Women Models, 1900-1940


In The Women who Inspired London Art, Lucy Merello Peterson investigates the life of the model at the turn of the 20th Century. It was a livelihood that was uncertain, not well paid, sometimes short and veiled in neglect. The first woman to model at the Royal Academy may have done so as early as 1768. From the earliest academy records it seems male models were listed by name but the women were not. This anonymity was in many ways welcome and expected by models who wished to preserve their privacy and modesty, especially in connection to their families, however it made it difficult for artists to contact models directly, thus reducing their opportunities for work. There was an assumption that modelling and prostitution were related and overlapped, which compromised the moral standing of female models. Female models sometimes modelled with masks to conceal their identities.

The schools often paid female posers more than men, sometimes four or five times more for life classes, in part to compensate them for the implications of the job. Their importance to the teaching process, and the fact they were sourced from outside academia, gave the women a bit more negotiating power. Some male sitters were already on school payrolls as porters or other workers, and modelling was supplemental income for them.

In 1920 an Association of Artists’ Models was formed in Paris, however the informality of the work and the oversupply of potential models must have made the Association only useful for models working at the schools and academies. Many of the models were immigrants, chosen specifically as embodiment of ethnic types that artists needed for specific projects. For paintings of classical history, Greeks and Italians were in demand, as were Jews. This was the period when ethnographic nudes became the staple of French illustrated periodicals L’Humanité féminine and Mes Modèles produced to allow artists to study physiological differences in ethnicities.

In 1912 The Cave of the Golden Calf nightclub opened in Heddon Street, near Regent Street, London. Named after the object of decadent worship, the club soon lived up to its name. Models competed for the eyes and affections of artists and bohemian behaviour became standard for establishment, which soon earned a reputation for depravity. It was run by Frida Strindberg, divorced wife of August Strindberg, no stranger to unconventional behaviour. The cabaret was boundary pushing in its explicitness and the club has been called the first gay bar. It attracted artists such as Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Augustus John and others, who met models there and socialised. It also attracted spectators and those in search of a thrill. After legal trouble, the club closed in 1914 before wartime austerity arrived.

Peterson describes the Bloomsbury group and their use of fellow members, partners and children as models, rarely using professional models. She recounts the ways in which Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell chose and worked with sitters, with whom they usually had a personal connection. Peterson reminds us that Gwen John worked as a model for Auguste Rodin from 1904 onwards. Young artists (male and female) worked as apprentices or assistants for master artists, who had both sufficient demands and income to pay for help. It was common for these junior artists to model clothed or nude, as students did in art schools. Occasionally an established figure from an occupation other than modelling would become a subject for art outside of the realm of portraiture. Music hall comedienne and singer Lilian Shelley modelled for Jacob Epstein and Augustus John. The spectacular life of Betty May – included extreme cocaine and heroin use, Satanism, crime and four marriages before death in obscurity – is briefly touched upon.

The Avico sisters – Marietta (1906-1983), Leopoldine (1907-1979) and Gilda (1908-2001) – worked as artists’ models in London. (Three cousins also became models.)The family came from Italy. Their father was a bootmaker and the mother a French teacher, living in Windmill Street, Soho. The family was so poor the children had to spend periods living at the workhouse. The youngsters posed from 1919 onwards for a variety of artists and students of the Slade. Marietta posed for John William Godward (1861-1922), who in 1922 was still working in the Academic historicist style, with meticulous finish and antique paraphernalia in classical scenes.  She was modelling for him the December 1922 when he told her would see her the next week. The following day he committed suicide. Ill and depressed at the demise of academic painting, he took his own life by gassing himself. Gilda modelled for Ivon Hitchens and C.R.W. Nevinson. Leopoldine modelled for The Queen of Time (1930), Gilbert Bayes’s polychrome and gilded statue supporting the clock outside London’s Liberty store.

The book concludes with a compendium of models who worked during the 1900-1940 period. The Women who Inspired London Art is an enjoyable book, full of diverting anecdotes and interesting titbits. It gives us stories of some of the most celebrated artist-model partnerships in London. However, there are parts that discuss characters and events of the period that do not involve professional models. The chapters of Bloomsbury feature Bloomsbury figures interacting with each other and famous people of the time. Readers may finish the book amused and informed about the British art scene 1900-40 but wishing for more details about the professional models. For example, quotes from artists and models’ letters, diaries and memoirs would have fleshed out the daily lives of models. How long were modelling careers? Were there any noticeable differences between experiences of male and female models?

Altogether The Women who Inspired London Art is a pleasurable read but will likely leave the reader wanting more detail.


Lucy Merello Peterson, The Women who Inspired London Art: The Avico Sisters and OtherModels of the Early 20th Century, Pen & Sword, 2018, hardback, fully illus., £25/$49.95, ISBN 978 1 526 725257 (Paperback:  June 2019, £14.99, ISBN 978 1526 751 720)