The strange case of the painter who let herself be possessed by ghosts

Looking for artistic inspiration? Why not follow the lead of 19th century spiritualist artist Georgiana Houghton? Rather than draw anything of her own volition, Ms. Houghton allowed herself to become possessed by ghosts and draw their netherwordly visions.

John Ptak has acquired one Houghton's gallery catalogues from an 1871 art show in London. In her annotations, Houghton explains that her inspiration was simple. She would allow herself to become possessed by friendly spirits and draw what they told her. Explains Ptak:

She writes in the very first paragraph of her catalog's introduction, "the execution of the Drawings my hand has been entirely guided by Spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced..." She explains that the spirits were definitely those of dead people, and after having heard of such possibilities of communication as early as 1859 set out to "obtain mediumship" by holding hands with her mother at a small table for some months on end waiting for contact—which of course she says happened. Sundays worked best, "as we should then be less disturbed by evil influences" [...]

It seemed that Miss Houghton was inspired by the spirit drawings of a Miss Wilkinson—it was then that she sought the artistic guidance of a dead artistic sister though without success, and then from a dead brother. It was the brother who brought her into contact with dead Henry Lenny ("a deaf and dumb artist") who then guided her hands at first with the planchette, then with a pencil, and finally to watercolors.

After ten years of her own spirit drawings, Miss Houghton produced for herself a four-month show at the New British Gallery on Old Bond Street, exhibiting 155 of her works, all exhibited in rented frames for the occasion. Her reviews seem to have been very-light and mixed at best, and for all of her effort and trouble, she sold only one painting.

The strange case of the painter who let herself be possessed by ghosts

You can read more about Houghton's possessed artwork over at Ptak Science Books. Also intriguing is this collection of Houghton's spiritualist photography from the 1870s (courtesy of the Keith De Lellis Gallery). In these photographs (above), staid humans appear next to translucent ghosts with veils on their heads. Chilling! It may look hokey to us now, but I imagine such newfangled camera artifice packed quite the punch in the 19th century.