Sunday, September 28, 2014

Role models

When I was at school and university (I wonder how much has changed in the last twenty years?) as a young woman of feminist leanings it wasn't unusual to find myself in an argument that went along these kind of lines, a man (or more specifically given our age and their attitude - boy) would declare that women could not be great chefs/writers/artists, they just didn't have it in them. Nonsense, I would say, and then be challenged to name 6 or 10 which at the time I couldn't do. Which was annoying because I knew they had to exist but had no clear idea where to find out who they were or what they did (these were the days before google) and because it was a challenge designed to shut me up and put me in my place.

It's also a challenge that's given me a lot to be grateful for, it sent me off to the nearest bookshop to seek out a canon of female authors which is how I discovered Virago books and in turn legions of writing women stretching back to the 18th century. Later on I found Persephone books and yet more writing women along with the concept of the middlebrow all of which has been extremely encouraging. What mattered to me then and now is not how high the art is, but that there is a traceable tradition of women having a voice and being able to make a living from it. Most especially being able to make a living from it, as that's a subtly different, infinitely more encouraging, view of history than the one where women were basically dependants or drudges and men were intent on keeping them that way.

When it comes to artists rather than writers the process of public rediscovery seems to have lagged behind a bit but I think it's finally happening in earnest now, and it's exciting for the same reasons; you could name a few, it seems likely there had to be more of them, but where and doing what. Again it's not specifically great masters I'm looking for but a long tradition of women creating and recording. It's why I love paintings like Emily Mary Osborn's Nameless and Friendless from 1857.

In it a young woman in mourning (I'm inclined to believe her father rather than husband has died as I can't see a wedding ring on her finger - though maybe she's already sold it?) accompanied by a youth is trying to sell a painting, and maybe a portfolio of sketches too. The appraising looks from the dealer and his assistant suggest the work is commercially viable (but not that they'll necessarily offer a fair price). The appraising looks from the two swells on the left suggest an entirely different kind of transaction. Our heroine is definitely in need of friends. Osborn did quite a line in paintings of  distressed women. She herself seems to have been supported in her chosen career by her family but I'm guessing that the situation in Nameless and Friendless was not uncommon which in turn suggests that there were plenty of women seeking (and succeeding) in making a living this way, and that Osborn expected everyone to be outraged by this particular girls situation. 

BBC2 had an excellent series this spring hosted by Amanda Vickery called The Story of a women and Art which unearthed a host of female artists, some more or less household names, and some who had been hiding in plain sight - all very encouraging in the search for role models. Perhaps even more exciting from my point of view though was Alicia Foster's 'Warpaint' which took the real life figure of Dame Laura Knight along with 3 other fictional characters based on real women war artists and created an entertaining thriller along with a really useful look at what these artists were doing (it's brilliant, read it). 

The latest addition to my own personal library of women in the arts is James Russell's 'Peggy Angus Designer, Teacher Painter'. She was a friend of Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, John Piper amongst many others, lead a long creative life, and is quietly being rediscovered some 20 years after her death. 


  1. Loved this post. Very similar experience to you at school and university. Think it's great recently too that there's so much more interest in women composers and musicians generally. Had plenty of conversations when at school / university that basically ran along the lines of X was only a composer / musician because her husband got her the job. Have only found out recently that actually the reverse was often the case(!)

  2. Such a frustrating conversation isn't it! I can imagine musicians get an even rougher time of it and the thing I find really odd is that these women would have been reasonably well known in their day to have been almost deliberately forgotten. Why does that tradition get lost?

  3. I so agree with you re the making a living -- except, re the painting, I say 'husband' not 'father': where did she get the kid from? I guess it could be a brother or a lad hired to carry the portfolio. And the back view of the sumptuously dressed woman with the child who is carrying a purchased roll of something suggests to me a contrast being offered. Fascinating painting - thank you for sharing it. And you've reminded me that I haven't read 'War Paint' yet.

  4. I'm in lined to think brother because of the lack of wedding ring and because of their ages, she looks very early twenties and he must be about 10? But it's ambiguous. Those predatory looking men are most unpleasant .