Friday, January 8, 2016

Modern Scottish Women Painters & Sculptors 1885-1965

At the risk of sounding somewhat dull one of the things I really wanted to do in the Borders was try out the new rail link from Tweedbank to Edinburgh. It doesn't really cut the travel time from where we were, but it makes it much easier. The main attraction Edinburgh held for me in terms of being a day trip destination was the Modern Scottish Women exhibition.

This is something I really wanted to see from the moment I heard about it, and it most certainly didn't disappoint. When I was studying history of art it was clear enough that there had always been women working as professional artists, but with a few exceptions (the exceptions were just enough to make me wonder) you don't see them or their work. There's a direct and obvious parallel with women writers - before Virago modern classics, Persephone books, and the current appetite for reprints or rediscovered fiction they were, with those obvious exceptions, hard to find.

It matters because if we can't read those books or see these pictures women lose a part of their history and no-one gets the whole picture. Sir William Fettes Douglas' statement (as president of the Royal Scottish Acadamy) that the work of women artists was 'Like a man's only weaker and poorer' made in 1885 was close enough to what male counterparts would say at school or university in the 1990's. The end of the argument would always be - well name 10 decent women artists/writers - and back then I couldn't. It's not the most dramatic case of everyday sexism but it was still diminishing.

The emphasis, as you might expect from the National Galleries of Scotland, is on artists with a Scottish connection, though many trained in France and England and had lives which took them much further afield. There are 45 artists represented, a handful of whom are probably recognisable names (Anne Redpath, Joan Eardley, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Jessie M King, Phoebe Anna Traquair) the rest not so much, though some of the images might be familiar from old Virago covers.

The strength of the exhibition is its size and variety; there are a lot of self portraits, portraits of other women, portraits of children, and still lives. Because you know they're all painted by women it's tempting to see this as a feminine concern with the domestic, but fortunately there are enough examples of other subjects to halt that train of thought. It's not as if men never paint women, children, or domestic interiors.

It's also interesting to consider how these images made by women looking at women, or themselves, differ from those made by men looking at women. For me the best example of this is the work of Dorothy Johnstone who's quite well represented (her paintings were a highlight of the exhibition) her women are absorbed in their own activities. Though again the difference I think I see might just be my own preconceptions.

Over all it was just really exciting to see a proper collection of good quality art which shows there were plenty of talented women making a career in this way and not just a few exceptions. The catalogue is well worth a read, and for anyone likely to be in Edinburgh over the next few months the exhibition should be a must see. It finishes on the 26th of June, more details here


  1. Many thanks for this - I was already planning a visit to Edinburgh in March for the Celts exhibition, so this will make it the perfect weekend!

  2. I loved it, I'm hoping I might get to see it again (bit of a trek from Leicester, but even so...)

  3. What a fascinating exhibition -- a really great concept. The idea of a female gaze in this era (indeed, in any era) deserves more attention too.

  4. Agreed! It was really exciting to see so much art produced by professional women. I took a module on Scottish art from this period at university so knew that there were plenty of women working in what was a vibrant period for Scottish art anyway. Pulling so many of them together like this just underlines how big a part of the picture they were.

  5. If only it were a travelling exhibition!

  6. It's a great exhibition, but what I really hope is that the idea travels and some forgotten female artists get a bit of a spotlight. It's long overdue to rescue some of them from complete obscurity.