Women Artists in Victorian, Edwardian and Modern Eras

Two republications in the Routledge Revivals series make available once again two significant scholarly texts regarding women’s art of the late Nineteenth Century. Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, (originally published 2000) surveys the situation of women artists in Edinburgh and Glasgow; Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament (originally published 2002) collects essays by experts on various women in the arts-and-craft field in a slightly later period.

In Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Janice Helland examines the exhibition catalogues and sales records of various organisations to gather data on women artists. She concludes that women were relatively numerous – certainly enough to make associations, clubs and associated exhibitions functional – and that while women artists had fewer options than make counterparts, determined women willing to network with others could exhibit and sell regularly, in some cases enough to make a living. Helland points out that women had a less difficult task being taken seriously as artists (namely training, exhibiting and selling art) than women had at becoming physicians.

Helland recounts the experiences of the well-documented careers of Christina Paterson Ross (1843-1906), Georgina Greenlees (1849-1932), Margaret Dempster (1863-?), Kate Macauley (c. 1849-1914) and others. Included in the book are some sample images of art to give us an idea of the production of female artists. As Helland notes, much of the art has disappeared with little trace – as has much unremarkable realist art of that period – and some line drawings from periodical reviews have been reproduced.

Arts societies and clubs were formed by artists in the Nineteenth Century. Women were no exceptions in this regard. The status of professional bodies conferred authority upon member artists and helped to distinguish them from amateurs – an important point for female artists. Artist associations in Great Britain took on the role of artist guilds, permitting members privileges and excluding non-members from operating on parity with members. This became effectively a restriction of trade and a bar to competition within the public-arts field. When faced by the operative restriction of being denied opportunities to train or exhibit alongside male colleagues, the women artists of Scotland (and other Western countries) formed their own quasi-guilds to advance their art and exclude the art of male colleagues, as well as that of their amateur sisters in order to protect the quality of their exhibitions. Additionally, excluding amateur female artists combatted the accusation that women’s art was product of pursuit of ladylike accomplishment rather than professional-level endeavour. Professional women artists in this period had to fight on two fronts – against men who tended to dominate organisations and receive the lion’s share of plaudits and rewards and against women who practised as hobbyists, whose activities undermined the professionals’ claim to legitimacy.

Art by Scottish women received respectful reviews, by and large. Articles, reviews and letters published in the newspapers were encouraging towards women artists and sympathetic to the plight of ill-served students who had to endure lacklustre teaching, cancelled classes, a poor library and lack of access to nude models. This swell of support was due partly to gallantry, an innate sense of fairness among writers and a consensus that this situation did not reflect well upon the cultural aspirations of the Scots vis-à-vis the situation in London. Apparently the conditions of display shaped the tone of reviews.Mary Cameron is presented as an example of traveling woman artist who was celebrated for her pictures of bullfights. The glowing praise by the press is evidence (if needed) that the public and press were willing to set aside reservations about women as painters if they earned respect through competence and – in this case – the novelty of her subject matter.

The author fairly discusses the monetary impetus in the production of art without squeamishness. Helland errs in suggesting that lower price for art by women is an instance of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. It was the result of a market mechanism pricing the desirability of unique goods in an open market, with price determined by demand, availability and utility. In Scotland in the Nineteenth Century there was simply less demand for art by lesser known artists than by more prestigious artists. Helland knows – or should have known – that women’s art has often commanded prices higher than that for art by men (e.g. Lavinia Terlinc, Rachel Ruysch, Angelica Kauffmann, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and others). This is a lapse into ideological cant that mars an otherwise generally even-handed account.

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Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament  comprises 10 essays on different subjects. Elizabeth Cumming assesses the links between craftswomen Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) and Mary Seton Watts née Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938; wife of painter George Frederick Watts). Traquair was an illustrator, mural painter and embroiderer who worked in the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. Watts was a potter and textile designer, based in Surrey. Whereas Traquair preferred to work alone, Watts collaborated with skilled artisans and technicians. The Watts’s interior decoration for the Compton Chapel (1890), attached to the house-studio she shared with her husband, was informed by her consultation of Traquair, who had previous experience of decorative schemes. Jan Marsh writes on May Morris (1862-1938), an Arts and Crafts embroiderer. She was the daughter of William Morris and founder of the Women Guild of Arts in 1907, records of which are apparently not extant. Australian commercial artist Thea Proctor (1879-1966) is considered as the epitome of Art Deco modernism by Pamela Gerrish Nunn. This essay is particularly enjoyable and worth thinking of in relation to the women linocut artists of the Grosvenor School, who flourished contemporaneously to Proctor. The last word in sophistication in Australian taste in the inter-war period, Proctor’s reputation has not experienced a revival comparable to Lempicka’s. Illustrations show Proctor was a gifted designer of posters and journal covers.

Other topics include ceramic design; British court dress; the 1920s film sets of Natacha Rambova; Hungarian embroiderer Laura Nagy; the 1913 Women’s Exhibition, Amsterdam; Romaine Brooks, Gluck and Eileen Gray; American artist, costume designer and interior designer Florine Stettheimer. Monochrome illustrations provide sufficient indication of these uncommon subjects. This title and the former are both serious and thought-provoking re-evaluations of lesser-known creative women.

 

Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 212pp + xiii, 40 mono illus., £90, ISBN 978 1 138 723 184

Bridget Elliott, Janice Helland (eds.), Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 229pp + xiv, 47 mono illus., £29.99, ISBN 978 1 138 72145 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art