Monday, 17 October 2016

Raising the Spirits of a Weary Traveller...

The New Forest is a lovely place to visit.  Despite its name, there is very little in the way of actual forest, but sweeping swathes of pink heathland, spreading out to the sea.  Dappled and piebald ponies wander willy-nilly, oblivious to cars, and there are wonderful old pubs at every turn.  It is also a nightmare during summer months, queuing to get through tiny villages, hot cars filled with anxious sightseers agitating their sat-nav for a better route, a quicker route, in fact any damn route than the one they, and everyone else in the sodding world, is on.  But of all the wonders and surprises that the South Coast of England affords, a tiny art gallery inside a railway station is possibly the most delightful...

Brockenhurst got its railway station in the late 1850s and took in such routes as Passford Water and Milking Pound Bottom.  It also cut the journey time to London down to 4 hours.  It was eagerly and gratefully embraced by a rural community that obvious always felt it was going places.  Today, Brokenhurst (or 'Brock, Darling' as it is known by the fashionable young 'uns) is a wealthy, artisan-bakery kind of place, and its railway station is remarkably busy and quite big.  You often have to change there to get to Bournemouth and down to Lymington for the ferry to the Isle of Wight.  Ah, the Isle of Wight - you might see where this is going...

Helmut Gernsheim (1962) Ida Kar
This rather dapper looking chap is Helmut Gernsheim, a name that will be very familiar to anyone who has read about Julia Margaret Cameron.  Gernsheim was an art historian who had a special interest in photography and he and his wife Alison amassed a vast collection of early photographs, especially works by reasonably unknown (at that time) artists like Cameron and Lewis Carroll.  There is a lovely story of what is supposed to have triggered this passion.  Whilst travelling across the south of England, Gernsheim found himself caught in bad weather and took shelter in the waiting room at Brokenhurst.  He could not believe his eyes...

"While waiting I was suddenly struck by familiar faces gazing down from the walls.  To my astonishment I found no fewer than eleven autographed portraits of famous Victorians by Julia Margaret Cameron.  I must admit that I was rather puzzled to see these photographs decorating a dingy railway waiting room, of all places, but a moment later I came across the surprising explanation inscribed on one or two of the photographs.
 This gallery of the great men of our age is presented to this room by Mrs Cameron in grateful memory of this being the spot where she first met one of her sons after a long absence of four years in Ceylon. 11th November 1871."
Obviously I wanted to go and have a look...

 In defense of Brockenhurst Railway Station, these days it is not dingy at all.  Small and busy, the ticket office has the plates from two steam trains over the two windows, very appropriately labelled 'Freshwater' and 'Farringford', the trains that took passengers down to the Isle of Wight ferry.  In Gernsheim's notes he says that the original photographs were removed to head office at Waterloo Station in the 1930s but that copies were there when the book was published in the 1970s.  I don't know how hopeful I felt as we investigated, but lo and behold on either side are two wall mounted cabinets with the prints inside.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at Brockenhurst Station
A little label in the cabinet reads 'These photographs are very careful copies of the original photographs by Mrs JULIA MARGARET CAMERON and were bequeathed to this station.  The originals, which were fast fading away, are retained carefully by the Headquarters of SOUTHERN RAILWAY.'  As a side note, I have tried to find where the photographs are now held, but no-one has any idea in head office, which is a great shame.

Massive beards of the New Forest - No.1: Henry Taylor

The prints are beautiful quality and the cabinets are nice if a little retro, but they don't detract from the images. They are kept behind locked sliding doors and I must thank the staff for having the patience to unlock the cabinets for me, so I could take the pictures.

Artist's impression of a JMC photograph
For some reason, one of the photographs, presumably Beatrice Cenci (May Prinsep) (1866) (left), was missing from the reproductions and instead a print of a drawing of it appears in its place.  I'd love to know why - maybe the original had become too faded by the time of their replacement, so a drawing had to be done instead.  It's a very spirited attempt, but I wonder why it wasn't just left out.  Maybe it was felt that Mrs Cameron had left a 'collection' and that should be respected as a vision that should remain intact.  As it is, what is May Prinsep doing in a collection of 'great men' (Cameron's own words)? I have a theory that Cameron often used the word 'men' in terms of 'person', in the old sense of the word.  There is a blog I keep meaning to writing on Cameron's tricksy language, but when it came to 'men', I don't think she meant it to exclude women too.

Everyone's favourite Dirty Monk!
It is impossible not to feel the same delight as Gernsheim at the sight of the Cameron photographs in such an unusual setting.  Many of the faces that grace the walls are possibly unknown to the average traveller these days, not because we are a bunch of numpties, but because people like this aren't exactly everyday celebs...

If you can name this man, I'll be very impressed...
So, if you find yourself in Brockenhurst with a few minutes to spare, make your way over to the ticket office by the Italian restaurant and the car park.  There, behind some pot plants and leaflet holders are the collection of images Cameron left in gratitude to the place her son returned to her.  I often think of Cameron's art as a replacement for her children, to fill that creative, nurturing piece of her life when her nest emptied.  It is therefore appropriate that she left some of her 'children' in the place where she welcomed back her beloved son and created a haven of Victorian art in a bustling world.

(The chap is Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, in case you were wondering.  I'm sure you all knew that though, you clever bunch.)

Monday, 10 October 2016


Hello everyone and this is just a quick post to ask for your help. 

Back in the Spring of last year I told you all about Fanny Cornforth's final years and finding her grave in Chichester Graveyard.  Fanny had died in Graylingwell Asylum and was buried in a common grave.  As she shared her plot with other people it was impossible to have a stone for her without the agreement of the families of the other people in with her, all of which was impossible. 

Fanny's grave at Chichester
Now, during the Graylingwell Project, I worked with Sarah Rance-Riley on Fanny's life in Graylingwell Asylum and now Sarah has started a GoFundMe page to purchase a bench to be placed by Fanny's grave so people can sit and remember her in the peaceful atmosphere of the cemetery.

This is a lovely project and I am so happy to be involved.  It is hoped that the bench can be installed for 9th April next year.  As many of you will know that is the date of Rossetti's death and in the eyes of many of his contemporaries it should have been the day that Fanny was wiped from Pre-Raphaelite history.  I think it is wonderfully and wickedly fitting that we should unveil the memorial to her on that day.

To donate money to the project please visit Sarah's funding page and I shall keep you updated on progress!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Massive Scrubber

One of the many problems with modern life is that it is so easy to take for granted the modern inventions that make our existence so easy.  The moment one of them packs up, however, you have to re-learn skills that our grannies took in their stride.  Thus, I found myself up to my elbows in hot soapy water, scrubbing and wringing heavy, grumpy clothing after the door seal on our washing machine broke last weekend.  All is not lost because the new one is being fitted on Monday but until then I have to scrub and knead and wring and hang all the washing for the family.  It is exhausting.  I now really, really want a mangle.  Anyway, all this time in hot water  made me think about Victorian images of Laundresses...

Gossip (1885) John William Waterhouse
I'm not sure I actually thought laundry was going to be fun, but I thought there would be some pleasant old-fashioned jollity to be had, as displayed in Gossip above.  As it turned out, the amount of time I spent in the garden pinning heavy, wet washing out to drip meant I did find out more than was strictly necessary about my neighbours.  Yikes.  I must learn to peg-out faster...

Washerwomen in the morning at Quimperle Fritz Thaulow
Possibly the mistake I made was to do the washing in the kitchen sink.  A far more communal way to do it is in the local river.  I admit I don't have a local river (other than when the drains are up) but there is a duckpond nearby with only a modest number of rats.  I could have merrily bonded with my neighbours as we scrubbed together.

Washerwomen by the River (1860) Paul Gauguin
See, that is definitely the way forward, everyone is at it.  Plus I'll get one of those hats to wear.

Venetians (1885) Samuel Fildes
Glorious, and a jolly nice way to meet our neighbours.  Although, saying that, I do know a bit too much about our neighbour and I'm not sure I want to discuss it with her.  Plus, all these rivers are crystal clear and sparkly and not that sort of muddy, funny smelling green colour that the duck pond is.  Plus, none of them have the rats, which I do not believe would assist me in my washing.  On to plan B then...

Le Linge (1875) Edouard Manet
If my fellow residents can't be relied on for communal laundry, maybe I should get my daughter Lily-Rose to assist me, as shown by Manet above.  How utterly delightful it would be for the pair of us to wash clothes in our colourful garden in the sparkly sunshine.  Only now it's autumn it all looks a little Somme-ish out there, and my daughter isn't small and cute anymore, she tall and reasonably belligerent if I was to suggest a fun game of wash-all-the-clothes. Now, if I suggested that she washed a large bucket of puppies in the back garden she'd be out there like a shot.  Her own pants?  Not so keen.

Women doing laundry through a hole in the ice (1891) Jahn Ekenaes
Still it could be worse.  It's only autumn, the weather is still mercifully quite warm and we have had some blustery, sunny days that have made my life a little easier.  I have yet to break the ice on the duckpond to scrub my husband's socks.  There would have to be a discussion before that took place.  I mean really, laundry is hard enough without having to cut holes in ice. I bet the little boy is thinking 'when I get home I'm finding out how long it will take to walk to Spain...'

Washing Day (1906) William Russell Flint
Being without a washing machine has made me really appreciate just how much logical planning has to go into washing otherwise.  We have never owned a tumble dryer, but we have air dryers and radiators, so drying clothes on wet days was never much of a problem, however washing them in the sink, then rinsing, then wringing out, that's a whole different matter.  Without a mangle you will never get enough water out of a garment and so outdoor drying is necessary unless you want wet floors.  That means at least 10 hours of dry, warmish weather, preferably breezy, just to get it sort of damp rather than dripping.  Then it takes another day inside to dry off.  I have found myself prioritising items of clothing, like school uniform, socks, knickers, and wondering if things like cardigans can last a day or two longer than I'd normally give them.

A Woman's Work (1912) John Sloan

 Mind you, there is enormous satisfaction in doing something the old fashioned way, and just for a moment feeling like you have not become a useless 21st century person.  All this is firmly in the knowledge that it is a temporary measure, obviously.  I have no aspiration to become like my grandmother who held down a full time job and had to do all the housework too. 

Laundresses Marie Petiet
I should at this point admit one thing.  I am not, and have never been, an ironer.  I will merrily scrub away, but the only time I iron anything is (a) party dress or (b) when I'm sewing seams.  Otherwise, I am constantly in an ensemble of jersey.  I don't have the motivation to iron pillowcases.  I am duly ashamed of myself.

The Laundress (1916) Robert Henri
There is a sort of glamorous in domestic labour captured in art.  Like Communist posters of workers and farmers, the laundresses of Victorian art have a nobility in their work.  These are not feeble women, looking pretty and whimsome (apart possibly from Fildes' bunch).  Instead they are strong, capable women, hard at work.  I have a few questions about why they are often pictured from behind, although I'm sure I can guess the answers, but images such as Henri's magnificent Laundress above makes even the most mundane task seem a little more beautiful.  If I was being optimistic about artist representation for a moment, I would argue that these images show how there was perceived beauty in usefulness.  These artists showed that there was as much, if not more beauty in a woman working with a purpose, than in a society portrait.  These are women too busy to sit down to be painted, but when they are portraits, there is nothing sexualised about them.  There is dignity in their work and in themselves. It might not have been the reality, but it is a positive image none the less.

Roll on Monday...

Friday, 23 September 2016

When Mary met Tenny...

As some of you will know, I have been researching and writing a biography of Mary Hillier, maid and model to Julia Margaret Cameron. 
Mary Hillier (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
As part of this I have been following the lives of Mary's siblings, seeing what they all got up to.  Out of her brothers and sisters, the one I was very interested in was her sister Sophia.  Sophia was just two years older than Mary, and also found work as a maid in a famous home in Freshwater.  In the 1861 census, Sophia is recorded as the kitchenmaid at Farringford, home of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Later that same year, her sister Mary would become parlourmaid at Dimbola Lodge, next door.

Daughters of Jerusalem (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Daughters of Jerusalem features (left to right) Mary Kellaway, an unknown woman who I believe is Sophia Hillier, and Mary Hillier, above an image of Percy Keown.  As I have said before on this blog, I believe that Julia Margaret Cameron was not above pinching the Tennysons' maid for her photographs.  Indeed in Lynn Truss' Tennyson's Gift, Cameron has borrowed 'the maid Sophia' for a photograph in the opening chapters.  Not only this photograph contains Sophia but also others, most persuasively Sister Spirits, again from 1865.

Sister Spirits (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Again, we have Mary Kelleway, Mary Hillier (in the middle) and Sophia Hillier (in profile, right).  This was the photograph that really tipped me off as to the identity of the woman on the right.  In front of her and Mary are the Keown sisters, Alice and Elizabeth, and given the title I was drawn to the resemblance between Mary and the woman next to her.  It might be just me that thinks this but I would bet you a tenner that it's Sophia Hillier, playing hooky from Farringford.

Alfred Tennyson (1865)
Anyway, all this wondering led me to Lincoln, and to the Tennyson Archive, in order to find out more about Sophia Hillier.  She is somewhat of an enigma, but as far as we can see she remained with the Tennyson family, bar a brief stint as cook for John Stapleton, MP in his Chelsea home (in the 1871 census), cooking for the family.  She had only been a kitchenmaid at Farringford, but became a cook, more important and better paid no doubt. Whilst a kitchenmaid at Farringford, she was paid around £2 per quarter, which isn't a great deal but she would have had her meals and lodging supplied, and unlike a lot of young girls in service, she was very close to home indeed (and her sister who was right next door).  When she returned to the Tennyson family, which she had done by the next census in 1881, she was the family's cook and a married woman.  She never seemed to live with her husband, John Page, but he also served in London for a while before living and dying in Newport on the Isle of Wight.  It is a bit of a mystery how she met him, possibly as servants in London, but then a 'Mr Page' appears in the Tennyson accounts during the 1860s, doing a regular job, so it isn't out of the question that John Page was connected to the Tennysons and met Sophia that way.  Anyway, it isn't really Sophia's time working for the Tennysons that I'm here to talk about, it's Mary's...

Emily Tennyson (c.1862) G F Watts
I trawled the accounts of Emily Tennyson, hoping to find more information about Sophia, as background to Mary Hillier. I found something a little bit more surprising than that.  It seems that for two months in 1863 Sophia was absent and so Emily Tennyson turned to her near-neighbour for the use of her parlourmaid.  In May and June 1863, Mary Hillier worked at Farringford, for Alfred and Emily Tennyson.

The Tennyson Family at Farringford (May 1863) Oscar Rejlander
There is no hint in Lady Tennyson's diaries as to what had happened that caused Sophia to take time off.  The Tennyson family were all vaccinated on 19th, but there is no mention of whether Sophia was ill afterwards.  In November 1868, Emily records that 'our poor kitchenmaid' had contracted typhoid fever which she feared would spread in the house.  Whether or not Sophia was still their kitchenmaid in 1868 (as she was in 1861) is unclear, but had Sophia been seriously ill in 1863 it is likely that Emily would have mentioned it.  What she did mention in her accounts was that on 23rd May Mary was paid 8 shillings 'in Sophia's absence'.  On 13th June, another payment, this time for 2 shillings and 4 pence was made to Mary, so it can be guessed that Mary covered for her sister for around 5-6 weeks.

Hallam Tennyson (May 1863) Oscar Rejlander
 It was an interesting 6 weeks.  In early May, Oscar Rejlander came to Freshwater to photograph the Tennyson family and work with Julia Margaret Cameron (see this post about the Idylls of the Village).  I always thought it was funny that, although working at Dimbola Lodge at this point, Mary Hillier doesn't appear in any of the photographs.  Then the idea struck me that possibly she was assisting behind the camera.  When her sister required leave from Farringford, and the Swedish photographer arrived at the Tennyson's home to take pictures, Mary Hillier arrived as well.

I Pray (1865) Oscar Rejlander

Mary Hillier (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
 Looking at some of the images of Oscar Rejlander's wife (who often appears in his photographs, such as I Pray above), I am reminded of images of Mary by Cameron.  It seems surprising that he didn't use her in the Idylls of the Village as she is his 'type', but then if she was naturally skilled as a photographic assistant, he might have valued her help behind the lens and in preparing the plates.  If Julia Margaret Cameron collaborated on the images Rejlander took in 1863, then Mary might have been at her side and then at Rejlander's disposal at Farringford. Furthermore if Cameron was preparing to have a camera herself, she might have appreciated Mary being trained to assist behind the camera, as well as being its subject in front of the lens.

Alfred Tennyson (1863) Oscar Rejlander
The descriptions of life at Dimbola always give quite a laid back impression.  Guest such as Henry Taylor comment on the hectic atmosphere, the lack of meals, the somewhat casual housekeeping (not that there is anything wrong with that), all for the creation of the photographs.  Working at Farringford must have come as a bit of a shock for Mary.  In many ways the ethos of the households were similar: the art was all.  I had the particular pleasure to read through Emily Tennyson's handwritten 'General Order for Domestic Staff'.  These orders cover everything from the order of rooms to be cleaned, remaining quiet and not chattering, to personal hygiene and hair brushing.  To modern eyes being told to brush your hair seems a tad insulting but considering publications like Mrs Beaton's manual, to tell your servants exactly what you expect from them and when saves any confusion.

The Three Graces (1863) Oscar Rejlander
If it is true that Julia Margaret Cameron hired Rejlander to come and photograph Tennyson and his family, maybe she too arranged for Mary Hillier to be there, to assist the photographer and be of service to her beloved neighbours.  Whilst the reason for Sophia's absence is unknown, Mary is definitely there to replace her sister for a short period, as recorded by Emily Tennyson.  In her local newspaper interviews when she was an old lady, Mary Hillier claimed to have known Tennyson, and I had always presumed that was because of her service with Mrs Cameron, but I'd love to know more about her six weeks working for the Tennysons at Farringford.

I do hope she brushed her hair...

Friday, 16 September 2016

Slippery When Wet

In a vain attempt to tone up, I recently took up aquafit at my local swimming pool.  In my mind's eye I look like this...

I admit that is Esther Williams but the effect is the same, honestly.  During my graceful/frenzied kicking, jumping and general thrashing about, I got to thinking about Victorian swimming. As you do...

Bathers at Asnieres (1884) Georges Seurat
Actually more to the point, I thought about Victorian women swimming.  We all know they did it, even Judi Dench does the doggy paddle as Queen Victoria in the film Mrs Brown,  but actually finding images of women in water turned out to be more problematic than I expected.  After all, why wouldn't a painter want to show a lady in her wet scanty costume...?

The Bathers (1888) Henry Tuke
Okay, so Henry Tuke had his own reasons for concentrating on the beauty of the male form and produced some gorgeous images of swimming that are so bright and airy, you feel the summer breeze on your skin and can smell the salt in the air.  The Bathers above is a good case in point, as is Ruby, Gold and Malachite, both of which show young chaps having a lark near water, all without costumes (although Tuke was always careful about how much you saw).

The Bathers (1899-1902) Henri-Edmond Cross
If you have a look, there are images of women swimming but more often than not the women are stark naked.  Whilst I can just about believe that men shed their clothes to leap willy-nilly into any body of water (if you excuse the phrase), I find it a little harder to believe women easily shed the many layers of clothing just to do likewise.  A corset is not something you quickly pop in and out of.  Well, not intentionally anyway.

The Bathing Pool (1916) Harold Knight
In the first part of the twentieth century, especially between the wars, there are some gorgeous images of women in swimsuits or posing by glimmering pools, all in a very 'health and efficiency' kind of way, all part of the new aesthetic of the active woman.  Although the Knight is utterly gorgeous, my favourite of these has to be this one...

Spray Harold Williamson
Dating from around the 1920s, Spray  is possibly the most popular image at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, more so than even Venus Verticordia (which seems like blasphemy, but Spray is just so damn likeable!) and perfectly captures that jolly, healthy vibe.  It's not hard to image that either of the two women above is about to do some swimming then have a scotch egg and some ginger beer after a rough towelling off.  That might just be me.  I do make a great scotch egg.  Anyway, my point is that women swimming seems a natural (in many ways) pastime by this point, but what of Victorian women?

 A bathing suit from 1858. Gentlemen, control your ardour immediately!
The Victorians were in favour of women learning to swim, or at least in favour of them wearing swimsuits.  The Sevenoaks Chronicle from 1881 reported that 'Ladies ought to learn to swim as much as their brothers or their cousins, and when in the water they may be privileged to wear pretty costumes small and light enough to display their graceful forms to advantage...'  It went on to report that the popularity of swimming competitions at Southsea in Hampshire might be healthy and Christian but 'where is feminine delicacy?' Looking at the above costume, I'd be surprised if you could find her feminine delicacy unless she has a special pocket for it.

The man is apparently saying 'Don't be afraid'.  Be afraid, be very afraid...
The Star reported in 1880 that 'ALL WOMEN SHOULD SWIM' and said that although children of both sexes are timid of the open water, it was almost seen as a natural state for women to remain on dry land - 'swimming among the fair sex seems to be regarded as a most difficult and dangerous science'.  Half the problem, the paper observed, was the costume which was seen as restrictive.  The lady emerging from her bathing machine above shows how the earlier bathing costume lost its sleeves and rose to the knees in order for women to be freer in the water and swim without difficulty.  Yet still images of women in water did not tend towards the realistic...

A Race with Mermaids and Tritons (1895) Collier Smithers
For the Victorians there was only one reason for a woman to be in water.  Mermaids, selkies, sirens - all of them lurked in the shallows, called to men from rocks and generally led you a merry old dance before drowing you.  No wonder women were not encouraged into the water to swim, look at the mayhem they cause once you get them wet!

Diana and her Nymphs (1850) John Naish
Ironically, mythological women in water are everywhere in Victorian art.  Look at Edward Burne-Jones and his mermaid fetish (see my post on the subject).  I would argue that there seems almost to be a distrust of women swimming, as if they are up to no good.  Do the artists fear being drowned as they are tempted to follow them?  Do they fear that if the women get fit and strong they might start asking for things like the vote and internal organs in the correct position?  Whatever it is, Victorian men seemed to want to treat Victorian women by the same rules as Gremlins.

A Favourite Custom Lawrence Alma-Tadema
If you are classical and all you want to do in water is splash your friend whilst you are both naked, I suppose that's allowed as long as we can all have a good look at you doing it.

The Capture Charles Shannon
The moment that you look like you can outswim us or that you are not terrified in the water, it will be assumed that you are up to no good. Shannon's pair look a bit suspicious, but he does do awfully good water, in such a tempting colour.

The Wave (1887) Jan Van Beers
So, in conclusion, never trust a woman who can swim.  No, hang on, that's not right.  The Victorians seem to display a fear of women swimming but that might come from many different places.  The figure of the mermaid (other water-based temptresses are available) is an attractive and popular one and so the idea of laced up Victorian women being unlaced in order to bathe may have been seen as transformation.  Also, there is a degree of liberation, at least in terms of clothing, that has to happen in order for women to swim, and that has connotations of lax morals.  Yet again the person who is being stared at is blamed for drawing attention to themselves, and it is amazing how much power is projected onto the watery temptresses, for example Van Beers femme fatale above.  For the male artists of the Victorian period, women remained as mysterious as the oceans, neither of which could be fathomed. 

Who know what would happen if you brought them together...

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Review: Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld Gallery

There are exhibitions that catch your eye because they are just so unexpected.  With most Victorian art shows I'm delighted to see pictures I'm familiar with and others I've never seen but I don't expect to be wonderfully baffled.  Well, all that changed yesterday when we visited 'Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings' at the Courtauld Gallery, London...

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) was a spiritualist artist, which means that she channeled spirits that painted through her, making her the medium (in many senses of the word) for automatic writing and visions of the spirit realm.  Her hand was guided by different spirits, sometimes her family, sometimes great artists such as Thomas Lawrence and Titian, sometimes even angels and other heavenly bodies, and the pictures took many hours to complete.  The complexity and many layers of paint and ink reveal a view of the after-life and different worlds that is both recognisable and startlingly abstract.  All this in 1860s England.  Blimey.

The Holy Trinity, 29th November 1861
I was aware of the growth in interest in the spiritual in the 1860s because Fanny Cornforth became a medium for Rossetti.  I also had seen those slightly ropey spirit photographs with gauze escaping from people's mouths and double exposure images of women shrouded in sheets.  The art of spiritualism however had completely escaped me and I still have difficulty quite understanding how we are not hailing Houghton as the mother of abstraction.  I mean, look at The Holy Trinity and tell me that you are not reminded of Vorticism or Futurism.  It could be aeroplanes, ocean liners, all that modern world stuff.  Instead it is the hand of a middle-aged lady compelled by the power of God to make shapes on a page.
Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 28th August 1861
I was going to go to Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern, but look at some of Houghton's flowers and fruit, almost a century beforehand.  Massive and abstract, dense and lush in colour, her worship of the Lord is expressed in fluid lines and often sensual shapes. The gallery is filled with these glorious canvases, some on double-sided stands so that you can see the dense writing on the back of the paper.

Reverse of The Eye of the Lord, 22nd September 1866
This is a difficult exhibition to review in many ways as it is completely mind-blowing.  It is also an almost perfect exhibition - if you like Victorian art, you'll love it but also, if you like modern art, you'll love it.  If you have an interest in religious art, it's a winner, but if you love spiritualism of any and all sorts, it's fabulous.  I'm struggling to think of who wouldn't find something to enjoy in this roomful of Victorian lady pictures.  That's a bold claim indeed.

Detail of Glory be to God, 5th July 1864
The problem for Houghton was that she  thought the same as me and so rented an expensive gallery in Bond Street in 1871 to show her wondrous paintings.  The critics were dazzled and puzzled but loved it, but it was a massive commercial failure and nearly bankrupted her and her attempts to popularise the art of spiritualism were never realised. Mercifully, her work was preserved both by the Victorian Spiritualists' Union in Melbourne, Australia and the College of Psychic Studies, London.  This exhibition is the first time since 1871 that her work has been shown in this country and I think it is high time we welcome back an astonishing artist who was so ahead of her time.

The Eye of the Lord, 22nd September 1866
I took Lily-Rose with me (as is our way to expose the poor child to as much Victorian art as possible) and was slightly worried that there were no seats in the gallery as her patience is as limited as most 10 year olds and so she tends to just sit when she's had enough.  However, she went from picture to picture chatting away to herself and when we caught up to her she was saying all the things she could see in the pictures.  She loved it, picked out a postcard to take home at the end and could tell us more about the pictures than what was on the label.  I am now considering renting her out to the Coutauld.  Kids will love this as it is bonkers spirograph with hidden faces, eyes and all manner of different patterns thrown in. As I said, I am struggling to see who won't be blown away by Georgiana Houghton and her visions.

The Glory of the Lord, 4th January 1864
If at all possible go and see this exhibition, as you will not see anything else like it.  It is just astonishing, utterly mid-blowing and visually arresting.  Whether you believe in the her claims of spiritual direction or not the fact that a fifty year old woman was producing ground-breaking abstract art in Victorian England should be enough to get you there.  If you told me tomorrow that it had been a hoax, that it was from the 1960s or the work of someone with a spirograph and time on their hands I would probably find that easier to believe than these works coming from a religious woman at the time of Queen Victoria.  It's an artist leap that is inexplicable and has to be seen to be believed.  

Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is on until 11th September at the Courtauld Gallery and information can be found here.