I’ve always been happy to say I’m a feminist and a long time ago at university, I studied Women’s Literature and Women’s Studies for a year. Even so my knowledge of women artists is sketchy. To be entirely honest, my knowledge of art could not be described as extensive.
Last week, I came across a small but perfect gallery of women artists currently showing at the Brighton Museum, upstairs in the Fine Art Gallery and Prints & Drawings Gallery. It got me thinking all over again about some of the issues I discussed at university all those years ago when talking about women writers. Why are so few of them remembered? Is their work different from men? Why are there not so many female artists on show or celebrated as male artists?
The works in the gallery are pieces which belong to the Royal Pavilion and Museums and they’ve been bought together for this show. Some of them are exquisite, others I’m not so sure about. There are a few Brighton and Sussex scenes which are also interesting historically in how much the city has changed, yet stayed essentially the same. Have a look at A Corner of the Lanes by Dorothy Watts to see what I mean.
One thing which stands out is the size of them. There are none of the super-huge landscapes or dramatic religious scenes often seen in galleries, by men tackling the big questions in life. Also, there seems to be a theme of the observer looking in, as if these women are on the edge of life, looking in. Is that how those artists felt?
There’s also a wonderful level of detail in the ordinary, the domestic and the mundane. Within these scenes there is beauty and interest. For example, Mending Wires by Rhoda Florence Waley (c1916) showing the man mending the wires. It’s an ordinary, daily task – yet Waley has bothered to record it in such detail and with such beauty.
My absolute favourite is Old Bus (Brighton to Ovingdean) by Therese Lessore (1884 – 1945) which simply captures a passenger on a bus. Again, an everyday event but captured forever in this small and subtle scene.
Many of the scenes are of women and it is interesting to see a range of women in such different moments from nuns praying to a maid going out on her day off. There are a couple of nudes but they seem less sexual paintings in a way which many male painters definitely are.
Another thing I noticed from the notes to the show is how many artists are related to well-known male artists either through marriage or in their family. Others went to art college which must have been relatively unusual when most of these women were working. In literature, Virginia Woolf explored this idea in A Room of One’s Own. While it’s uncomfortable to accept, it’s likely a lot of these artists were middle-class and relatively wealthy to give them the freedom to work. To be surrounded by artists as many of the women were must have helped them too.
It highlights what real progress has taken place that artists like Tracey Emin with her working-class background can now achieve such status in the art world. It’s unlikely she would have been able to a century ago.
At the moment, Brighton and Hove have the Open Houses event going on with many women artists and craft-makers displaying their work. It’s clear from the sheer numbers of women creating art now that our increased wealth and freedom to pursue our dreams has changed the artistic landscape for ever.
This collection has played on my mind since I first saw it and I’ve visited twice now. I found many of the paintings and prints utterly beautiful and also very peaceful to look at.
This exhibition is still on at the moment and I urge you to go along. As it is free to get into the museum, you really can just drop in; check out one exhibition, a room or just one painting before heading off to do your real life. If you’ve got 20 minutes between meetings or before the bus comes, I’d recommend this show.
Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence
From Angelica Kauffman to Gillian Ayres
Opens 27 April 2013
Fine Art Gallery and Prints & Drawings Gallery