Season 1, episode 5
Dr. Katie Tyreman Herrington, a fellow in research and cultural engagement at the V&A and University of York, and Professor Deborah Cherry, the Associate Dean of Research at London College of Communication, talk about women artists in the nineteenth century. Joining them to offer a contemporary perspective is artist Rebecca Salter. Together with host Glenn Adamson they consider the important role that women played in Victorian art, and how the context for women artists has developed over time.
DC: I wrote two books about women artists in the nineteenth century and they were just huge research adventures where I went up into people's attics, down into basements, looked under beds and in boxes and people really were so generous and brought out amazing collections that they'd had in their families. As well as going through museum basements, collections and attics and finding things, and they just brought together a whole wealth of material that hadn't been put together before and I think in that moment I was writing in the 1990s it was just a huge adventure for me and for the families and the museums that I was working with - unearthing a lot of material that people didn't really know very much about.GA: Which I suppose suggests that in the past it wasn't really taken as seriously as it should have been.
DC: I think although there were thousands of women artists working in the nineteenth century and then they and the Victorian period as a whole fell out of favour, modernism was in fashion and it wasn't until the revival of interests in the Victorian period around the 1970s, 60s that people began thinking and taking Victorian art seriously and I think my own work came very much out of that.
GA: Ok. Katie Tyreman, you're with us now at the V&A doing a more focused research project on Victorian women artists. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
KT: Yes, of course. Well, the purpose of the funding for the project I have here at the V&A is to bring knowledge from higher education institutions in to museum institutions. So I'm bringing my background on working with Victorian women artists to this specific project 'Three Graces: Victorian women, visual art and exchange' which addresses the work of three particular women artists represented in Edward Burne-Jones' painting 'The Mill' which is on display at the V&A, and examines their work as artists which is a more seldom considered role than their work as models which is very prominent in the work of their male peers.
GA: So this is a very interesting thing about the Pre-Raphaelite group in general - that these women artists were also serving as models for painters.
KT: Yes, that was very often the case. You see, for example, in the work of John Everett Millais his Ophelia for example depicts Elizabeth Siddal who was also an artist in her own right but it's far less frequent for us to see works by the women artist exhibited alongside those of her male peers though she was there and practising alongside them in the period.
GA: So there's a great story of collaboration there to excavate?
KT: Yes, absolutely.
GA: Ok, Rebecca Salter, you're a contemporary artist who has a long association with the V&A and I know that you've got a lot from studying our collections over the years. So I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your history with us.
RS: Yes, I think it goes back to being a student and I actually, although I'm a painter now, I studied ceramics and so the V&A is the obvious place to go. And I think both as an artist now and as a student, the wonderful thing about the V&A is its sense of surprise. So, you will be, I don't know, on your way to see a Ming vase and on your way you'll find a medieval mousetrap or something and its those sort of unexpected discoveries that can lead your own work in to unexpected places. So that's why I think it's so valuable as an institution.
GA: And has the work of women artists as represented in the V&A been particularly meaningful for you?
RS: I'm not sure I would say it was meaningful but I think particularly in the field of ceramics you're aware of the fact that a lot of the work was actually produced by women even though you wouldn't necessarily know that, because a lot of the decoration was painted by women. So I think the female hand is ever present though perhaps not always acknowledged.
GA: Yes, and this is one thing we'll be talking about, the fact that the V&A is filled with works that in fact are anonymous and aren't necessarily identified by author at all, regardless of gender which makes the question of representing women's art at the V&A perhaps a special case but one that certainly can be connected to that of other museums. So Deborah, could you begin by telling us a little bit about your sense of how it was to be a woman artist in the nineteenth century – in the Victorian era?
DC: Katie's project is fascinating because it's very much focused on a painting which, as she says, has three key female figures all of whom were artists and model. It's this intriguing relationship that we've begun to touch on between women who were productively and creatively active in producing costumes, embroidery, bookbinding, medals and sculpture and painting – we've got a whole range of artistic and creative practices represented here. And three women who also worked as models but also in doing that at this late nineteenth century moment very much took hold of their appearance as women and fashioned and created themselves as fashion artistic icons. They designed dresses for themselves which were against the lines of contemporary fashion, very free flowing and beautiful in gorgeous fabrics, tended to be low toned – olives, crimson. And they fashioned themselves as artistic icons that were both productive in terms of making art and productive in terms of creating a female figure who could be as Rebecca was saying, a figure that other women could aspire to, look to, take as a role model, and I think all of these women were known as very famous women who were seen as role models, famous artists in the period, circulating in galleries, appearing in these wonderful raiments at private views and showing their own work beside it.
GA: That's an incredible picture to paint for us Deborah, thank you. I suppose Katie that one stereotype that people may have of women in the Victorian era is that they were constrained in a private environment in the domestic interior and also perhaps that their work was going to be inevitably derivative of that of their husbands or other men in their life, perhaps teachers that they had studied with. But much of your research shows that this authorship that women took on was much more autonomous and much more powerful than that. Can you say a little bit about that?
KT: Yes, certainly. One of the examples, the left hand figure in the painting 'The Mill' - Aglaia Coronio – she designed many of the costumes that we see in Burne-Jones' better known paintings. He would provide a very vague outline sketch for her of his initial idea for the costume and she would go away and she would make up these elaborate costumes that we see are very visible in his artworks but her hand in the making of those costumes is invisible to gallery-goers. Today, we're not aware that there was this really fascinating and complex collaboration between women artists and their male peers that formed an integral part of their male peers works.
GA: But all the same we must recognise that of course women artists as that time did face a lot of discrimination.
GA: It certainly couldn't have been easy for these figures in every case.
KT: No. You picked up on the notion of the domestic and of course Coronio's work took place in the home, it wasn't exhibited where as other artists such as Stillman who was a painter, or Maria Zambaco, another figure in the painting who was a sculpture, they had to find outlets for exhibiting their works and as women artists in the period, they wouldn't be permitted to be members of the Royal Academy for example, so they wouldn't have the same opportunities to exhibit as their male peers, to exhibit as a non-member of an academy or artistic institution, it would be more difficult to have your work hung by committee. So there's those kind of obstacles that they encountered.
GA: Deborah, I want to speak in a moment about the contemporary situation and where we are today, but could you say a little bit about what happened towards the end of the Victorian period, what we often call the arts and crafts movement when these ideas about dress reform that you mentioned and other conceptions of freedom I suppose, started to run right through decorative arts and fine arts. What was the role of women in that situation?
DC: I think there's been a lot of research to show that women were very, very active in arts and crafts, in the aesthetic movement, in Glasgow School for instance too, that women were very creative right across the decorative and fine art. And I think too that the artwork of late nineteenth century diversified a lot so circles like The Grosvenor Gallery, the New Gallery, gave women much greater opportunity than the older institutions like the Royal Academy which had been founded in the eighteenth century which was much more conservative in its attitudes to women.
GA: Rebecca, I'm curious when you hear these discussions how it makes you feel as a woman artist today. Obviously your work is primarily abstract and is not necessarily framed in terms of feminist imagery necessarily, but surely looking back at the lives of these artists in the nineteenth century, that must be a rather moving experience?
RS: Yes, I actually just wanted to pick up on what Deborah said about role models because I was mulling this over and trying to work out whether I actually had a role model. When I was at art school I wasn't taught by a woman at all and I wasn't particularly aware of many women, you know, older than me working as artists. So I didn't have a female role model and I now think that was a huge advantage - because I looked at my male contemporaries and of course the predominant male role model was the live hard, die young sort of Jackson Pollock role model which long-term possibly can be more destructive. So I think it was liberating, actually, not to have a stereotype to work to.
GA: And looking at the V&A, how do you feel that gender is represented in the museum - as a frequent visitor and as an artist who uses our collection?
RS: I think ideally I would like not to notice. I would like it to become so normal that it really wasn't an issue. I mean that will take time but I think that's what I'd like more than anything else.
GA: Katie, what do you think about that? You've thought a lot about the way gender is represented in the V&A.
KT: Yes, I like the notion of showing through museum collections that there was a culture shared both by men and by women in the period that's been addressed. I think it still remains important though to make women's works visible in the collections because there is a presumption surrounding the notion of what an artist is and that tends to have a predominantly male persona. So to demonstrate that women artists were there and were active I think is important to make sure that they're integrated into the collection and their social situation is also explained.
GA: Deborah, you of course are a teacher and you are working with many younger students, principally art historians but possibly artists as well who are looking back at that time. What do you think they're getting out of women's art of that period? What do you think they're thinking when they look at nineteenth century women's art?
DC: So, one of the artistic strategies that women in the late nineteenth century used a lot was allegory. It's a long tradition in the history of art. We're talking about a painting where three women are imaged as the graces - and apparently these three cousins were also nicknamed the graces - but there's a very long artistic tradition of the graces, and allegory I think is a long tradition too in the way that women artists have imaged themselves. So you have the Artemisia Gentileschi in the Royal Collection and I've been thinking a lot recently about an amazing series of nine photographs in the V&A collection by a contemporary artist called Maud Sulter. She calls herself Glaswegian-Ghanaian for her double heritage, and this series is called Zabat and it images contemporary black women as the muses. So I think that tradition of allegory and I can think of ways that I know Maud Sulter as an artist looked at the past, rethought that past from her perspective and there are strands and tactics and traces that get followed from past to present. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not so.
GA: Deborah, we've been talking so far about the context of Britain for the production of art by women, but of course the museum is a global institution – we cover the whole world – and I wonder what thoughts you might have about the representation of women's art outside of Britain across that huge geography.
DC: I think the really interesting thing again is that if we go back to this painting that Katie's brought our attention to, The Mill, that here we have three women who come from Greek families, migrated to Britain at a moment of intense cosmopolitan cultural exchange in London in the late-nineteenth century. And that cosmopolitan exchange and imperialism of course shaped the collections of the V&A as we know it today.
GA: Rebecca, you've had a remarkably globe-trotting career in your own right and of course this question of cosmopolitanism is still very much a factor in the art world today, if not more so than in the nineteenth century. So how has that affected your relation to these questions?
RS: When I graduated from art school here, I got a scholarship and I went to Japan and I lived there for six years altogether, two of which I spent in a Japanese art school. And two very important things came out of that: one was that for the first time I saw my own culture, and in particular western art history and how narrow it is from the point of view from a completely different culture. So that was a massive shock, to go to art school one morning and find them reading Gombrich for example. And the second thing that happened was because I was a foreigner, I was treated neither as a man nor a woman but as a sort of third sex and oddly the sexism of Japanese society which is, if anything, harsher than here, played in to my hands because I was liberated from being either. What I did become of course was then a representative of being a British artist so nationality and national identity became very limiting instead.
GA: One little known fact which we've talked about Katie is that women prisoners were actually involved in the construction of the V&A, laying pavements of the ground floor for example, which can still be seen today, and I suppose this prompts the question of women artists in relation to questions of class because it wasn't you know, necessarily that easy for an aristocratic woman to become a successful artist in the nineteenth century but presumably even more difficult for somebody of, let's say, the working class.
KT: Yes, I would say that there is a presumption that only affluent, middle class women were able to access artistic professions but then by making that presumption we're forgetting about the role of women in producing the decorations for the V&A for example, the opus criminale, the pavement mosaics of the museum, but also working class women that attended the art school and produced decorative tiles that we can see in the grill room, which is now part of the refreshments room at the V&A. And so certainly there were women from a diverse range of backgrounds producing artistic work.
GA: Rebecca, what do you think is in store for women artists in the future? Because we've been talking about women artists in the past but of course there's another generation coming up and given the financial constraints or art education at the moment, it might be worth thinking about them for the moment.
RS: Yes. I think as somebody who teaches in an art school, I'm very concerned about students who graduate now and graduate with huge debts and will face the practicalities, which have always been difficult whatever gender of being able to make a living and survive, being able to afford somewhere to live and afford a studio and then along comes to sort of shorten the quote, the pram in the hall and that, the burden of women artists is generally greater and how we get round that one I really don't know.
GA: So, Rebecca I wonder whether you feel that the museum has an important role to play there, because Henry Cole, our founder, was very determined to create a museum that would be an instrument of art education. Do you think that we can still contribute to that project now?
RS: I think residency programs which I know you already have within the museum are going to be increasingly important because its going to be harder and harder to afford a studio so the opportunity for example, to go and work in the museum for three months will be invaluable. And I think the other thing the museum could provide is contact with the object, increasingly students are experiencing things online, onscreen and I think to actually even be allowed to touch objects is going to be more and more valuable in the future rather than less and less, so that's not a gender question that's right across the board really.
GA: But it's a question of access really isn't it? I suppose I should ask the difficult question and maybe I could ask Katie, you to comment on this. Do you think things are better are worse now for women artists in Britain... than they were in the nineteenth century?
KT: I think women's access to art education has significantly increased through out the nineteenth century and today there are more women in art schools than there are men I believe, however, I think that women still have difficulties within the art world in having their practice being taken seriously for its artistic merits and they still have to combat notions of gender stereotyping in relation to their work. So where as the difficulties encountered are different ones, I think there are still difficulties that women artists experience due to their gender.
GA: Deborah, what do you think looking at the nineteenth century and today? How would you compare the two moments?
DC: I think the really crucial thing for today is also that museums acquire the work of contemporary women artists and the V&A actually had a very, very good policy with pioneering curators like Rosie Miles and Mark Hayworth-Booth who were buying the work of young artists in the 1990s and I think acquiring work, making it into the national collection, giving it a longevity, making sure it's conserved and protected by the museum, that's really important because that also builds reputation and critical mass in reputation and I think those are important strategies too.
GA: Maybe I can close with one final question which is about a word that we haven't mentioned yet, which is the word feminism. One I suppose could think that that was the subtext of everything we have been saying but it's interesting to me that that term doesn't perhaps have a universal acclaim that is deserves and not everybody, even among women artists maybe. is going to stand up and say 'I'm a feminist.' I wonder how you all think about that word now. Rebecca, do you have any thoughts about that word feminism? Do you think that the V&A needs to understand itself as a feminist institution? Do you understand yourself as a feminist artist?
RS: Gosh, V&A as a feminist institution! Yes, it is a very, very loaded term. I think in my case I would probably mark my feminism maybe in its, not in its absence but in the fact that I don't make an issue of it. I think if I belonged to any kind of trend I would align myself with people like Agnes Martin and Bridget Riley and certainly if you've ever seen a photograph of Agnes Martin with her steely gaze I don't think you would mess with her.
GA: Katie, Deborah, what do you think about yourselves as feminist art historians? Is that something that you recognise in yourself.
KT: Yes, I'd certainly say that I recognise myself as a feminist art historian but what I hope for for the future is actually that when people think about a certain artistic movement or a certain media they think of men's and women's works together and can think about that in their work.
DC: Yeh, I would really strongly agree with that. I mean there has been a lot of very interesting feminist work on male artists, so while some feminist work like my own has focused on recovering and analysing the work of women artists. There has been equally important feminist work done on the canonical male artists of our time and the past and that's a very important contribution to feminist art history.
GA: So that's the idea that feminism as a methodology and a set of questions as opposed to just a renewed attention to women's art.
DC: Exactly, yes.
GA: Ok, well thank you very much to our three panellists: Deborah Cherry, Dr Katie Tyreman and Rebecca Salter for your contributions to that fascinating and wide-ranging discussion. If you are interested in learning more about the presence of women's art at the V&A you can look on our website where we have a women artists study guide and I also hope that you'll join us again for the next episode of the V&A podcast, behind the scenes of the world's greatest museum of art and design.
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With thanks to the AHRC and the Humanities Research Centre and Department of History of Art at the University of York for the cultural engagement grant that funded this episode and supported Dr. Katie Tyreman's project Three Graces: Victorian women, visual art and exchange.
Supported by AHRC
The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com