelity in Misfortune” and the lily of the valley signifies “Purity and Return of Happiness” according to Gleadall.23 Each flowering plant in her collection was identified botanically and located within both the Linnaean and natural systems of plant classification. Gleadall also included instructions about how to mix shades and tints to effectively reproduce the realistic color of particular plants. The illustrations included in her text are specific and suggest her familiarity with illustrations of flowers as well as her knowledge of plants in their natural surroundings.24

Translations and new interpretations of flower and plant symbolism became available “all over Europe and throughout the Americas in Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, and English” (Walsh 220). Nuance in the meanings assigned to specific flowers began to diversify, reflecting the particular social and cultural ideologies of authors and complicating efforts to decode the symbolic significance of flowering plants. In addition, authors took advantage of their knowledge of “folklore, natural science, classical languages and mythology, the Bible, Ovid, Homer, Virgil, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Percival” and produced progressively more complex flower and plant symbolism (222). Books such as Henry Philips’s Flora Histories (1824), for example, focused on the history of plants, while later publications such as Anna Pratt’s Flowers and Their Associations (1840) and Mrs. Loudon’s The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals (1849) combined botanical information with poetry, folklore, and legend. Botanical manuals often included floral lexicons that offered alphabetical lists of flowers and their meanings based on Charlotte La Tour’s Le Langage des fluers (1819), in which she wrote about how flowers embodied encoded messages through colors, positions, and combinations of blooms.25 Publishers produced many flower books for mass consumption, often combining literary and visual material in a poetic and artistic mélange.26

Editions of the floral lexicon were followed by writings that broadened the language of flowers to include discussions about the manifestation of human traits in individual blooms. Thomas Hood in his poem “Flowers” (1827), for example, declared the violet a “nun” and the pea a “wanton witch,” preferring to “plight with the dainty rose/For fairest of all is she” (Stedman). Similarly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her “A Flower in a Letter” (1844) allocated human characteristics and abilities to flowers when she wrote about the “thousand Flowers—each seeming one/that learnt, by gazing on the sun,/to counterfeit his shining–/ or told of how the Red rose, used to praises long” was “contented with the poet’s song” (Browning 355). Flowers were interpreted as vessels of moral meaning and spiritual enlightenment, enhanced by the study of seventeenth-century emblem books that endowed plants with religious symbolic meaning in the Christian and especially evangelical tradition (Shteir, Cultivating Women 158). Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, for instance, published books about flowers within the rubric of evangelical piety and combined elements of morality, spirituality and religious doctrine writing that, “next after the blessed bible, a flower-garden is to me the most eloquent of books-a volume teeming with instruction, consolation, and reproof” and that “the evening primrose always is, always will be, a momento of what I shall no more enjoy on earth” (2, 97). Tonna believed that many plants native to Britain served as momentos of persons or sentiments illustrative of “the Christian character” (60). The hawthorn tree, for example, reflected the “changeableness of earthly things … alike with the worldly moralist and the more spiritual instructor” and she also associated plants with references to an “early happy death,” and the importance of warring against the kingdom of darkness.27

Simultaneously, representations of flowers and plants appeared in modern paintings of the period produced by artists such Whistler in Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) in the same year that Houghton produced some of her earliest visionary paintings in the form of representations of spirit flowers. English art critic Walter Pater wrote that a complete understanding of the content of their images depended upon the viewer’s fluency in the esoteric language of symbols.28 Pater noted that Rossetti, for example, often included representations of flowers in his paintings but believed that the uninitiated saw the plants as merely decorative when, to the informed viewer, “the flower speaks parables.”29 Artists such as Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and George Frederick Watts would have been aware of these writings and they painted pictures that combined public accounts of the symbolism of particular flowers and plants with more personal significance whose meaning could be decoded by only a select few (Mancoff 9). Such an abundance of conflicting information on the application of meaning to specific flowers meant that readers and viewers needed to apply a contemplative and careful analysis of both textual and visual descriptions of plants in order to successfully decode possible symbolic significance embedded in the contemporary paintings of the period.

Georgiana Houghton wrote that her experiences as a practicing artist helped to facilitate and maintain mutually beneficial creative dynamics between herself and her spiritual guides, culminating in the production of mediumistic paintings that helped to educate viewers about the complexities of life. She incorporated her knowledge of the activities and writings of other innovative contemporary artists and writers of the period, and like them took advantage of all the possibilities at her disposal to enhance her collaborative efforts. During the earlier phase of the development of her mediumistic abilities Houghton saw the drawings produced by visionary artist Elizabeth Wilkinson. Houghton admired the intricately rendered flower drawings, describing them as “beautiful,” and she was fascinated that the images had been executed through Wilkinson’s “hand by her son in spirit life” (Evenings at Home 1. 14). Houghton believed that her ability to interact with spirits meant that she had a special sacred purpose in life, namely to spread the messages of spirit in order to educate as many people as possible (250–251). She appreciated the symbolic value of flowers and worked to establish connections with unseen entities that would enhance and expand on her ability to depict flower and plant forms that were rich in Spiritual symbolism.

Houghton would have been privy to information later provided in William Wilkinson’s book, Spirit Drawings: A Personal Narrative, in which he described in detail his wife’s interest in modern ideas about Spiritualism. He wrote that she was intrigued by the recent “modern revealments” of spiritual inquiry that suggested that many of these “‘new facts’ are not really so very new after all … they have merely in these later days been overlaid and kept down by science, and by the minds of the ‘learned’” (4). Elizabeth Wilkinson, buoyed by her discovery of Modern Spiritualism, worked for many weeks in an attempt to make contact with unseen entities so that she might communicate with her recently deceased son (12). Her messages gained through automatic writings developed to incorporate the production of “small … simple” and curiously unfamiliar flowers (12). With practice she began to produce larger and ever more complex floral designs that eventually “extended beyond the paper” and that, according to William Wilkinson, generally belonged “to no known order, though it is of a beautiful and complex shape” (12). Elizabeth Wilkinson’s movements during her collaborative efforts with unseen entities were described as long and rapid as she rendered the different elements of each flower producing innovative representations in “decided lines, beautiful forms, and combinations never before thought of … It would be impossible, without seeing them, to form an idea of their nature and variety, so entirely new are they …” (13). William Wilkinson was particularly fascinated by the hundreds of evolutions, intricate shadings, and precise techniques required to produce each of the flower drawings (16).

Elizabeth Wilkinson believed that her visionary images were produced through the auspices of those from the spirit world and the resulting series of pictures were considered remarkably novel and filled with symbolism; a characteristic which was considered to be “most striking” (33). She exhibited her pictures to a “great number of persons who have seen them during their progress” and viewers remarked on the innovative design and the inherent qualities of symbolism that made them so distinctive “from other drawings of an ordinary kind” (34). Consequently, the symbolic significance of flowers and fruits became an important component of Spiritualist texts, and depictions of flower and fruit forms (many of which thought to have been rendered in collaboration with unseen entities) were considered analogous to the state of the human soul.

To-day it is the spirit of one you never knew on earth, but who watches over you daily and hourly, and with anxious eyes sees your spiritual development. Some days your flowers and leaves spread forth brightly and gloriously to the sun of light and true knowledge, and the petals expand in size and increase in brilliancy of hue, also in fragrance. At other times your petals close and shrink, and even wither; such are the days when thoughts of earth fill your mind … So must the new celestial idea be drawn into the brain of man, and must there take root and gradually expand, and throw up shoots and bring forth leaves and flowers ere the fruit can ripen; and again must the fruit have time to come to perfection and to germinate seeds.

22

Wilkinson’s mediumistic artistic abilities began to gain notice, and enthusiastic friends experimented with intercommunication between the living and the dead. Some discovered that they also possessed varying degrees of mediumship, which resulted in the production of visionary images that also evoked an “undefinable spirit or symbolic character” (22). William Wilkinson’s investigation into automatic drawing led him to conclude that artists who practiced “in England, and in Ireland, America, France, Germany and Australia” were experimenting with automatic drawing which resulted in the production of images that embodied the “same unmistakable characteristics” that he came to refer to as “divine botany” (37). William and Elizabeth Wilkinson’s promotion of mediumistic flower representations as conduits of spiritual messages or characterizations of the human soul provided a platform from which Houghton could pursue her life’s mission to educate the public about Modern Spiritualism.

Inspired by her knowledge of the flower forms produced by Elizabeth Wilkinson, Houghton began to make her own flower portraits in communion with her spirit guides. She believed that the images that resulted from her automatic drawings were gifts from God and that they represented “flowers of the spirit-land” (Evenings at Home 1. 14) Her collaborative efforts culminated in the production of a series of images including The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny (1861) (fig. 2), in which she used various shades of blue, green, and yellow to depict abstracted flower-like forms overlaid with thick dark curving lines, and The Flower of Warrand Houghton (1861) (fig. 3), which depicted organic forms produced by applying meticulously rendered, minuscule brushstrokes in red, blue, green, and yellow pigment over a white background. Each element of her flower portraits mirrored the “earthly understanding of the heart” of particular individuals and was representative of the inner life “with its passions, its sentiments, and affections” (1. 14). The repetitive fibrous line patterns, for example, that complete the upper portion of The Flower of Warrand Houghton were meant to depict the individual thoughts experienced by Warrand Houghton during his lifetime on earth. The larger, bolder marks rendered in various colors represented the intensity of his emotional responses to new acquaintances and unfamiliar situations. Houghton explained the significance of the colored filaments that protruded from the center of representative flower drawings, which she believed recorded “each action of the life” of the particular individual for whom the drawing was made (1. 26). Accordingly, the line direction in her mediumistic drawings was significant because each directional mark was indicative of the spiritual results of either good or evil acts that had been perpetrated by individuals during their time on the earth. Similarly, the strong upward sweeping lines in Houghton’s The Flower of William Harmon Butler (1861) (fig. 4) and The Flower of Helen Butler (1867) (fig. 5), for example, denoted the good, strong spiritual characters of William Harmon Butler and Helen Butler (1. 26).

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Figure 2

Georgiana Houghton. The Flower of and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy Victorian Spiritualists’ Union Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 19, 4 (2015) ; 10.1163/15685292-01904003

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Figure 3

Georgiana Houghton. The Flower of Warrand Houghton, 1861. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 19, 4 (2015) ; 10.1163/15685292-01904003

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Figure 4

Georgiana Houghton. The Flower of William Karman Butler, 1861. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 19, 4 (2015) ; 10.1163/15685292-01904003

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Figure 5

Georgiana Houghton. The Flower of Helen Butler, 1867. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 19, 4 (2015) ; 10.1163/15685292-01904003

Houghton published the results of one of her automatic writing sessions in which she received an explanation of the spiritual significance of her symbolic flower pictures. Her description helps to clarify the connections between her symbolic visionary images and the immaculate incarnations of humanity that exist in the spiritual realms:

simultaneously with the birth of a child into the earth life, a flower springs up in spirit realms, which grows day by day in conformity with the infants awakening powers, expressing them by colour and form, until by degrees the character and life stand revealed in the floral emblem; each tint, whether strong or delicate, being clearly understood by spirit beholders; each petal, floret, fibre, and filament shewing forth like an open book the sentiments and motives, however complicated, of the human prototype.

1. 25

Houghton believed that her representations portrayed only a small fraction of those portended in the corresponding spirit flowers that existed in the heavenly spheres, and her relatively few lines used to render the spirit portraits in the form of flowers expressed only those emotions experienced by the spirit while in the physical body. Her visionary portraits, then, fell far short of “the originals” found in the spheres whose powerful energetic lines “rise away from them, forming a kind of transparent external network which gives a warm glow to the whole” (1. 26). Even so, Houghton was convinced that it was her life’s work to continue to produce and to exhibit her visual representations of individual souls in an effort to spread the word that life did indeed exist in another form after the death of the physical body. She believed that even though her representations provided only a symbolic material representation reminiscent of its original ethereal counterpart, her pictures acted as a site across which viewers could reconcile their belief that their conduct in the material world would impact directly their experience of the afterlife.

As Houghton’s flower forms became more intricate in their design and symbolic intent they also presented more of a challenge for viewers. According to Houghton’s interpretation of her automatic writings, her unseen collaborators could provide only a modicum of the entire meaning inherent in her representations. Though her ability to communicate with powerful unseen entities was extraordinary, it was limited by her physical state of being, which meant that her images were mere “miniatures of the realities” of the spheres whose spirit flowers far exceed their material counterparts both in “their glorious hues” and in their ability to transcend mortal language (1. 5). Despite the constraints produced by the limitations of the material body and of language, Houghton continued to transgress boundaries between the living and the dead and to offer detailed descriptions of her understanding of the symbolic nuances that were embedded in her visionary paintings.

Houghton connected her belief in the existence of spiritual entities that communicate with the living with her understanding of Christian belief systems as articulated in Biblical texts. Consequently her collaboration with unseen entities, who utilized her artistic training and her understanding of spirituality in the form of Christian worship, produced paintings that reveal a complex combination of ethereal abstraction and material symbolism that proved difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend. Houghton, however, persisted in her attempts to translate and to clarify the messages inherent in her work, and was dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge about the spiritual significance of her art. She taught that her pictures facilitated discourse between the material world and the spiritual spheres—discourse regarding the nature of life after death as well as the importance of living a spiritually fulfilled life while gaining experience in the material world. Houghton’s mediumistic abilities as an artist progressed from the production of symbolical flowers to the creation of visionary pictures that produced knowledge of profound religious and spiritual philosophical ideas meant to encourage a cleansing transcendental experience in viewers.

For Houghton, and many other middle-class Spiritualists in Britain, Spiritualism did not replace Christianity but rather enriched long-standing Christian beliefs:

What I have striven to prove is that Spiritualism is not come in place of Christianity; for where would have been the gain in casting off that great joy and happiness, only to receive a something else in exchange? What I maintain is that it is bestowed as the Crown to all previous knowledge.

Evenings at Home 1. v

Houghton believed that her images offered a visual description of her interpretation of written accounts of God’s productive benevolent nature as described in the New Testament. She focused on the representation of the compassionate nature of God in opposition to the destructive malevolent omniscience that she believed was described in the Old Testament. Houghton, through the guidance of unseen entities, specifies particular ways in which her pictures communicate complex pluralities of the nature of spirit. Houghton’s watercolour The Holy Trinity (1861) (fig. 6) exemplifies her ability to represent a unified entity that appears as composed of three separate divine beings that embody individual characteristics, which can be discerned by viewers in the material world. She continued her endeavors to provide analyses of the symbolic content of her images by including written guidelines attached to the verso of her canvases.30 The Holy Trinity depicts a forceful array of layered, interconnected lines of color that appear to oscillate between the material and the ethereal worlds. Powerful sweeps of red, blue, and yellow race across the surface of the page leading the viewer’s eye outside of the confines of the frame and then back along a diagonal trajectory that appears to rush across the center of the picture plane. Houghton’s automatic writing describes her representation of The Holy Trinity as being “drawn by D. through the mediumship of Georgiana Houghton” and she stipulates that this particular “drawing will require a great deal of explanation, as every stroke was full of meaning” (verso).

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Figure 6

Georgiana Houghton. The Holy Trinity, 1861. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 19, 4 (2015) ; 10.1163/15685292-01904003

Houghton’s analysis of the visual elements of her watercolor is painstaking, and she included information about the importance of the process of her art production. She began each of her collaborative efforts by obtaining a spiritually sanctioned meditative state that enabled intercommunion between the material and the ethereal worlds. Part of her ritual included, as she put it, “giving praise and thanksgiving to the Giver of Life, Love, Hope and Faith,” a practice that she believed permeated each of her pictures with immense spiritual powers (verso). Another important element of Houghton’s performance was her employment of continuous and repetitive labor “having been begun, continued and completed” over a time period of almost nine hours.31 Houghton, in her automatic writing, draws attention to her repetitive use of divisions of three and her focus on primary colors. In addition, she equated the water that she used to mix her colors with “the waters of tribulation, of regeneration, of suffering, of bitterness, of zeal and of baptism, typifying all that the Soul must undergo to prepare it for the reception of god into the entire being” (verso). As Houghton made clear in her writings, her images require thoughtful and focused analysis that acknowledges the importance of her artistic process and that takes into account the intertextual component of her work.

Houghton wrote about her interpretation of biblical concepts of The Holy Trinity and attempted to re-conceptualize those writings in her pictures. The blue vault of heaven, for example, appeared as a glorious light and embodied ideas of “God the Father, by whom all things were created” (verso). As Houghton understood the scriptures, the Son of God emanated from God the Father and the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and the Son and descended “to the earth as the Comforter and Consoler of all mankind” (verso). Houghton’s Holy Trinity was made manifest through the application of an intricate combination of specific colors combined with a very particular line direction. Yellow, for example, was a personification of God the Father and also symbolic of faith, while blue represented the physical manifestation of the Son of God and also denoted hope. The color red embodied the Holy Ghost and also symbolized charity/love (Houghton, Evenings at Home 1. 25). Houghton explained that although three separate colors were used to symbolize separate manifestations of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in actuality, according to Houghton, “these three are one” (1. 25). She was explicit when she discussed the significance of her directional line, writing that lines that moved upwards represented God the Father, lines that crossed over one another referred to God the Son, and those that moved downwards corresponded to the Holy Ghost. To complicate things even further, the three types of directional lines that harmonize with the three entities were also symbolic of the three characteristics, faith, hope, and charity/love, as embodied by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit respectively.

The complexity of Houghton’s representation is clarified when examined in the context of her interpretation of the Biblical text that she used to inform her work. She conceived of the Holy Trinity in her understanding of scriptural text as incarnate in the tripersonal divine being that maintained distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost while concurrently preserving unity. The unity of God, according to Houghton, then is composed of three coequal, coeternal, coinfinite entities that coexist as one while simultaneously performing as distinct personalities. God the Father, as a distinct personality, for example, planned salvation while the Son of God executed deliverance on the cross and the Holy Spirit revealed the message of liberation under the doctrine of common grace.32 Distinctions between the three components of the Trinity are described in 1Corinthians as “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God [the Father] and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (13: 14). While scriptures differentiate between the three entities of the Trinity, they simultaneously argue for the existence of one God. What appears to be a contradiction actually exemplifies the idea that one of the mysteries of the Holy Trinity is that it is the embodiment of a truth that can never be fully understood using natural reasoning. Humanity’s reliance on rationality, then, is disrupted and replaced with dependence on faith.

Each spiritual component of the Trinity provides important divine intervention for the deliverance and protection of humanity. Houghton encapsulated Biblical ideology in her abstracted visionary picture by rendering God the Father initially as a “glorious light,” depicted in yellow pigment in the form of upward directional lines successfully encapsulating God the Father’s omniscience as well as his exalted position in the highest realms of the heavenly sphere. The Son of God is represented using blue pigment that recalls the color of the sky, which in turn connects to the “blue vault of heaven” from which the light of the father emerged, as described in Houghton’s written analysis of the symbolic content of her image (verso). In addition, the Son of God, who is understood to also have been born from that light, is represented through lines that cross over one another, connecting him with human incarnation as well as with his sacrifice on the cross. Houghton embodied ideas about the Holy Ghost in the form of red descending lines symbolizing the spirit who resides in the lower spheres of the earth plane as comforter of humanity. Houghton wrote that each mark in her pictures is “full of meaning” (verso); every element of her imagery embodies multiple meanings. God the Father, then, is also related to the concept of faith, which coincides with late nineteenth and early twentieth-century conviction that humanity must exercise faith in order to believe in the existence of an omniscient being which cannot be seen. The Son of God as incarnate in the flesh is connected with hope for the salvation of humanity and the Holy Ghost vibrates with the word love, which is demonstrated in an ability to provide comfort and consolation to humanity.

Illustrations of the Holy Trinity as expressed in the physical world in the form of light and color are also provided in Biblical text. One written description, for example, reveals that “God is light and in Him there is no darkness” another example recalls Jesus’s statement that “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.”33 The concept of light can be understood from several different perspectives outside of those described in the Bible, including scientific perceptions of color theory that help to enhance ideas of the unity of the Holy Trinity as exemplified in scripture and subsequently in Houghton’s visionary picture. Light that emanates from the sun, for example, or through a prism, reflects as pure white despite that it contains all the colors of the spectrum including the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) used in Houghton’s The Holy Trinity.34

Houghton believed in the power of symbolism, and though she knew that symbols could not completely encompass truths as profound as those embodied in conceptions of the Holy Trinity she thought that viewers would continue to seek to comprehend representations of transcendent truth. Representations of The Holy Trinity exist throughout the history of European and Western art production, and are usually depicted in the form of variations of the triangle. Houghton, however, disrupted emblematic depictions of religious and spiritual content by replacing the symbol of the triangle with straight or curved lines. Although the equilateral formation of the triangle is considered by some to be a powerful pictorial depiction of the coequal and stable nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the form also supports distinctions and divisions between the three entities, interrupting the unified nature of the Trinity. Houghton’s representation in the form of subtle integrations of line, color, and multiples of three serve instead to enhance Biblical exegesis that promotes theological concepts of trichotomy, unification, and ultimately procession.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle explained the powerful symbolic significance of the number three writing that:

Of two things or men, we say ‘both’ but not ‘all.’ Three is the first number to which the term ‘all’ has been appropriated. … A single occurrence is of no significance. A repetition is noticeable, but might easily be the result of coincidence. A third occurrence of the same nature gives the event the impress of law …35

Houghton wrote that “[t]here are innumerable repetitions of these symbols” (Evenings at Home 1. 25). In reference to her picture she drew specific attention to her repetitious patterns of three in the form of lines, which made incarnate God the Father, the Son of God and The Holy Spirit and also represented a propensity for unity and continuity. Concepts of units of three are repeated throughout Biblical texts that Houghton used to describe the symbolic significance of her abstracted representations. The young Jesus, for example, spent three days in the temple before his parents found him, the feeding of the five thousand began only after the crowd had followed Jesus for three days, the apostle Peter denied Jesus on three occasions, and the universe was created in six days (Styler 1, 2). Perhaps the most significance reference to the symbolic importance of three, in the framework of the New Testament and in the context of Houghton’s mediumistic picture, is that Jesus lay in his tomb for two days and rose from the dead on the third day demonstrating his ability to transcend death.

Units of three then represent a pattern that is indicative of continuity, unity, and also purposeful activity. Interpreters of Biblical text have understood symbolic representations of three to emphasize the absolute alignment between action and consequence that moves along a straight directional line. Houghton’s use of tri-colored lines in her image recalls scriptural passages that position the number three as the continuation or alignment of a condition or idea, and also reiterates her conviction that the three distinct entities that make up The Holy Trinity are also one. The conception of three points or components that make up a line reinforces ideas of straightforward continuous action, consequence, and unity. Houghton’s presentation of The Holy Trinity as free-flowing tri-colored lines (that function as a unified entity) disrupts depictions of the Holy Trinity in the form of a triangle that appears to reject rather than promote ideologies of continuity and unity.

Houghton duplicated Biblical references to the three attributes of God the Father, the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost—as faith, hope, and love respectively—and represented them in the form of an interconnection of perpendicular, parallel, and concentric lines that eventually unite at one point. Viewers that associate the symbol of the triangle with the Holy Trinity may also relate the terms faith, hope, and love with the three separate, distinct, and independent corners of the three-sided form. In contrast, Houghton’s use of lines as opposed to triangles to depict The Holy Trinity links the three along a line that reproduces the essential codependence of the three qualities while it also develops the idea that God the Father, the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct yet unified omnipotent beings. Houghton, then, represented Biblical writings that teach that “Faith, hope and love are not three independent qualities, but are three closely related milestones in our spiritual pilgrimage; love is not independent of faith and hope, but is the highlight of our spiritual growth” in visual form (Styler). Straight-line symbolic imagery supports this relationship more successfully perhaps than a triangular representation.36

Houghton intertwined color, line, and symbolic textual reference to symbolize separate yet simultaneously unified beings. She concluded her written exegesis about the symbolic meaning of her art by encouraging people to follow their own path but to also “do their utmost thus to fulfill His Will, and shed the rainbow hues of Faith, Hope and Charity over all with whom they come in contact” (verso). Houghton’s reference to the rainbow is also significant in relation to Biblical text and the symbolic significance of her visionary picture because it recalls recitations of the covenant forged between God and humanity at the time of the flood:

God told Noah and his sons, “And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Gen. 9: 15–16

The rainbow is made up of seven separate colors which include the primaries—yellow, blue and red—that serve as symbolic representations of God the Father, the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost and that are simultaneously linked with faith, love, and hope in Houghton’s image. Her reference to the rainbow, with which she completed her written explanation on the verso of her picture, serves to unite her symbolism of interconnected unity depicted in her abstracted image with the everlasting covenant forged between God the Father, the Son of God, the Holy Ghost, and humanity as described in Genesis. Houghton’s picture can be understood as a visual embodiment of her interpretation of this covenant because it is the product of intercommunion between the material and spiritual worlds. Furthermore, the image serves to encompass the viewer, whose meditative interaction with Houghton’s image work completes the interface of three and produces meaning. As Houghton wrote on the verso of her visionary picture, “in actuality these three are one.”

Houghton’s writings imply that the entities that form the Holy Trinity each focus on the activities of the material world from various perspectives. Her complex written narrative of the multifaceted nature of God also includes a descriptive chart that serves to direct the viewer’s eye to the specific colors and lines in the painting that are indicative of the importance of the separate elements described in the image. Houghton’s paintings traverse the connection between perceptions of how the concept of oneness or individuality is understood in the realms of the material world and how individualism might be expressed in a multi-temporal, multi-dimensional field of the spiritual spheres. Examinations of Houghton’s pictures using a formal analysis are useful but propose only one of several possible analytical perspectives. The development of an inclusive, multilayered interrogative enquiry offers even further opportunity to understanding possible meanings embedded in her artwork.37

Houghton’s depiction of the Trinity, for example, disrupts androcentric, monolithic ideas about the nature of God. Monolithic monotheism, for instance, envisions one god that has no inherent relational attributes, suggesting little, if any, ability for intercommunication. According to texts in the Old Testament, God’s function is reduced to delivering, prescribing, and enforcing a doctrine of obedience to a restrictive law. According to some contemporary theologians, the first principle of Biblical doctrine stipulates that the Holy Trinity is inherently mysterious and as such its revelation is only possible through the intercession of love and the pursuit of knowledge, considered two of the most important spiritually motivated activities. Consequently, it is only through the comprehension of the true concept of love that civilization might one day embrace the conception of the Trinity. Love combined with knowledge does not provide the key to total command of the mystery of the Trinity, but it does offer an avenue through which humanity may experience a more abundant and insightful living experience.

Houghton’s works of art, enhanced by her written and verbal explanatory tools, are however limited by the three-dimensional qualities of the material world. The languages of text and symbol to describe transcendental meaning are not always easily accessible nor are they universal, and so they often act as inherently insufficient descriptors of the multidimensional reality of the Spiritual conceptions of implications of the Holy Trinity. The Old Testament’s use of the word “person,” for example, is unlike contemporary precise interpretations of the word, but instead implies a broad range of meaning including living being, soul, and breath. The New Testament uses the translation of the Greek word anthropos, which encompasses gender-free descriptions of living being, soul, and breath. The word “person,” then, does not imply an independent gendered center of consciousness or personal center of action. Instead, it exists in a threefold manner of being. Houghton’s abstracted portrayal of multiplicity in the form of the Holy Trinity offers opportunities for intercommunication between entities that are separate and distinct yet simultaneously one. In her capacity as a conduit between the material world and the spiritual, Houghton thus reinterpreted a fundamentally male-dominated doctrine that perpetuates the ideology of a triune entity that effectively excludes women, while she also expanded the boundaries of communication between the spirit and the material world. Houghton’s art thus performs as a messenger or physical incarnation of the Word of the Sacred Triad channeled through the body of a woman.

Artist Frederick Wilson’s thorough description of Houghton’s images helps to augment other stylistic assessments of her work that were published in the Spiritualist literature of the period. But the innovative style and complex symbolic content of her paintings requires a significant amount of thoughtful deliberation, and too many viewers applied a more superficial judgment of her work based on aesthetic qualities alone. Editors from the Spiritualist periodical Medium and Daybreak, for example, did not support a more attentive approach to understanding the implication of Houghton’s collaborative works. Instead, they opted for the much more cursory and often dismissive examination commonly afforded works produced by women artists in nineteenth-century Britain. In one excerpt from such an article, for example, the author acknowledges “great neglect in the matter of Miss Houghton’s admirable Gallery of Spirit Drawings … We saw one of [her] drawings some years ago, but it was not a very striking specimen” (“Miss Houghton’s Exhibition” 296). Later in the same response, the critic opts for a superficial characterization of Houghton’s pictures, focusing exclusively on the quality of the design, effectively eliding any reference to symbolic content: “The beauty and richness of the colours at once fascinate the eye, and a closer inspection interests the mind by the wonderful indications of design which run through each drawing” (296).

Houghton, undaunted, planned every detail of the organization of her solo exhibition (1871) of 155 of her mediumistic watercolors, which she arranged in a double line that surrounded the entire room, beginning with her earliest images executed ten years before in 1861 and concluding with examples of her most recent pictures. Hung in this way, the paintings provided an informative study of the progression of her visionary art production. The exhibition demonstrated how, over time, Houghton transformed the content of her pictures by using innovative juxtapositions of vibrantly hued colors and also progressed from simple shapes and lines to interconnected, complex designs. Ultimately, her images embodied a harmonious blending of richly hued and variously rendered lines that often crossed over and blended into one another.

Houghton arranged her paintings in a manner that encouraged viewers to walk about the circumference of her gallery, drawing attention to the progressive transformative qualities of her art. She also included a carefully catalogued listing of the titles of her paintings, enhanced by explicit descriptions of her process and the meaning of her art. In an effort to shed as much light as possible on the purpose of her complex symbols, Houghton supplemented her explanations with what she considered to be relevant “extracts of some of the explanatory texts including pertinent quotes from the Bible” (Evenings at Home 1.73). Her choice of text was augmented by her connection with Spirit energies. She wrote:

I must here allude slightly to the method by which I receive inspirationally the interpretations of my drawings so as to explain something of what has thus been taught me. When the time comes for me to receive the interpretation, I place the drawing before me [so that] messengers may enable me to understand the truths they have embodied in form and colour.38

Houghton’s attempts to clarify the spiritual meaning of her paintings using biblical text meant that some viewers, not surprisingly, connected her scriptural selections closely with religious doctrine. As a result, initially at least, Spiritualist viewers who rejected any association with the pious doctrine of organized religion boycotted her exhibition, believing that her art work promoted traditional religion rather than the spiritual enlightenment endorsed by Modern Spiritualism.39 While some Spiritualists repudiated connection with organized religious affiliation that promoted what they considered a dogmatic doctrine, they also rejected the idea that “Spiritual Intercommunion runs counter to, or ignores Christianity.”40 Many Spiritualists of the nineteenth century argued that the tenets of both belief systems agreed perfectly because they emanated “alike from one common source of all good—the Supreme Deity; as having the same glorious object—the development of the immortal soul” (1). Even with Houghton’s best efforts to explain the significance of her paintings, reviews were often conflicted. Writers in one spiritualist journal, for example, helped to dispel the idea that Houghton’s exhibition promoted traditional religious doctrine while they simultaneously trivialized both her work and her efforts to disseminate the Spiritualist teachings of her visionary pictures:

the catalogue fails to give any conception of the nature of the drawings; a theological idea takes possession of the mind instead of the more evident impression of wonderful artistic manipulation and effect. We fear, indeed, that many Spiritualists have frightened themselves away from the exhibition with this theological bugbear; but we can assure them, however much of it there may be in the catalogue, there is no theology in the pictures, at least as far as we could perceive.

“Miss Houghton’s Exhibition” 296–297

The results of the article were largely positive, however, because Spiritualists ended the boycott against Houghton’s exhibition and instead worked to decipher what ethereal messages might, indeed, lie within the complex rendering of her images.41

Houghton’s art began to gain currency as capable of channeling higher forms of communication—just as capable as those which appealed only to the natural perceptive faculties, the external mind or the intellect. She believed that her pictures had the potential to transcend the boundaries of the material and physical world of three-dimensional objects and to penetrate the willing human psyche, helping to facilitate a meditative calmness that could result in spiritual transcendence. She spoke about her production of innumerable repetitions of important symbols and believed that this repetitive process helped to produce an image that facilitated a harmonious flow of opportunities for viewers to expand their consciousness in a safe environment. Although Houghton provided information about the purpose of her pictures she also believed that it was important for viewers to conduct their own meditation upon the work in order to extract individual meaning that might, in some cases, lead to physical and/or spiritual healing. Critics, however, refused to invest time in a focused contemplation of Houghton’s visionary pictures and so did not discern relevant connections between the content of her images and her written explanations of their Spiritual symbolism. Instead, they dismissed Houghton’s efforts to clarify the meaning of her art and wrote “we cannot say anything about the explanations given in the catalogue—they are beyond our comprehension” (“Miss Houghton’s Spirit Drawings” 175). Similarly, descriptive reviews in the Spiritualist located Houghton’s art in the realism of the material world, ignoring her explanations and insisting instead that Houghton’s representations of “growing spirit flowers” were not convincing because “they all cut off square at the edges” and were missing “their stalks” (175). Critics refused to acknowledge Houghton’s efforts to reveal the meaning of her pictures, and instead focused on a comparative formal analysis that relied on assessments between the levels of realism displayed in her flower representations and their natural surroundings.

Reviewers did not, however, dispute Houghton’s claim that her visionary pictures were the result of a collaborative effort between the spirit and the material world; on the contrary, they acknowledged the connection but noted that Houghton had misinterpreted the intention of her spiritual associate and summarily accused her of the reductive thinking that they themselves displayed:

We none of us know the conditions which colour the communications of spirits as they pass through the organism of a medium, and there is a possibility that Miss Houghton accepts literally teachings intended to be symbolical, for the information that reaches the consciousness of a medium may be one thing, and the information which the spirits intended to convey may be another.

175

Nineteenth-century Spiritualists and non-Spiritualists alike often failed to acknowledge the transitional, ethereal quality of Houghton’s symbolic paintings and instead conceptualized her elusive images within the realm of definitive classifications and categorizations. In so doing, they overlooked the complexities of her art production and, as a result, misunderstood the intention of the symbolism embedded in her pictures.

Critics who did not appreciate the symbolic nature of Houghton’s pictures commented, however, on her skillful use of color and praised her command of drawing. But even then they did not acknowledge her expertise as an autonomous artist instead crediting the intervention of unseen entities for her “expertly rendered art work … the general opinion is that the design, execution, and effect which Miss Houghton’s drawings display, indicate a power greater than that which any artist would venture on claiming” (“Miss Houghton’s Exhibition of Spirit Drawings” 296–297). Writers did not recognize Houghton’s artistic ability noting instead that “artists usually claim some merit in the production of their works—time spent in preparatory study and exercises, thought expended in designing and care bestowed in execution” (296–297). They rejected any perception that Houghton had used her combined skills as a trained artist and medium to produce her pictures and argued instead that “the spiritual origin of these drawings” signaled the passive nature of the “medium-artist, who is taken possession of by the spirits and without thought and application is made to perform the most wonderful tasks” (296–297). Even though critics noted that as Houghton gained experience she produced more complex and intricately rendered images, they attributed the “abundant indications of progress and improvement” that were obvious in Houghton’s art to “the action of spirit-artists through her than from premeditated intention on the part of the medium” (296–297). Houghton’s visionary images, made up of multifaceted configurations of finely and broadly interwoven curved lines that covered the entire surface of the paper, were meant to evoke more than a pleasing aesthetic. Indeed, the profoundly symbolic nature of Houghton’s mediumistic paintings was meant to invoke a transcendental experience in viewers. And she eschewed the negative commentary, writing that her pictures were the result of a collaborative effort between the material and spiritual worlds; spirits helped to provide the content of her drawings, while she was responsible for their stylistic components. She was not concerned about her choice to hone her abilities to communicate with unseen entities and believed that she “need have no fear, for that my previous education had been given as a preparation for the work I was to do, and having in former years been accustomed to drawing flowers from Nature, with all their brilliancy of colouring, my brain was already trained to bear what my eye was fitted to receive” (Evenings at Home 1. 23). Houghton believed that her art training, one that included a focus on drawing flowers from nature, had prepared her to work in collaboration with unseen energies. She was convinced that her skills and abilities honed over a lifetime of practice combined with her ability as a medium contributed to the production of her images.

Critics, however, continued to undermine her attempts to disseminate knowledge about Modern Spiritualism and delayed acknowledgment of her invitations to attend her exhibition. One letter published in a popular Spiritualist paper exemplifies the tongue-in-cheek disdain that male critics and writers reserved for women artists—especially those who professed the ability to work in collaboration with, rather than as mechanical devices of, spirits.

We plead guilty to great neglect in the matter of Miss Houghton’s admirable Gallery of Spirit Drawings. A complimentary card was sent us for the opening day, and afterwards a special admission at all times, and yet this meritorious exhibition had not a visit from us. And what shall we plead in extenuation of our conduct? The very telling excuse that we were so continuously occupied that the duty of going down to Bond Street was put off from day to day, with the hope that after the events of “this week” the pressure of affairs would be a little more relenting. Our visit at last was accomplished through a mere accident. Coming home weary after a long walk in the City, a friend fairly dragged us off in his cab …

“Miss Houghton’s Exhibition of Spirit Drawings” 296–297

Houghton, despite the condescension demonstrated by some Spiritualist newspapers, continued to produce her images and to provide detailed verbal and written explanatory accounts. Some of the most important tools for decoding the meanings of her visionary pictures are in the form of these explanations often attached to the verso of her pictures. Her sophisticated descriptions provide a key to the symbolic representations encoded in her images and were meant to provide further clarification of the messages embedded in each work. Houghton believed that her explanations were obtained through her intercommunication with disembodied beings whose ultimate goal was to provide spiritual enlightenment, hope, and healing for humanity.

Houghton realized that her efforts to educate the public on the important message of her art were misunderstood and often mocked and she wrote about her frustration:

I have endeavoured to make my language as clear and unambiguous as possible; but still I know that misunderstandings may arise, for I have often heard my own words distorted into something absolutely the reverse of what I have meant.

Evenings at Home 1. vii

Even so, she continued to work and to deliver her message, believing that her spirit paintings brought evidence of sentient life after death to the people who attended her private and public exhibitions, and especially to those who professed a skeptic reaction to the idea of spirit-agency after physical death. Houghton was well-known among London Spiritualists and her exhibitions of spirit pictures were well attended despite reviews that attempted to belittle her work.

Houghton continued to work towards her goal of making her pictures available to as wide an audience as possible and worked to establish an annual exhibition of spiritualist paintings. She wrote to well-known Spiritualist journals including Medium and Daybreak, Spiritual Magazine Christian, and Spiritualist about her idea. Houghton’s exhibition in Old Bond Street was successful and she offered to organize an extended annual “exhibition of Drawings, to consist of works executed through different mediums” (Houghton, “Another Exhibition of Spirit-Drawings” 359). The positive response from those in attendance at her exhibition at Bond Street prompted her to write that, “[t]he more I have heard on the subject during the time that my own Gallery has been open the more convinced I am that a very interesting collection may be made” (359). Houghton performed extensive preliminary planning, and offered to “send perhaps a dozen or so” of her visionary pictures “(or more if they should be wished for)” (359). She also offered to include “six or seven drawings by other mediums” and encouraged other visionary artists to submit their own mediumistic pictures for public exhibition.42 Houghton was enthusiastic about the possibilities of such an exposition and even suggested that it be extended from a national status to a global one. She envisioned an annual international exhibition that focused exclusively on mediumistic images, writing that although “a suggestion was made in this paper that works of art not executed mediumistically should also be admitted to the same Exhibition,” she believed that the display “ought to be confined exclusively to spirit drawings or paintings, there being plenty of other galleries for this world artists” (359).

Houghton was aware that she navigated uncharted waters when she embarked on her mission to make communication between the material and the immaterial spheres available to as many people as she could. She understood that her position as a woman artist who experimented with mediumistic paintings made her a target of some of the most vitriolic critics. Women visionary artists had to confront efforts to anthologize Spiritualism. Many physicians argued that Spiritualism produced insanity and attracted those who were already insane, while the perceived loss of conscious control that was believed to occur during a mediumistic intercommunion with unseen entities aroused fear and suspicion in some public arenas. In addition, the classification of Spiritualism as a religious delusion was a way for opponents to diminish the threat of a belief system that disrupted boundaries and enabled them to attempt to assert control and to impose conformity. Alex Owen writes, for example, that to categorize mediumistic abilities as a condition of mania was a common method of forcing conformity to social norms. Women who participated in Modern Spiritualist activities such as automatic writing and drawing were often diagnosed as suffering from hysteria and were labeled as displaying neurotic temperament, which demonstrated their emotional weakness and a lack of will-power.43 Houghton wrote about her own experience of just such a diagnosis as follows:

I made an engagement to go on November 21 to a séance at Dr. Dixon’s … where Madame Besson and other mediums were to be present, among whom was Mr. Eyre, and I took my drawings with me … A few days afterwards Mr. Eyre [said] … that I must entirely give up my drawing mediumship, for that the action of those brilliant colours would be injurious to the brain, and produce all kinds of dreadful calamities … But I said that on that point I would be only guided by my own spirit friends, whom I accordingly consulted, and was told that I need have no fear, for that my previous education had been given as a preparation for the work I was to do, and having in former years been accustomed to drawing flowers from Nature, with all their brilliancy of colouring, my brain was already trained to bear what my eye was fitted to receive.

Evenings at Home 1. 23

Houghton was bluntly forthright in her refusal to be intimidated and instead responded that

there are puny beings with half an intellect, or one bemuddled with greed of gain or worldly advantage, who will say—Are you sure you are not self-deceived?—that you are not a victim of fancy or imagination? and such-like twaddle. They are not worth heeding, because it is their own inaptitude that renders them blind.44

In the nineteenth century, Houghton’s abstracted images contravened conventional stylistic imperatives perpetuated by the Royal Academy and transgressed boundaries between the material world and the ethereal. Consequently, despite her painstaking attempts to clarify the symbolically dense character of her spiritual pictures, the breach between her visual representation and her textual references did not offer an easy route to understanding, and at times appeared to impede such revelation. My analysis is intended to contribute to current efforts to uncover meanings often embedded in visionary art, some of which are based largely on formal perspectives that appear to replicate readings employed by nineteenth-century critical reviews. Houghton’s revolutionary work acted as a conduit to the “peaceful, harmonious, spiritualizing influences” that served to circumvent physical consciousness and to address the sentient spiritual element of all living beings (“Miss Houghton’s Exhibition of Spirit Drawings” 296–297). In addition, her pictures prefigure art produced by lauded male artists whose work was also informed by their interest in Modern Spiritualism and Modern Theosophy. Houghton interrupted androcentric, empirically based, reductive ideologies that restricted humanity to the boundaries of material physicality by creating inherently multi-dimensional art that employs a transitional quality that makes attempts at a definitive, objective analysis elusive.

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1

Visionary images produced by women mediums, in particular, are difficult to locate and often fragile. Their pictures are rarely exhibited on the walls of art museums and instead are either lost or remain as reproductions in nineteenth-century Spiritualist journals. As a result, they are absent from most academic art historical literature. In some fortunate cases, however, visionary pictures are stored in manuscript collections or displayed on the walls of Spiritualist churches.

2

See Alex Owen, The Darkened Room, and Ann Broude, Radical Spirits. Other studies of the role of women in Spiritualism include Laurence Moore, “The Spiritualist Medium: A Study of Female Professionalism in Victorian America”; Vieda Skultans, “Mediums, Controls and Eminent Men,” in Women’s Religious Experience; Judith R. Walkowitz, “Science and the Séance: Transgressions of Gender and Genre in Late Victorian London”; Molly McGarry, “Spectral Sexualitites: Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism, Moral Panics, and the Making of US Obscenity Law”; Katherine H. Porter, Through a Glass Darkly: Spiritualism in the Browning Circle; Howard Kerr, Mediums and Spirit-Rappers and Roaring Radicals: Spiritualism in American Literature 1850–1900; Russell and Clare Goldfarb, Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century Letters; Diana Basham, The Trail of Woman: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian Literature and Society; Vanessa Dickerson, Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural; and Sarah Willburns, Possessed Victorians: Extra Spheres in Nineteenth-Century Mystical Writings.

3

Canadian artist Alma Rumball’s (1902–1978) visionary paintings have been exhibited at venues throughout Ontario, Canada including the Art Gallery of Ontario, York University Art Gallery, and Art Gallery of Mississauga. Her mediumistic images were also featured in Jeremiah Munce’s award winning documentary “The Alma Drawings,” presented at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto Ontario in 2005. Scholars of the late twentieth century have studied her visionary representations and imagery, arguing that they were meant to act as educational tools while they were also meant to facilitate unconscious spiritual and physical healing in viewers. See Wendy Oke, “An Artistic Pioneer: Alma Rumball Pioneer in Art and in Spirit” 33–38.

4

See three texts by Homi K. Bhabha: “DissemiNation” 139–170; The Location of Culture; and “Culture’s in-between.”

5

Oberter, Esoteric Art 229. 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.

6

Houghton, Evenings at Home 1. 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).

7

Glimpses of a Brighter Land 14. It is not uncommon to see contradictions in nineteenth-century examples of automatic writing.

8

Houghton, “Another exhibition of Spirit-Drawings” 359: “Having sent the following article to the Spiritual Magazine and the Christian Spiritualist, perhaps you will also be so good as to insert it in your paper, as from its extensive circulation it may bring the idea before persons who may not see the other periodicals.

9

Evenings at Home 1. 84. When she wrote to the Medium and Daybreak to persuade them to circulate information about her automatic paintings, she made clear her intention to introduce the ideas of Spiritualism to the public: “I should wish to do all in my power towards the fulfillment of the plan, so as to have no cause for self-reproach if it should not be carried out …” (Evenings at Home 2. 111).

10

See Belting, Likeness and Presence 49, 53. See also Rachel Oberter, Spiritualism and the Visual Imagination in Victorian Britain 72–73.

11

For more information with regard to Ruskin’s involvement with Spiritualism, see Van Akin Burd, Ruskin, Lady Mount-Temple and the Spiritualists, and Christmas Story: John Ruskin’s Venetian Letters of 1876–1877 (also by Burd). See also Philip Hoare, “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth-Century.”

12

Nineteenth-century artist and Spiritualist Mary Howitt-Watts served as Rossetti’s medium in his attempts to communicate with the spirit of his dead wife, Elizabeth Siddall, supporting evidence that he actively participated in Spiritualist activities. Versions of both of Rossetti’s paintings were purchased by Spiritualists William and Georgiana Cowper-Temple to symbolize their beliefs and to decorate their home, Broadlands, which also functioned as a Spiritualist retreat. See Carl Ray Woodring, Victorian Samplers: William and Mary Howitt 205; A. M. Howitt-Watts, “Thoughts Regarding the Mystical Death” 226; Philip Hoare, England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian 206–209; Van Akin Burd, “General Introduction” to Christmas Story: John Ruskin’s Venetian Letters of 1876–1877 113; and Rachel Oberter, Spiritualism and the Visual Imagination 100.

13

Wesley helped to organize Christian societies throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and he developed the idea of personal accountability, which he promoted through his sermons. His accounts with regard to the power of a universal God were not uncommon in nineteenth-century notions of Christianity. Wesley’s writings were available in late-nineteenth-century England and Houghton may well have been aware of them.

14

Ruskin became a firm believer in Spiritualism and when he was reminded of his former disbelief in the immortality of the soul he remarked to a friend, “Yes, I remember it very well. That which revived this belief in my mind was, more than anything else, the undeniable proofs of it offered by Spiritualism” (Peebles, What is Spiritualism? Who are These Spiritualists? and What can Spiritualism do for the World? 78). Houghton was acquainted with Peebles’s work and she wrote about welcoming him to England (Evenings at Home 1. 276).

15

Ruskin 168–170. This excerpt reiterates philosophical ideologies about a microcosm for the divine macrocosm.

16

Artists of the nineteenth century were as interested in the phenomenon of the spirit world as were many others of the period but the risk of ridicule meant that many kept their interest in Spiritualism private. Even so, Houghton refers to two artists that demonstrated curiosity about spiritualist practice: “On January 4th 1868 I had gone to a séance at Mrs. Guppy’s … there were eleven persons present (one of whom was Mr. Holman Hunt) including myself.” Another artist that Houghton referred to by name in her autobiography was feminist activist, satirist and artist Florence Claxton who had exhibited paintings with the Society of Women Artists and had attended Houghton’s exhibition. Houghton wrote that, “the sweet artist and very charming person, had been brought by a friend to my Exhibition in Old Bond Street. She afterwards came here to see me, and pressed me very warmly to spend an evening with her, although I usually decline all such invitations I could not resist her, and went” (see Houghton, Evenings at Home 1. 167, 246). Florence Claxton’s sister, artist Adelaide Claxton, appears also to have indulged her interest in aspects of the Spiritual spheres and her painting Wonderland c. 1860 depicts a small child engrossed in her reading unaware that she is surrounded by phantoms.

17

See Wilson 193. Frederick Wilson (1858–1932) became one of the leading craft artists for Louis Comfort Tiffany & Co., making stained glass windows that focused on ecclesiastical leaded-glass design during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was born and raised in Britain and gained training in painting and design from his father. He was an established artist in Britain when he immigrated to the United States sometime between 1891 and 1892. Wilson worked at Tiffany Studios for almost thirty years and most of his designs were conducted there but at times he designed for other studios including Heaton Butler & Bayne, Godwin Studios, The Gorham Company, Judson Studios, and the Los Angeles Art Glass Company.

18

Although there is no direct evidence that Houghton read material on botany, I believe that it would have been impossible for her not to have some familiarity with botanical symbolism. In an excerpt from her autobiography Houghton talks about her familiarity with the vibrant color of flowers, which prepared her for her future work in Spiritualism. She includes another anecdote about her familiarity with botany when she wrote about her dismay at having to leave her greenhouse behind as a result of a move: “When I came away on Monday evening, I brought home a beautiful bunch of flowers from their garden, which as an especial treat, for the having to do without flowers was a great loss to me when we came to live here, as we had always been accustomed to so great an abundance, both from garden and greenhouse” (Evenings at Home 1. 23, 278).

19

Shteir, Cultivating Women 13–15. 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.

20

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.

21

Walsh 518. See also Beverly Seaton, The Language of Flowers A History; and Sabina Haass, “Speaking Flowers and Floral Emblems: The Victorian Language of Flowers.”

22

See Gleadall iii. For example, De Genlis’s Bouquet de Sentiment ou Allégorie des Plantes et des Couleurs, Paris, 1816. The most influential of these early books was Charlotte de La Tour’s Le Langage des Fleurs, Paris, 1819. See also Nicolette Scource, The Victorians and Their Flowers 29–65.

23

See Gleadall iii. A prospectus from the 1830s announces that Miss Simpson and Miss Gleadall have “a Vacancy for one or two Young Ladies, who may be very eligibly accommodated as parlour boarders, and receive private lessons.” Along with tuition in English grammar, history, reading, and “fashionable works,” they also offered French, Italian, music, drawing, dancing, writing, geography, and astronomy.

24

Shteir, Cultivating Women 96, 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).

25

Walsh 7. Some books, such as Jane Giraud’s The Flowers of Shakespeare (1850) and William Elder’s Burn’s Bouquets (1875), concentrated on the floral iconography of a single source, but far more common and certainly more popular was the compendium, such as John Henry Ingram’s Flora Symbolica (1869), which combined a cultural “history” of traditions and rituals, with separate entries on individual flowers and a double lexicon of both flowers and their meanings. Ingram acknowledged his reliance on other writers such as Mrs. Loudon and Eliza Cook, but he urged his readers to observe nature and trust their own intuition, explaining that “some flowers, indeed, almost bear written upon their upturned faces the thoughts of which they are living representations,” including the “childlike Daisy” or the “glowing Rose.” For more information on the language of flowers in the nineteenth century, see: Mrs. John Claudius Loudon, The Ladies’ Flower-Garden of Ornamental Annuals; Henry Philips, Floral Emblems; Frederic Shoberl, The Language of Flowers: With Illustrated Poetry; and Robert Tyas, The Sentiment of Flowers: or, Language of Flora.

26

Shteir, Cultivating Women 159. 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.

27

245. Other books that combine floral art and verse in “floral portraits” with the emblematic tradition include: Louisa Twamley, The Romance of Nature (1836) and Flora’s Gems, or The Treasures of the Parterre (1837); and Rebecca Hey, The Moral of Flowers (1833) and The Spirit of the Woods (1837).

28

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848 in Britain, consisted of John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. They exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy of art in 1849—almost a decade before Houghton produced her abstracted visionary paintings.

29

Mancoff 6. Art historian Gerard Curtis has argued that the language of flowers is key to a successful interpretation of Ford Madox Brown’s paintings (see “Ford Madox Brown’s Work: an Iconographic Analysis” 623–636).

30

The material regarding the writings on the back of Houghton’s works (indicated as “verso” hereafter) was sent by e-mail by Anne Lamont of the Victorian Spiritualist Union on 11 January 2010.

31

Verso. Lamont also included an image of Houghton’s written description of the content of her visionary picture. Houghton tended to use the terms charity and love interchangeable but always in reference to her representation of the Holy Spirit. Houghton underlined her statement “these three are one” twice to demonstrate the importance of the unity of the Trinity.

32

See, for example, John 4: 34; 1Cor. 8:6; and Eph. 3: 11.

33

John 1: 5; John 8: 12. Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt was also inspired by scriptural text when he produced his oil on canvas painting Light of the World (1851–1853).

34

Every ray of light is made up of the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. When a ray of light touches an object so that the red and yellow are absorbed, the color reflected is blue. Similarly, if yellow and blue are absorbed, the color perceived is red. Houghton, as an artist, would have had knowledge of color theory.

35

Qtd. in Robert Styler, “Lines, Triangles, and the Trinity” (paper submitted for the Experience of God in the Disciplines, September 2001: http://www41.homepage.villanova.edu/robert.styer/). See also Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism.

36

Styler. For more information on symbols and biblical references see: J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols; http://www.bright.net/~gray0013/symbols/trinity.html, reportedly taken from Church Symbolism by F. R. Webber; Maurice Farbridge, Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism 3; and Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism 5.

37

Rachel Oberter, for example, offers a thorough formal analysis of Houghton’s images in Esoteric Art 224–225.

38

1. 74. Houghton used scriptural text in an effort to augment the spiritual content of the pictures in her exhibitions. It was not an uncommon practice for nineteenth-century artists and curators to include textual references in an effort to enhance the impact of the content of the picture while they also educated the viewer. The Whitechapel Free Art Gallery, for example, opened for the first time in the spring of 1881 in the rooms of St. Jude’s parish school in East London’s Whitechapel. The gallery was created by the vicar of St. Jude’s and his wife, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, and was an attempt, in part, to use the display of art objects as a way in which to promote social reclamation and urban renewal in some of the poorest areas of London. The Barnetts, with the help of men and women from the more affluent West End of London, hoped to encourage “the cultural and spiritual elevation of East Enders and, more generally, the foundation of harmonious social relations between rich and poor” by exhibiting pictures that promoted their version of “moral values.” The Barnetts applied the aesthetic theories of art critic John Ruskin who argued in Modern Painters that the production of art and the ability to see and understand it was connected to the elevation of moral and religious sensibilities. The Barnetts also, however, sincerely believed that “great art transcended social divisions and created a pool of shared emotions, thoughts, and sensations that would tie all men and women together.” In addition, catalogues were created whose entries were meant to provide detailed descriptions of exactly how “the poor of Whitechapel” were meant to see and to interpret the art exhibited. These catalogues were intended to “teach the people how to look at picture … and [pointed] more to the moral than the artistic side of the picture …” Firms such as William Morris and Company donated their time and goods to the gallery and artists such as George Frederick Watts, and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibited their paintings regularly. See Seth Kovan, “The Whitechapel Picture Exhibitions and the Politics of Seeing” 22–48. See also Judith Walsh, “Language of Flowers in Nineteenth-Century American Painting” 220, in which Walsh discusses the nature of books that assigned appropriate scriptural verses as well as short extracts from contemporary poetry included to enhance the description of plants and flowers. See also Diana Maltz, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870–1900: Beauty for the People.

39

Spiritualists who rejected Houghton’s belief in Christian ideology were cautious about attending Houghton’s exhibitions because Houghton chose to use biblical text to explain the meaning of some of the symbols in her pictures.

40

See Glimpses of a Brighter Land, introductory material (not paginated).

41

In a letter to the Spiritualist journal Medium and Daybreak Houghton wrote that she was responding to “several inquiries as to the number of visitors to my own Gallery … Of paying visitors, including the seven season-ticket holders, there were exactly eighteen hundred and fifty; but there were a great many free admissions, of which no record was kept, so that at the very least we may calculate that there were altogether two thousand, only about one-tenth part of whom were Spiritualists; so it will be seen how large has been the proportion of those who have ventured out of their usual path to judge of so great a novelty for themselves; and I am happy to say that during all the four months that it has been open I have had many deeply interesting conversations; and I feel sure that my Exhibition has brought the certainty of spirit-agency to some who would not have attended to the subject in any other form” (Houghton, “Another exhibition of Spirit-Drawings” 359).

42

She wrote: “I have endeavoured to gain all the information I could as to the method by which it may be accomplished. Mr. McNair, who has acted as manager and secretary for my Exhibition and has had much experience in similar arrangements, would be willing to undertake the working details; and he tells me that the usual plan is for a sum to be guaranteed sufficient to meet the expenses, say be subscribers of £5 each; then there must be one gentleman who will undertake the duty of treasurer, and at least three or five who will finally form themselves into a “hanging” committee, and perhaps for that purpose some artists may kindly volunteer who already have experience in that line. It will also be requisite to know if the pictures will be forthcoming, and whether the numerous artist-mediums will kindly do their utmost to ensure a successful result by contributing their works for the purpose” (359).

43

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.

44

1. 23. Houghton was clear about the social stigma attached to Spiritualists’ belief systems and about the negative impact that it had on practicing mediums. The following are two examples of her thoughts on the subject: “A non-professional medium … will not submit to the gross suspicions and coarse tests of skeptical enquirers. Those class of insults need a golden salve. Why, their very language on the subject, although perhaps put politely, is sometimes intolerably insulting, almost as if they would think it quite natural that you should recount a string of falsehoods (not to use a stronger term) for the purpose of convincing them! Convincing them of what?” (1. 20); “Another suffering that comes upon professional mediums, which none could be expected to bear without full compensation, is that the atmosphere around them becomes tainted by the unwholesome spiritual elements which emanate from the worldly, the vicious, and the skeptical, who form the large bulk of their visitors, for even a pleasant outside aspect may conceal heart-blackness” (1. 214).

  • 5

    Oberter, Esoteric Art 229. 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.

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  • 6

    Houghton, Evenings at Home 1. 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).

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  • 10

    See Belting, Likeness and Presence 49, 53. See also Rachel Oberter, Spiritualism and the Visual Imagination in Victorian Britain 72–73.

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  • 19

    Shteir, Cultivating Women 13–15. 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.

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  • 20

    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.

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  • 24

    Shteir, Cultivating Women 96, 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).

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  • 26

    Shteir, Cultivating Women 159. 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.

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  • 43

    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.

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