This exhibition is a celebration of the gradual emergence into the twentieth century of professional and vocational women artists from Victorian Britain. Their pictures are set against a similar number of works by men, of women. It is a selection, not a survey, extending to just after the Second World War.
In the Victorian period, women had their own art schools and their own exhibiting venues, but the best artists aspired to share platforms with men on an equal footing. Women did have to struggle, but whilst it was a slow process they were gradually accepted in many institutions, and even actively encouraged by some. The term ‘Victorian’ has now become a name used by sociologists to identify repression, exploitation and hidebound male attitudes - but ‘Victorian’ could equally describe a vibrant era of ongoing reform, with incremental but inexorable advances in education, health, worker’s rights, housing and women’s rights. It was a time of fundamental change, and although Britain was essentially Georgian at the beginning of Victoria’s long reign in 1837, by 1901 it was on the cusp of the modern age.
In Victoria’s wake, two World Wars gave women a real voice in many walks of life, and art was no exception; female artists were liberated from ‘feminine’ subjects, flowers and children, to paint images of real life beyond their homes, whether in hospitals or on the street. They were restricted to the Home Front; in the First War, only four Official War Artists were women, of whom three had their work rejected. In the Second War, 52 of roughly 400 artists appointed by the War Artists Advisory Committee were women, although they received fewer and shorter commissions, lower pay and far less publicity. Two women were given overseas commissions, but only one was salaried and neither was allowed to travel abroad until after the fighting had ended.
Today, amongst 80 Royal Academicians, nearly half are women, but even now they stand behind an easel less often than they appear on canvas, cast in idealised roles by male painters. The various pictures by and of women in this exhibition mirror the complex and evolving roles that women had in Victorian and Modern British Art.