Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings. The Courtauld Gallery

by Sue Hubbard

“Wonderful scribble-scrabbles”

GH jpegEngland, for the Victorians, was a very different place to the irreligious, multi-cultural country we have become. Then we believed ourselves to be a ‘great' Empire that would, forever ‘rule the waves'. It was a society where the majority still believed that God created the world in seven days, yet one in the midst of huge technological change where rural communities were leaving the land to work in Blake's ‘dark satanic mills', powered by new-fangled machines that threatened their traditional way of life. Steam, speed and noise came to represent modernity. It was a time of social rigidity as well as social upheaval, where the rich man sat back comfortably in his castle, while the poor man doffed his cap obsequiously at the gate. Fuelled by privilege, hypocrisy and secrets – as was evident in the treatment of women and children and its hidden sexual practices – Victorian society had not yet seen Europe torn apart by two World Wars. Yet death was an ever-present threat. It hovered over childbirth and the lives of infants who might, at any moment, be snatched away by infectious disease. That the Victorians were obsessed with death is, therefore, hardly surprising.

It's against this backdrop, along with the loosening of the bonds of the Anglican Church, the shifts in intellectual thought and the new range of scientific innovations that spiritualism took hold. Séances and mediums became popular as a way of making contact with the departed. It would be easy for us to mock spiritualism as a bit of irrational 19th century jiggery-pokery conducted by the unscrupulous, in darkened rooms swirling with miasmas, in order to extract money from the naive and malleable. But its popularity was more significant than that. The 19th century developed an especial interest in animal magnetism, in madness and criminality, as well in an attempt to discern where the real self resided, exemplified in Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The studies of Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), the Cambridge scholar who founded the Society for Psychical Research were, in many ways, precursors to Freud's later investigations into the unconscious. In his posthumously published Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death, Myers discussed ideas of creative genius with special reference to automatic drawing, which, he suggested, sprung from the ‘subliminal' as opposed to the ‘supraliminal' of normal consciousness. Spiritual mediums used trance and automatism to tap into this psychic reservoir. According to Myer artistic inspiration came from a ‘subliminal uprush' when combined with a ‘supraliminal stream of thought' – an idea that would later be developed in the language of James Joyce and the art of Surrealists such as André Breton.

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