Thursday, 1 September 2016

Spirit Drawings - by Anna Howitt

I haven’t yet managed to get to the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of ‘Spirit Drawings’ by Georgina Houghton, link  here but the press and publicity images are to me strikingly similar to those Spirit Drawings produced by Anna Mary Howitt when she fell for the Spiritualism craze.  It’s a long time since I looked at them in the Psychical Research Collection in Cambridge University LIbrary, but the clear bright colours and swirling lines are very reminiscent.

Anna Howitt was one of the original artists who responded to the work and writing of the PRB in 1849-50.   Unlike most of her contemporaries, she obtained some serious artistic training in Munich, along with Jane Benham Hay and back in Britain painted some remarkable scenes, one of a ‘fallen woman’ to set beside Rossetti’s Found, and one of her friend and fellow-feminist Barbara Leigh Smith posing as a defiant, flame-haired Boudicca.

Both are now lost because when Ruskin – pre-eminent avant-garde  critic in the 1850s – responded (allegedly): “What do you know about Boadicea?  Leave such subjects alone and paint me a pheasant’s wing”, Howitt was so devastated that her fragile mental state cracked and she had a major breakdown during which she destroyed all her paintings.  Some while later she retreated into Spiritualism,  producing  scores of vivid watercolour visions, supposedly under supernatural direction.   I recall, when looking through the long-forgotten portfolio of drawings, feeling very sad that Howitt’s talent and originality should have been so diverted. (One can’t blame Ruskin – there were other indications that Howitt was heading for a breakdown, and he did not know her personally.)  But maybe I should not have been.

I see that Georgina Houghton, who was ten years older than Howitt, had a self-funded exhibition in London in 1871, and it looks as if her work was produced in the 1860s, presumably in the same years as Howitt’s.  I wonder if they knew each other through the Spiritualist network, or whether the coincidence of their angelic productions is just that (or evidence of the spirits’ powers, of course)

All suddenly very intriguing.