‘Flower painting was broadly considered the most acceptable form for women to practice’
Extract from Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965
By Various Authors
Published by National Galleries of Scotland Publishing
Foreword: From Annan to Zinkeisen: Forty-five Scottish Women Painters and Sculptors’
By Alice Strang
In 1885 Sir William Fettes Douglas, President of the RSA, declared that the work of a woman artist was ‘like a man’s only weaker and poorer’.
As a general rule women were in the minority of [art school] students … Furthermore, the training received by male and female students was different, most significantly in terms of the limited access women had to the life class, considered ‘the bedrock of a professional art education’. In this class, models of both sexes posed, often in the nude, for the purposes of studying and drawing the human figure. It was considered morally degrading for women to view nudity and at most they were permitted to draw from a cast and later from a partially draped model.
The question of women students’ access to the life class was embroiled in an established, gendered hierarchy of art genres, in which depictions of the human form were of the utmost importance. Painting was the most exalted, with flower painting broadly considered the most acceptable form for women to practise. As the writer Léon Legrange declared in 1860: ‘Let women occupy themselves with those kinds of art they have always preferred… the paintings of flowers, those prodigies of grace and freshness which can alone compete with the grace and freshness of women themselves.’
Women artists’ choice of subject matter was sometimes called into question … Joan Eardley’s Sleeping Nude, a painting of her friend Angus Neil, provoked upset when it was exhibited at the Society of Scottish Artists’ exhibition of 1955. As Christopher Andreae has explained:
It is hard to believe she did not know she was turning an art tradition on its head – a female painter painting a male nude was almost bound to be read as an assault on acceptable convention. No ‘shock horror’ headline would have followed it if it had been a male artist painting a female nude … It received, as Henry Guy describes it, ‘some inane criticism –directed at a “Girl Artist”– and poor Angus was likened to “an inmate of Buchenwald or Belsen”.’
Janice Helland has pointed out how contemporary commentators on the work of Mary Cameron, whose subject matter included bullfights and military scenes, were at pains to assert her femininity despite her subject matter: in an article about her as a ‘Scottish Artist at Work’ in the Scots Pictorial of 29 November 1902, Cameron was described as being ‘of great charm of manner, appearance and personality’, whilst Cameron herself stressed that being an artist ‘means hard manual labour … it means pulling up your sleeves and setting to work.’
Yet, attitudes towards women artists and their work were developing, as seen in a 1942 review in The Times of a women artists’ exhibition in London, whose author wrote: ‘is there any reason, any fundamental difference of outlook, which makes it necessary, or even especially useful, to show pictures painted by women apart from those painted by men? Historically there may have been such a reason, but it is hard to think of one which holds good to-day.’ The review then went on to single out Ethel Walker and Agnes Miller Parker for praise.
One of the most public forms of recognition for women artists practicing in Scotland between 1885 and 1965 was election to the membership of the Royal Scottish Academy … Josephine Haswell Miller was the first woman artist to be elected Associate Member of the RSA, in 1938. This was recalled in her obituary thus: ‘The significance of her achievement lies not only in her acceptance as an equal by her contemporaries and peers into a jealously guarded all male preserve, but even more to the fact that through her outstanding ability and effort she blazed a trail which she and others have followed to the lasting benefit of the Academy.’
As the twentieth century advanced, the achievements of women artists were increasingly marked with civic honours, including the award of Honorary Doctorates, such as those presented to Wilhelmina Barns-Graham; she was made a CBE in 2001 for services to art, whilst Ethel Walker was made a DBE in 1943. In 1982 and 1983 Mary Armour was made Honorary President of the GSA and of the RGI respectively. Of the former, she remarked of her first day as a student ‘if you had told me the day [I started at GSA] that one day they would make me president of the place, I would not have believed it, but it’s true.’
Overall, the varied experiences and achievements of the Scottish women artists examined here contradict Sir William Fettes Douglas’s opinion of them in 1885, at the same time as helping us to re-evaluate Scottish art history of the period from then until 1965. A century after Douglas’s speech, Cordelia Oliver was able to claim ‘the old imbalance between the sexes does seem to be lessening … by and large, all major exhibitions are open, now, to women on more or less equal terms.’ Perhaps the most pertinent rebuttal to Douglas was Ethel Walker’s declaration in 1938 that ‘there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist – bad and good.’
Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 is out now published by National Galleries of Scotland priced £18.95. All images used here are taken from the book. You can read another excerpt from the book here on Books from Scotland.