Posts Tagged ‘symbolic women’

Angelica Kauffman, A Turkish Lady Reclining, Gazing at a Miniature (1773)

Friends and readers,

Further to my coming blogs on women artists and while studying and reading about Angelica Kauffman and Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-82), last night I read Linda Nochlin’s famous (oft-referred to) essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” (reprinted in her Women, Art and Power and Other Essays). I was surprised and disappointed to find she dismissed the idea of l’ecriture-femme as non-existent. She couldn’t discern this because her categories were so broad and general, and she named women as if we could understand the texture, content, nuance, context, so much part of any particular works’ true quality by just citing the artist’s name.

How is Kauffman’s Turkish Lady Reclining different from male orientalism of the 18th century: it’s not salacious, not overtly sensual, rather it’s contemplative, meditative, an imaginary space outside male control (an “inner orient” Nochlin herself called this in another essay), liberating because meant for women to identify with, the female gaze, for female patrons

Nochlin also seemed to agree there have been no great women artists! There is no female Michelangelo, says she (quite seriously). Well no but Artemisia Gentileschi just as good — yes I do, and better in some way. Why is not Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes a great woman artist, as great and better than many of the men so lauded: I can’t stand Gaugin; Van Gogh is repetitive.

Her argument is the very idea of the Great Artist is suspect. She likens this to God-worship, fetishing. (Jim thought this way when he used to say individual works might be great but that most artists have uneven oeuvres and it’s silly to elevate people so.) But then she goes on to excuse the lack of great women artists: We look at, say, wealthy or at all powerful aristocrats, we find hardly a great artist: a person’s circumstances, class, ethnicity, whole grounding nearly (not quite) predicts whether or no he (or she) will make, promote, or write about great art. Gender is clearly another category, and she has a section on how women are taught from birth to sacrifice themselves to others, and from a young age taught and placed in situations which sap, undermine, make impossible aspiration to sustain such an achievement over time. Then though she goes on to lament the lack of truly great women artists, with her example the self-deprecation of Rosa Bonheur (1822-99), how she tried to dress like a man, how she undermined her own extensive studies of animal anatomy.

Rosa Bonheur, Sheep [reclining] by the Sea (1865), commissioned by the empress of France, Eugene, from Bonheur’s travels through the Scottish highlands — not at all the seemingly usual stampede-like picture, nor sentimentalized into people-like domesticity

But (contradictorily) she has suggested the whole idea is teleological in the first place. Which is it? The concept is absurd or women artists haven’t got a chance? Along the way she also argues that individual books on individual women or studies get women nowhere. Nowhere if their aim is to procure the respect of a majority of men whose aesthetic sensibilities are different from women’s.

At the core of this essay is Nochlin’s desire for the admiration of male critics, to have women’s art included in male-controlled, run, financed exhibitions. She wants that women should be admired because she’s a woman. And by whom? well men or women and on men’s terms because she is too impatient to uncover alternatives and assert this are as good or superior, and if ignored, carry on regardless.


Susan Herbert, a female urchin grinning (remember Angharad Rees as Demelza when Ross Poldark rides off with her at the fair and he offers her a job as a servant …)

The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: ‘The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.’ That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said. Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suit a woman any more than the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels. Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’ (I give it inverted commas to mark my sense of the words’ inadequacy), who shall say that even this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use? No doubt we shall find her knocking that into shape for herself when she has the free use of her limbs; and providing some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


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Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses (1788)

Dear friends and readers,

Lest you think I’ve given up on my women artists blogs, I write an interim few thoughts on the problems women had making money for their work. (See my last, later 17th century Mary Beale.) I’ve been reading a much respected book on Angelica Kauffman’s Art and Sensibility by Angelica Rosenthal in an effort to understand why her art is spoken of by women art critics and historians with such high praise. I acknowledge and am drawn to the brilliance of some of her portraits (which I’ll discuss when I finally do my blog on her), and those few of her paintings reproduced exquisitely well, with some sense of the full range of her rich vivid colors conveyed, and occasional somber depictions of mournful moments in the repertoire of classical stories, where color, design, mood are pitch perfect

Kauffman, Virgil writing his own epitaph at Brundisium (1785)

Nonetheless, most reproductions of pictures by Kauffman include embarrassing items, and too many of these, as 1) fat female bodies lying supinely, enacting fecundity; 2) ludicrously sentimental scenes featuring marginalized women, often nameless from classical stories; 3) expressionless faces, on top of bodies which look like they don’t weigh anything. Rosenthal’s book is itself much praised for general applicability to all women’s art. It is. She defines and and persuasively carves out to describe what is called l’ecriture-femme in women’s writing for women visual artists.

Rosenthal does something more: she gets beyond the obvious obstacles for women artists (no liberty outside the family, married off young, endless pregnancies and early death from these, refused training, despised as woman) to those not often discussed. What she does is call attention to the experience of painting for customers — for that is what a professional career is about. Of how prestige is gained to make larger profits. So quite apart from the gender of the customer, in the 18th century one was hampered by having to paint the rich, having to replicate the values which sustain their wealth, having to picture cant-driven norms for the all-important commissions. Moving outside family-centered portraits to male customers (who after all controlled the money), How do you manage to to choose appealing subjects when what the men wanted (and they have the money) at the core were pictures of suppliant nubile fecund-looking women? Nowadays male directors prefer very young semi-anorexic girls for their chief actress. For such commissions, Angelica Kauffman wanted to paint historical paintings as these were what was most respected: I have learnt (she makes it explicit) from Rosenthal that meant classical stories even more often than the “heroic” battle scenes and public rituals conferring power on men. Further, in the 18th century these classical stories were often actuated by an idea that comes down to soft-core porn that flatters male power.

Kauffman, From Zeuxis Choosing his Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy (1773-1780)

Two examples: it seems a very popular story painted repeatedly was that of Campaspe: Pliny recounted how Alexander was so pleased by Appelles’ depiction of his slave-mistress, Alexander gave Campaspe to Appelles; favored in these depictions was the inclusion of one of Alexander’s homoerotic (homosexual) friends. Nicholas Vleughels was among those who painted Campaspe as offering her body openly to Appelles and whoever else was in the studio, her expression all docile compliance, her legs parted, a slave nearby lifting up part of her for inspection (1715). Later in the century Diderot was sufficiently alert to the salacious aspects of this in another version of this (by Etienne Falconet, 1765) that he interrupts his salivating to object the portrait suggests a prostitute so unworthy a viewer’s attention; on the other hand there is too much modesty and innocence (stupidity) so she is obviously someone who will go from man to man. This in euphemistic French is the burden of his Salon here.

What’s a woman to do with such stories? Rosenthal reproduces Kauffman’s depiction of this scene where the difference is Campaspe is actively participating, much more lively in body, more centered in the picture, and (in the age-old trope) has one breast bared which she offers up. Rosenthal goes on about how Kauffman has improved on, given a proto-feminist (?!) turn to the story by showing the heroine involved as negotiator. Since when is openly forced prostitution agency? (I know since trafficking began to be disguised as sex-work by women surviving from this industry.) I wouldn’t reprint Kauffman’s picture any more than I would Vleughels or Falconet’s. More briefly, a second favorite story was that of Zeuxis choosing a model, and in Kauffman’s version we have three very sexy models (of the usual soft-body type) but also an alert woman with a piquant expression behind him who is presented as much stronger looking and possibly about the paint the scene herself. You see her, a detail in the picture, blown up large above. Is this a vast improvement on the total lack of agency usually seen in such pictures? Rosenthal asks that we praise and take seriously these changes and these depictions. The truth is Kauffman’s pictures leave men as powerful with most of the women differently salacious.

A second kind of related problem is doing portraiture. It was part of the custom for selling pictures to have an open studio where customers could come and see your wares; in these places artists did portraits. Obviously a relationship between the woman artist and subject evolves and now the problem is men are made uncomfortable because there is an implicit submission going on, quite apart from the possibility of women gaining sexual power through seduction. Diderot who was franker than many is again our witness. It seems that Diderot ended up allowing himself to be painted by Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-82) with his shirt partly off. He wrote about this in a titillating way, and knowing that people could insinuate a liaison had gone on, he meant his piece to be funny — because everyone knew Therbusch was old and ugly. Women had somehow to negotiate a respected presence in their own studio, and that meant they had to present a subjectivity for their subjects that was constrained; Rosenthal interprets one of Rosenthal’s depictions of Garrick as showing him trying to fend off any sense that he was vulnerable to her.

A detail from another portrait of Garrick by Kauffman (not well known, not an ostensible show-offy studio product)

How much does it help to be told that Kauffman chose to paint Penelope again and again in non-narrative aggressive-passive ways because she was reaching for “monumental time,” a concept developed by Kristeva: women are said to move away from “linear time” and “measure existence via repetition, procreativity, and motherhood.’ I know the marks or features of l’ecriture-femme in writing include cyclical structure, a female consciousness with her type of life at the center. I know that part of the task of persuading 50% of the population to like women’s art is to present and teach and explain the value, meaning, beauty of a woman’s aesthetic, and their invention of genres that express their lives. But l’ecriture-femme cannot make something inferior or deeply unethical better. I began this blog with Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses from the series of Penelope that Kauffman painted because I needed no argument or explanation to recognize its mystery, beauty, numinous tone, glimmering color.

bacchus (Large)
Or this of Bacchus Teaching the Nymphs to Make Verses by Kauffman (1788) — this image fails to convey the rich red and orange hues, the deep blues and brightness of the original, its sensuality and psychological looks on the learning nymphs’ faces

So from Rosenthal’s opening two chapters on the commercial world of 18th century art, I’ve learned the answer to why so few women have been recognized as great goes well beyond the obvious obstacles, which now for me include the very different aesthetics women practice. What to do about this lack of recognition which is needed has no uncomplicated solutions. Arguing there is no such thing as women’s art, that women do not make art for other women as women, that see they do the men’s genre here or there, just erase women’s art further and do a disservice to the female audience, nor will qualified pandering persuade anyone with an ethical compass.

Not that I’m giving up on my project. There are centuries where an egalitarian perspective begins to take hold, painting out-of-doors, many other genres beyond male history and porn (which some of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures are disguised versions of, others bring back the trope of women as witches). Rosenthal’s book is extraordinarily instructive; I’ve learnt the name of two more 18th century women artists I never heard of before, and found a picture by one of them to share here:

Lenoir (Large)
Marie Genevieve Bouliar (162-1825), Chevalier Alexandre-Marie Lenoir (1796) — he is holding onto a catalogue he made from a museum to save is art from destruction, as he shields his face from the woman’s artist’s scrutiny


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Picture by Joanna Mary, Head of Mrs Eaton

Dear friends and readers,

My project to call attention to women artists ignored, neglected, marginalized, erased in modern museums, exhibits and survey books includes reviews of books on such women. I reviewed Deborah Cherry’s ground-breaking and creatively original, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists, in 2007. Cherry’s most important (of many) insights in that book is a demonstration that women in the 19th century did not attempt to fit into (now famous and respected) male aesthetic schools, but evolved genres of painting, technical emphases and moods quite apart from male pictures. The continued attempt to fit them into pre-conceived male schools, impressionism for example, ends up finding them producing inferior or odd versions of impression (or the school in question), with only one or two sufficiently conforming. In Painting Women Cherry identified several types and modes of painting coming out of women’s gender-constructed circumstances and values (what they were permitted to see and to paint) which go far to re-frame the 19th century woman artist.

Beyond the Frame fills in the social and economic worlds of women, especially as manifested in public writing and media about women artists, their schooling, their careers, their leisure activities, their politicking. She looks at the images of women they were surrounded by and tried to push back against (not very successfully), and the images of women and the world around them they created, many of which have been marginalized, vanished, and misunderstood. She answers the question how how did women as a group acting to be treated as paid professionals shape them as people and what they then did in their lives. If a few women became professional artists without their families in the later 18th century, they were anomalies. This is indeed a book about what happens outside a frame and how that is part of what is said about or appears inside the frame. An aspect of this book which makes it so different from Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race is there is little about the woman’s private lives, their affairs with men, how that affected them, their families. This helps bring out different women’s individual agency.

Her introduction sets her subject in the present state of feminist theories about visual art and women because it’s through images that women have been used (abused, exploited), framed, understood, made models for other women to imitate. She pays attention to how visual culture was used by ruthless colonizers and imperialists. She focuses on individuals when she can. Throughout she shows how the world of women artists intersected with the hard necessary work of increasing women’s rights to work, to make and keep their money, to have real access to liberty and use it for self-fulfillment and social good.


Her first and second chapters, “Artists and Militants, 1850-66” and “In/between the colonial theater: visuality, visibility, and modernity” focus on specific years: a time when the first employment office and agency on behalf of women for professional work was begun in London, and when the first feminist press (a press run by women) and women’s journals were published. She names a few names since change in the high cultured arts is top down. The women who mattered were Barbara Bodichon, Eliza Fox, Emily Faithful (who Trollope published with), Harriet Martineau, the usual suspects – as well as a growing group of women artists and their biographers, the artists themselves painting pictures which showed the real lives of women or parodied and burlesqued the conventional pious pictures (like Florence Claxton, Emily Jane Osborne). She then suggests why women wanted to travel: emigration to a colony or moving about offered liberty not available in any other way.

Florence Claxton, The Choice of Paris

The portrait of Florence Claxton, and the parodic nature of her art is splendid. I am tempted to make Caxton one of my forgotten women precisely because I’ve never heard her mentioned in any Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, and unlike the few women mentioned (muses, sex objects, occasionally painting in a woman’s version of the male aesthetic here), she sends up the male pictures. How refreshing and what attention it would catch if a few of her sketches were included – she did paintings too.

I never saw some of these pictures before: funny sendups of the male Pre-raphaelites. The woman artists conceived of themselves as militants for women’s rights. They struggled to get and mount exhibitions of their work as a whole and some to make sure only work of high quality was included; that they entered prestigious shows. They didn’t want extravagant praise, for that does not take them seriously.  To stop the production of pious images was impossible but you could introduce satire. Of course some women journalists stopped short of endorsing anything not determinedly pro-marriage, children as the center of women’s lives (Elizabeth Ellet). The first histories of women’s visual art were written. These are lives told in terms of obstacles overcome – just like Germaine Greer.


Barbara Bodichon, Sisters Working in Our Field (1858-60)

Near Algeria (1860s)

Her third chapter, “The Worlding of Algeria” is problematic:  she investigates the particular case of Algeria as a place Bodichon went to live in when she married a French husband. Cherry takes it as a given we will disapprove of Bodichon’s horror at the nature of Muslim women’s lives –- I don’t. This chapter reveals the great gap and fault-line between what privileged elite, white upper class women experienced and want for themselves and their lack of knowledge of non-western and working class women. The visual imagery of the colonized and subaltern woman influences how the elite woman will be treated too. The elite women wanted to to go an imperialist colony like Algeria it was unlike settler colonialism where the aim of the Europeans was to create a new version of the old society (after “removing” the native people).

She then launches into a revealing critique of such pictures that we are many of us familiar with. Citing Spivack, Bhabha, and Linda Nochlin, Cherry demonstrates the familiar alluring pictures of landscape and buildings of Africa, India and others are all false constructs: they omit much that was actually there, in the way they frame what they see they follow the Claude Lorraine scheme, the celebration of harmony is of power; the figures of “natives” either are not there, or are tiny and we never see them doing anything commercial. Linda Nochlin describes such pictures in her essay on the “imaginary orient.” She brings out the ambiguity of women’s painting in the era: how when they achieve some freedom, it is not available on “innocent” terms. And that a number of the women painters who are better known painted this kind of landscape or “oriental” people inside it.

One detail sticks in my mind: one of these elite women inspired a powerful French woman to wear silks and it was argued this was kindness to provide jobs for these oriental girls: the jobs were 12 hours a day to spin silk at age 13-21 whereupon she’d be married off. European women wanted to go to places like Algeria because there was no settler colonialism there: no one was attempting to recreate a little England or France, but only occupy gov’t and business positions; the European imperialists were fiercely militaristic, destroying native attempts to stop them taking the natural resources and thus made a safe space for women not married to travel in and “be free.” Only a few such women noticed the natives, even fewer respected and saw them as human beings. To be fair, the only women white women came across were veiled, spoke a different language.

The chapter is relevant to us today: when something is shown of native type it’s a ruin, or desolate and obviously needs to be torn down except that it is so picturesque. Painters did not know how to show the civilization they were seeing. Islam when shown is depicted as fanatic, desecrating Christian and ancient Roman and Greek sites. Cherry talks about the literal frames put around such pictures; buyers expected a frame as if they want to distance themselves. I’ve seen similar pictures of 19th to 20th century Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Egypt.


Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia (1862)

As her first book taught generally so this one begins with a detail or person and moves out “beyond the frame.” Chapter 4 begins with Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia to bring out how in order to make money the artist who made sculptures had to make copies and when she did she had to use the services of other people. Large statues often required workman skilled in the material the statue was made of. This reality was used to accuse women of not doing their own statues, but hiring others. Again we see these Greek/Roman images were an aristocratic European ideal: people who never looked like that; the artists are imitating the figures of the early Renaissance. Cherry discusses Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, which has an ideal woman painter, pure virginal copying masterpieces, and the daughter of a Jewish banker who paints stories of blood and revenge (Jael, Judith).

The Art Journal defended these women sculptors in Rome, including Edmonia Lewis (accused of poisoning her fellow students – Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts explained that false charger). Tellingly though feminists of the era pushed for masculine qualities in the art; Francis Cobbe liked statues of strong figures; these are high art, so Angelica Kauffmann’s pictures (which I admit I often do not like) are feeble and about prettiness. Women must create what they admire, and they admire power, force, grandeur, says Cobbe. (I don’t.) but Cobbe goes on to doubt if such qualities are found in women to the same extent as men. (As if men are all strong … ) all this is written in connection with Hosmer’s Zenobia and others statues. Cherry includes the strong influence of Americans in Rome, perhaps overstated, how they interacted with English and Canadian people. Now Hosmer was judged on how she looked, her private life; happily neither were found wanting: she was leading a “real life – a life “carried out for herself.” Frances Cobbe met her long-time partner in Rome, Mary Lloyd, a Welsh sculptor who worked with Rosa Bonheur.

About this time in 19th century culture that an author’s life began to “authorize” the art work (or writing or music). So, after showing that attempts were made to say the women did not sculpt their own heroic statures, she brings in Foucault to argue that respect for an author and the perceived presence of the author in the art work gave a work respect. An author authorized the text — I’ll add that we see in the 19th century the growing worship of authors as celebrities. When it was argued that Homer never existed, the value of the Iliad went down; when it was argued that several authors could or would have been involved, the Iliad became almost not worthwhile any close study. There was nothing to study it for.

(Films have this problem today and those who want to elevate the status of film often resort to some form of auteur theory to make people regard the work as art and enabled them to analyze its vision. And if the auteur is famous  respected then you are in business as a critic to be listened to. And it’s true we (or I) look for the “signature” of the author by looking at the script writer or director’s other films and comparing and showing likeness. We see the importance of the author’s life come in here; how viewers want to judge it. The hard truth is no matter how dominant one or more personalities are in the final product of a film, it is the product of intricate collaboration on every level.)

Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci

Some women sculptors presented these heroic figures with large gravitas (Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra) which influenced other depictions — or they were all following a similar paradigm. Joanna Mary Boyce depicted a Cumean sybil as a figure of learning and prophecy — she painted the famous often reprinted Head of Mrs Eaton (a model in 19th century London often referred to “a woman of color”). The Zenobia by Hosmer is then a watershed and achievement for women artists, but not as strong a one as has been made out.

She then covers the kind of postures for women in art that were popular, allowed or just circulated widely: heroic women who were nonetheless enslaved, seen in chains — like Zenobia; we were to admire their passive fortitude. It was objected by some at the time why do we never see Zenobia when she is successful and a warrior, only in her downfall? Other images — such as enslaved Greek by Hiram Power (a male) are voyeuristic; you are invited to imagine something sadistic about to happen. Chains around female figures were everywhere in these sculptures, also a focus on the woman’s private parts, one breast bared (the traditional sign of the prostitute). If we look at how Victoria was represented there was a problem of showing her heroic and strong and yet not aggressive and loving mother; there was severe disapproval of her continual retirement from public life and her love for Brown was known and had to be hushed up. 


Gwen John, a self-portrait (1899)

The last and fifth chapter, “Tactics and allegories, 1866-1900” is overlong and meanders; it takes different turns. My experience of writing for publication makes me suspect it is comprised of material meant to be part of later chapters, but she was forced to cut down her book and condensed these further chapters in this last fifth one. In it she analyzes Gwen John’s self-depiction. It’s a single image condensing many themes of independence, self-confidence making her stand for the “new woman” – personal freedom, individualism, making of independent life organized around work, socializing unchaperoned in mixed company, living in rented accommodation rather than family home. The problem is most novels are about sexual non-conformity, not about politically active, or neurotic and idealistic women.

What the whole book shows and especially this chapter was the kind of social abilities a woman needed to be a professional painter or the kind of family, background and connections she needed to come from and have help through made many of the women artists political activists. While a few famous ones, were adamantly publicly opposed to women getting the vote (of course they would be made famous), most worked for women’s causes of various sorts, and strongly for this. So women artists and suffragettes converged. Her point is that women artists were politically active because in order to have a career they had to be economically and socially active within elite groups.

She prints portrait by Sophia Beale of herself as a taxpayer, a person who worked as teacher, painter, landlady has no vote and the drone male in her house has one. Bodichon pointed out women were eligible for public offices too. It’s the paying taxes that is the clincher each time. Only a few resisted paying taxes and their goods were seized. Women artists embodied social responsibility, professional and properties status. People have called the group elite: list of important women in public life as all for suffrage. Women for the vote spoke lectures, there was attention to public works. Petitioners, Bodichon presented demand for vote to John Stuart Mill. Scottish women painters active. Several women artists took active roles in organizations. Cherry offers a list of active women which includes several familiar and not-so-familiar artists.

Cherry then moves into traditions of radical thought, social reform, professional work for women. Emily Ford came from prosperous Quakers, who trained both sexes for independent lives, social responsibility and active intervention. Each placed herself in some central functioning area; worked against Contagious Diseases Act which criminalized women rather than those who exploited them. Emily Fox a committee member for Leeds Educational society. The women attended one another’s meetings and become involved with labor politicians. Emily Fox joined Leeds Social League; and with her sisters and Alice Scatcherd helped series of strikes which included women weavers and tailors. The organization provided education, practical help, money. Emily Ford became Anglican but at the same time worked for protective regulation on behalf of women and children. Now she provides a list of names who were variously active –it’s striking what they did. It was a broad moral critique: against domestic violence, child abuse, animal rights too, antivivisectionist, for women’s unions. Not all women artists had the time to act as suffragettes, a couple still demurred too. They all had to be careful not to let these activities affect a positive reputation; they would contribute in ways that kept their name quiet; artistry with less elite status could be more public. Then she cites famous women artists who did not involve themselves, e.g., Gwen John, Vanessa Bell. The very definition of femininity was now challenged.

There were of course upper class women who were anti-suffrage; the pro-suffrage women saw these people as elitist; people wanted to be part of what was stylish too, so issue was complicated as they say. Little mention was made of women’s rights in magazine aimed at them, and yet they signed petitions in huge numbers, a few allowing the use of their famous name as a spearhead. When prominent British politicians asserted there was no evidence women wanted the vote, the Women’s Social and Political Union (the major organization begun by the Pankhurts) brought out thousands in the streets and petitions galore – the latter are weak instruments at best.
A convergence had occurred on public platforms, theaters, book buying too. Cherry produce a long list of women artists who were known to be suffragettes.


Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora (see my review of the movie which presents Hypatia as a tragically silenced teacher)

She has the great insight to remark that the male Pre-Raphaelites who painted the beautiful women they kept as mistresses often painted them as powerful sorceresses, and that early on when women wanted power or lived alone they were equated with witches, burnt or somehow punished (guillotined in the French revolution). And she says the most famous of the sorceress paintings emerge just before and during the time of the “new woman” in fiction and suffragette campaign. Susan Casteras has argued that “women endowed with great creativity” in Pre-raphaelite imagery become witches, sorceresses;” then Beverly Taylor sees these as also fearful, projections of male anxieties (they have these dark narrow eyes). So the re-emergence of imagery of women as witches, sorceresses – in male Pre-Raphaelite paintings!  Women art critics who like the male Pre-Raphaelite painting are concerned to counter this: Jan Marsh wants to see this as “idealized beautiful” women, enchantresses (159).

These images coincide with first organized woman’s movement for vote, rights on a national scale. Women wreaking havoc and destruction in tales too. Morgan LeFaye a murderess, incestuous with son, a Medea type. Casteras: they are defying the rhetoric of masculine control. Elizabeth Barrett Browning does all she can to distance herself and heroines from this kind of book. Mary Boyce Wells has a sympathetic sibyl, but the issues were property laws, Contagious Diseases Acts, professional opportunities, paid work, medical knowledge. In 1872 the first public schools and colleges including or for women with high academic standards emerge. No more independent scholars, bluestockings, visibility in public life and suffrage petitions was what was needed and sought. At the same time the formation of a distinctly homosexual-social culture was forming. To this belongs Eliza Lynn’s attack on the “new girl of the period.” then there was increasing disquiet about race as world shrunk.

Joanna Boyce Wells, Elgiva

The pictures of Joanna Mary Boyce Wells come closest to painting sibyls in ways that are deeply sympathetic. She is one underrated painter – very good. Her Head of Mrs Eaton (found on the Internet easily) is only one of her paintings that are very good. About to have her first exhibit, she died in childbirth. Without a husband, women were not respectable and they also had a hard time making a living. The next time my reader goes to a Pre-Raphaelite show with no women painters (or the obligatory Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morison) have a real look at how the males are painting these “gorgeous” females. Like Julia Cameron’s photographs (who follows Michelangelo’s depiction of sibyl turning pages of volume with putti holding a light), Boyce does not follow Virgil to show a possessed woman; not gloomy, not about to commit crimes (Burnes-Jones’s sibyl is); she is poised, calm, contemplative. Cameron’s work required costumes, furniture, tableaux vivants, Marie Spartalli works with her “performing” beauty, maternity, spirituality; Cameron’s picture recalls a painting of Isabella d’Este.

Hypatia became a focus for women artists – she is made fun of in Punch as Miss Hypatia Jones, Spinster of arts – we can trace the complex of ideas and emotions attached to Hypatia in several women artists: Marie Spartali Sillman (imagery from Spenser’s Faerie Queen – Britomart), identified with Sophia and also Antigone (think of George Eliot! – and recent play with Juliette Binoche, not to omit Rachel Weisz in Agora, figures of resistance to patriarchal authority). 

Meanwhile discourses about art’s moral function were under pressure. It’s in this context Cherry brings up Pre-Raphaelite women artists too; Rossetti was attacked so you needed to be moral and yet art for art’s sake the mode. Spivack sees an interplay between a portrait of the self and using the self to represent a constituency – you stage yourself to represent an idea and blend all these female archetypes (Dido is very far from this I see.

Laura Hertford, Elizabeth Armstrong Garrett (1866 — a photograph of a portrait)

She turns to what was happening in women’s professions. Elizabeth Garrett Armstrong gets a license from society of apothecaries and sets up practice as a physician; in magazines we find comic drawings of sweetly pretty doctor, useless, hired for sex appeal; or a harridan disrupts family life. Visual language recalls women campaigning for voting rights. So how can women artists counter this? Around the time of her license, Laura Herford painted Garrett, stayed within family looks grave, high neck dark dress, hair pulled back with middle part, gaze alert serious steady. She declined openly to support suffragettes; cartoons showing women professionals neglecting husband, children, women barristers presented as the next absurdity, ridiculous jargon ridden papers. She did not dress like Langham place group.
Debates occurred on what is appropriate curriculum for women, appropriate areas of practice. Mary Macarthur an early 20thcentury unionist declared “Knowledge is power” and “knowledge and organisation mean the opening of the cage door.”


1890s is a period of conflicting groups and tendencies. A time of discussions about marriage, motherhood, compatibility with women’s desire for self-fulfillment. One problem is people rarely discussed content of pictures.

Susan Isabel Dacre, Linda Becker (1886)

Fashioning an image for professional woman and vote is not easy: Osborne mad Jane Cobden Unwin into a woman silvered in satin (!), class based; Susan Isabel Dacre painted Lydia Becker insombre sober dress– nearly 60, another very heavy woman, direct gaze through her spectacles, not prettied up like Millais’s depiction of Louise Jopling, but drab, isolated thoughtful weary; she became target of satiric depictions.

Towards the end of Chapter 5 Cherry quotes Susan Casteras to the effect that with few exceptions women did not challenge canons of taste, imagery, citing Margaret Isabel Dicksee’s Miss Angel – we see Angelicak Kauffmann introduced by Lady Wentworth, visiting Mr Reyndols 1892 – elegantly dressed lady. The image reminds me of Kauffmann’s pictures (and Angharad Rees in the 1976 Poldark as Demelza), which reinforced story of Kauffmann’s life how she missed out on marrying Reynolds, chose badly so led blighted life. (Kauffmann’s work is a problem – if only we would admit it – soft unreal nymphs. I have not done a blog because in all conscience I find so many of her ideal forms vapid or insipid. Only when she does a portrait of a real person is the picture valuable as aesthetic and philosophical art. The stories of the 18th century musical Linleys are made to fit.

Dicksee took up mantle of Henrietta Ward. Exhibiting a major historical painting with lengthy explanation; another cited Jessie Macgregor’s In the Reign of Terror which depicted a mother’s courage; Louise Jopling did an Elaine of Astolat drowned for love but also Salome (a contested figure) and like other women painting the figure was criticized for conception (head on tray), Jopling said her Queen Vashti refusing to show herself to the People was “an originator and victim of women’s rights.”

A campaign which used the words “purity” and took a stance of moral vigilance attacked these sorts of paintings, of nudity in public, “obscenity” in postcards, posters; women trained to produce degrading images of their own sex; 1890s saw passing of Criminal Law Amendment Act raised age of consent for girls to 16, powers to the police to prosecute street walkers, brothel keepers, indecent acts between adults are made illegal.

Artists and critics inveighed against women artists studying nudes, even if “hampered from competition for highest prizes in art.” Florence Fenwick Miller takes Lawrence Alma-Tadema for exerting himself against admission of women’s paintings but not the “languorous dreamy women” of his paintings. Political Lady Cricketeers seen in a drawing are rare for not being made misshapen harridans. Cherry wonders if these images had a “multivalency” for women at the time (meaning maybe women then liked these sexy pictures of women.) Fenwick Miller and Emilia Dike upheld women’s rights to study and depict the nude as necessary for career. There was fairly consistent agitation to obtain permission to attend life classes at the Royal Academy.

Such campaigns gave women opportunity to speak out about sex, morality. In 1899 Louisa Starr defended nude depiction; not improper, indecent, offensive – much was at stake here. Henrietta Rae’s Psyche before the Throne of Venus with its numerous nudes and semi-draped women was attacked; Starr’s defense is as long as done in classical tradition, showing sports, as long as nude is “robust, mellowed, healthy … “ No corset of course, the “purity of spirit” would shine through 186. There is a problem here. This is classic vigilance argument, no lasciviousness here, implicit racism (whites painted). Elizabeth Forbes’s School is Out does break with stereotypes to show teacher satisfied, in charge; using rural background assures respectability.


At the close of her book Cherry moves to justify 1890s women artists who went in for spiritualism as a form of feminism and the art they created using these. It won’t do. It does seem as if her woman artists were mostly elitist types and could not get themselves to avail themselves of socialist allegories of the type Walter Crane and Morris used. Nor can Cherry stomach the work of the Newlyn school as led by Stanhope Forbes. (Like others, she holds against him his elitism, that he squashed parts of his wife’s career, that the women accepted in the Newlyn school had to conform to domestic ideals.) I prefer the Newlyn School with its deeply respectful realism.

Another aspect of the 1880s and 90s is men’s institutions refuse to accept women’s work, portraits of important women. I know that Anne Barbauld’s papers were destroyed many of them because the British Library would not take them and in the 1940 the house they were kept in was destroyed by bombs.

Suffragette meeting, from The Graphic, 25 May 1872 — includes Millicent Garret Fawcett, Frances Strong Pattison [aka Emilia Dilke], Ernestine Rose, Lydia Becker, Rhoda Garrett

We can study the period as suffragette and women artists saw it to some extent by looking at saved cuttings from newspapers – compiled extracts which they often found mean and cruel: rare not to have political women “as a red nosed, misshapen republisve looking harridan.” National Portrait Gallery refused to accept Dacre’s portrait of Becker on the grounds she had not been dead 10 years as yet – this excludes women from “imagined national community” 195; they collected their own material but what was publicly shown was A Dream of Fair Women” in Lonoon 1894: women in grand manner, uncomplicated beauty. Women’s Suffrage Society presented their collection to University College, Bristol.

New womens’ colleges often had bare walls; Bodichon provided furniture money for Girton decoration. Emily Mary Osborne exhibited a picture of Bodichon calling her “instrumental” in founding Girton after Emily Davies had claimed herself the exclusive founder; Bodichon wanted the painting there to be sure that she was credited 197. Picture of Davies makes her look like heritage family portrait demure, white cap, hands folder; Bodichon painting. These women fought over this.

Then the resort to allegory: Emily Ford’s Rising Dawn has disappeared but a photograph of it survives – on the occasion of Philippa Fawcett achieving highest place in Math Tripos exam at Newnham College Cambridge 198. Resembles Soul Finding the Light (see below). Using Owens’s theory, Cherry defines allegory is one text read through another; you add a layer of meaning – we can re-see them with a different allegory: allegory is unmotivated in the sense that symbolism is particular to, grows out of a work itself. So to many today (to me) Watts’ Hope (a woman) looks hopeless. Leighton’s Arts of Industry shows well born women showing off jewels; women sew with servants all around; while men make and deliver luxury goods – indolent self-regarding women; Golden Stairs thought to have no content or story.

Cherry suspects that Emily Ford’s pictures had political meanings that she does not tell. Cherry points to – she descriptions of Ford’s works not now extant: The Weary Way had wild winds of Yorkshire (it seemed) hindering steps of old woman who struggles under a load. How do you create a new visual culture for socialism?; wee see attempts in Walter Crane, Walter Langley in Newlyn school – she seems oddly dismissive of these males because she wants to include women whose art is elitist even if they are trying to celebrate women.

So Cherry moves to the use of spiritualism imagery: the imagery of seances, spiritualism, Society for Psychical Research is what some women artists appear to have used for hopeful allegory .I see a great irony here – she cites historians who say this kind of thing has a particular appeal for women – (after all they had the many children who died I put it) so we get suffragettes joining this group: Agnes Garrett, Anna Swanick, Elizabeth Blackwell, Charlotte Despard – they would investigate table-rapping, mediums, automatic writing

Evelyn de Morgan — note both figures are female

Evelyn de Morgan not a member but interested in this kind of psychical research and she expressed ideas of women’s spiritual evolution through the imagery as in her Soul’s Prison House, Aurora Triumphans; Cherry finds the same spiritual journey in Emily Ford’s painting – she sees Morgan’s paintings as “resplendent” – Night flees and the female figures move into the light; central to Judeo-Christian imagery from Pilgrim’s progress to Swedenbourg to Quakers. Paul de Man comes in useful here. She wants us to begin to see this sort of thing as feminist. Marina Warner has said this kind of allegory is declamatory.

She turns to look at banner and visual images used in campaigns. In 1884 there was one to extend suffrage to include almost all men – to include women too– a huge demonstration-meeting in Sheffield and elsewhere, in London, in Edinburgh – banners used (“Women Claim Equal Justice with Men”), eye-catching spectacle of flags (Westminster and London Tailoresses said to have participated), use of singing, of processions. She means to give a sense of the full visual culture of women’s suffrage in the 1880s – this pageantry connected to temperance, mother’s union, church groups, labor protests, socialist groups, miners’ galas … Later on it became narrower and larger middle class in imagery. These were images of women at meetings, of well-dressed women in groups, looking semi-professional.

Most of the suffrage visual art has been lost, not collected, not valued, no one had the resources to save these. But collections of family paintings have been dispersed and women’s paintings ended up there; marble statues (!) by women have been lost (Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra lately found); endowments, insecure donations, lack of continuity and gifts are lost.

She suggests we are uneasy with women’s pasts. Allegory is uncertain and slippery and becomes barely discernible. That’s why the use of these spiritualist allegories is lost to us today says Cherry. It’s more than that. Seance and spiritualist movements were and are a dead end. Women did die in great numbers in childbirth; their children died in great numbers. All tragic but the technological solution of better childbirth procedures and what we have of scientific medicine was what was needed.

The coda

Emily Ford, The Soul Finding the Light (1888-89)

Cherry lifts her book again to the important and profound about women’s movements and art. After saying that allegory (and I’ll add irony thinking of Austen and Trollope) is treacherous, that it can be erased or misread, she quotes Owen again who remarked most of such works are not preserved or preserved in odd ways. A large number of the works Cherry has discusses are misread or lost or known only through photographs. Hosmer’s statue is disappeared; so too paintings by Howitt of Boadicea, Tekushch of The wife and Rebecca Levinson of Hypatia. In order to get the Girton authorities to put Becker’s picture up, Osborne had to cut it down; the original once in the Manchester Art Gallery is now preserved only in a photograph. We have cursory reviews. Ford’s Towards the Dawn gone missing.

Cixous says that the gift is a dangerous because it is not given with the aim of getting something in return. The gift which is part of potlatch is “proper” (like Christmas). She says gifts arouse suspicion and are associated with women. The gift is donated and thus out of the system and constitutes a threat to the system which has refused to pay for it or reciprocate. So it is insecure and is not preserved, is not put anywhere that recognition works to make permanent (e.g., blogs on the Net, postings on listservs, participation in networks online, volunteer work … women’s work at home when unpaid).

When such works are gone, they are misrecollected or dismissed when mentioned. Cherry ends on Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations where he says “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own … is threatened by irretrievable disappearance.” Here we see the important of awards as well as money.

So unless you coopt and obey the system to some extent, you are lost. Often women did not in order to speak of themselves truthfully, and much of their work has been systematically as well as with indifference lost. It is courageous of Cherry to end on this note.


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From closing frames of S&S (modeled on Andrew Wyeth picture?, Liew, Molinari, Sabino)

From closing frames of NA (imagery of pastoral intermixed with nightmare, novel as Catherine’s dream, Lee, Pildari, Eckelberry)

Dear friends and readers,

Surely it’s time to write about Austen here again. Long overdue some might say.

Last night I read and perused the latest graphic novel of Northanger Abbey, words chosen and written by Nancy Butler, the artist Janet K Lee; colorist Nick Pilardi, letterer Jeff Eckleberry. It’s a Marvel product and since in just the way the company that produces a film predetermines the shape and much that is indefinably the film so the comic book publisher Marvel predetermines elements of the commodity they sell. Thus it’s no surprise if the other Marvel graphic novel I own, which I also reread and looked at the pictures for far more carefully and deeply than I’ve done before, Sense and Sensibility, also by Nancy Butler, but this time artist Sonny Liew, colorist L. Molinai, Letterer Joe Sabino, showed a strong family resemblance.

The Dashwood family approaches Barton Cottage (Liew, L. Molinar, Joe Sabino, angle and shot from the 1996 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson S&S)

Catherine and Isabella exploring Bath (based on general gothic mode, Lee, Pilardi, Eckleberry) Isabella “easy, unreserved conversation” (!), showing Butler can do irony

Both have marvelous large pictures at the close of the most striking of the panels that are smaller inside the story — and here both are highly original or they allude to famous works of art or movie/movie genres.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them — I have a strong tendency to see these books as comic books but under the influence of Simon Grennan’s Dispossession, which I bought at the Trollope conference meeting, and is a graphic novel adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate, I began to look at the individual panels seriously for the first time, and could see they are genuinely art; in these two cases expressionistic, and project a general outlook and mood, not necessarily Austen’s but a reading of her. It’s obvious that Posy Simmonds and Audrey Niffennegger’s graphic novels are art, Simmonds’s images are so distinctive — and Niffennegger’s spun art in the manner of artistic poem books. These Marvel books are not so; they are deliberately set up in frames and use typologies resembling more comic book images — probably not to put off the comic book buyer. I can’t say that all Marvel comics are genuinely good; and I know some of the recent autobiographical graphic novels rich on text are poor on images (which makes them poor graphic novels), but these are worth perusal.

As with Posy and Niffennegger, one aspect of the enjoyment is the text. In both cases Butler is the writer and she choses wisely to take as much from Austen’s text straight as she can. I once had a publisher tell me when you publish about Austen let your guide by to quote her when you can. You are sure to please that way. So you are reading Austen epitomized, in bits and pieces, sometimes altered and expanded with piquant details, often from the era, but they are well chosen.

Mr Willoughby and Marianne have their first literary discussion: it’s about Scott

As Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey, it is gothic — purples, greys, angles which are edgy

The pictures matter of course, maybe more than the words. In the case of NA I was surprised to find very dark colors used for Bath itself, Bath made gothic, with overlarge oddly angled depictions of the characters (so we are inside their minds), haunting kinds of shapes for what happens. In the case of the S&S, there are zoom shots, the characters look so overawed and powerless against the screens they are caught in, especially Mrs Dashwood in her widow’s garb, at a kind of great distance angle of shot from on high, very sudden too.

The page where Catherine receives the invitation to go to the Abbey and discusses it with the Allens

Fanny Dashwood needling Mrs Dashwood to make her take Elinor away, Mrs Dashwood vowing not to take this punishment

Butler (in a preface) talks of Northanger Abbey as sending up the gothic, but the artist and especially the colorer made Bath into a gothic image, with the characters sometimes looming and scary in context. Everything feels pervasive from colors seeping around to lines — lots of odds oranges, off-color yellows, browns. As if a page is the inner or deeper feeling of Catherine. The lines on the face of John Thorpe make him menacing. Real grit in the S&S: this frame combines the melancholy of the three Brandons: Robert Swann who uses a cane (1983), melancholy Alan Rickman with that brown jacket (1996), David Morrisey brooding most of all:

(You do have to abandon your critical faculties to the cartoon’s edge into absurdity)

In the S&S panel you see the characters drawn as on a stage from different angles and then squares within squares with faces close up, so tensions from social life come out: in the preface to S&S Butler speaks of the book as about sisters, and outrage over the way the Dashwoods are treated by the laws and when they arrive in Devonshire custom. Butler and Lee’s S&S takes off from the movies.

It’s undeniable that many of the characters are drawn to recall specific actors in either the 1996 Emma Thompson S&S or the 2008 Andrew Davies one; the dresses; the way Colonel Brandon is figured as so strong, manly, and melancholy with a cane. Many of the frames prefer what happened in one or other other of these two S&S than Austen’s more simple lack of particulars. So Barton Park recalls the 2008 S&S grand mansion (even photographed or drawn in the same way) and Barton cottage the 1996 S&S house (as they come up the walk) though the inside is more like the 2008 (as they go through the place, with the same clothes as Charity Wakefield and Hattie Morahan had on). As this is the third time I’ve read this one I started to see new things, and for the first time recognized some memories of the 1983 S&S film too — in the dresses, in some of what’s emphasized in the choices of text, occasionally a frame resembles a shot in the 1983 film — the script writer for the 1983 film was Alexander Baron, a fine novelist in his own right who did quite a number of the Dickens and one notable Bronte adaptation for the BBC in the 1980s. Mrs Jenkins is even modelled on Patricia Routledge from the 1971 S&S (Denis Constanduros the writer), with this wild page showing Ciaran Maddan as Marianne and Joanna David as Elinor:

The hairstyle suggest Irene Richards is remembered in the grieving Elinor

Yet at the same time similarly there is a particular interpretation which is Butler and Liew’s own and it’s poignant because of the high shots. It’s more daylight mind (Molinari did the colors) here than the Marvel NA, with normal perspectives on the size of the characters (they don’t overwhelm a page) and the background made into light of the day or quiet of an evening so there is a quieter feel to the work.

I have read a previous graphic novel adaptation of Northanger Abbey (words Trina Robbins, illustrator Anne Timmons): a Gothic classics volume which contains 5 novels so each one is shorter (it includes Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, words Antonella Caputo, illustrator Carlo Vergara); I want to say that the pictures are in black-and-white makes them limited only I know that Posy Simmonds makes beauty, gives depth with drawings on white too. I think it’s the wild angles of the frames themselves, sudden thrusting and most of all that the gothic is kept to throughout.



Also the use of Austen’s words: in the NA and S&S both occasionally Andrew Davies’s superb perceptive scripts.

I probably enjoyed them strongly because I’ve not been reading Austen in a while and when I return (I am grateful this is so) after having been away for a while, I forget all the outside materials I read about Austen: while some adds and enriches, so much is said or has been that to say something new or different (which is required) mars the experience because it’s so intermixed with the critic-writer’s political/social point of view and my feeling of how this book is supposed to operate for them in the Austen world, or just things that are said that are a new extreme and grate, or simply ignore the book altogether or mock it (in effect it’s so over-the-top in its reactive reading) though the person writing does not always know that.

Post-texts. S&S has the occasional wink as featured in the upper frame of its windowed cover:


while the NA is not above bats, and allusions to vampires, Udolpho and bookishness (the ancient table the two sit on are held up by fat ancient tomes)


I should not have been surprised as I love studying film (and films are moving pictures), loved art history and see pictures as endlessly meaningful when well done. In this Marvel NA, we have many narrowed eyes, on the male and female faces, suggestive; in this S&S really detailed developments out of Austen via different movies.


It’s a small vindication of the readings each perform since Austen’s words are used to pull NA into gothic realms, and easily host images from across 4 S&S films

My daughter Izzy bought the Northanger Abbey one on Sunday, November 1st, and we said it was appropriate to the season and All Saint’s Day — which for me would have been very lonely but for her and my two cats – and Austen and memories of the Austen movies.

Hattie Morahan as Elinor

Charity Wakefield as Marianne


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Ring-a-Ring-o’Roses (charcoal, watercolor, click to enlarge)

Woodland scene (1886, click to enlarge)

Dear friends and readers,

Forbes is the third woman I’ve chosen from this later Victorian into Edwardian/modern period (the other too Paula Modersohn-Becker and Helen Allingham) from out of eight thus far.

This is the first era of the impressionists, and Forbes came under the influence of James McNeill Whistler.

From her earlier French period: La Seine pres de la Caumont

Like his her landscapes are psychological projections. In her case her landscapes represent them as a child would see them, or suggestive of a particular story (Great Women Masters of Art, Vigue, 299). The use of children has another origin: like Allingham Forbes was an illustrator and had to come up with a solution to the repressive mores of the era which demanded she have a chaperon: she painted children.

I first came across her work at the National Museum of Women’s Art in DC where she seemed to fit into the Pre-Raphaelite mode: at the time her mural, Will-o’-the Wisp, was on a balcony, next to an ascending stairway:

(click to enlarge)

The painting connects her to Helen Allingham as Forbes is illustrating his symbolic poem, The Faeries, and

depicts the story of Bridget, who was stolen by the ‘wee’ folk and bought up to the mountain for seven years. When Bridget returned to her village, she found that her friends were all gone.
Set in autumn with bare trees silhouetted against a moonlit sky, the triptych’s dark rocks, swirling mist, and eerie glow in the sky convey a mystical quality to this scene featuring Bridge, the ‘stolen child … dead with sorrow … on a bed of flat leaves.’ In the left panel of the painting, little forest denizens, who in Irish legends often entice young girls with sensory pleasures, troop through the forest.
Will-o-the-Wisp displays the tenets of the Newlyn Art School in its meticulous portrayal of natural detail … the elaborately hand-wrought oak frame that incorporates sheets of copper embossed with intertwined branches imitat[e] the painted tree limbs … Lines from Allingham’s poem inscribed along the sides and bottom of the frame allude to the centuries old philosophical dialogue between the relative artistic merits of painting versus poetry (JP, Women Artists, Works from the National Museum, p 66)

Like Modersohn-Becker she was influenced by the avante-garde; for Forbes it was the work of Walter Sickert, a print-maker, that struck her.

Brighton Pierrots by Sickert (click to enlarge)

Julian Treuherz (Victorian Painting, pp 187-96) valuably reprints a number of late Victorian landscape and country painters unfamiliar to many people today, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Frank Bramley, Elizabeth’s husband, Stanhope Forbes, Clausen, Wm McTaggart, Atkinson Grimshaw), but she assimilates to these only in the naturalistic and seeming social-criticism phases of her work.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Pauvre Fauvette (1881)

William McTaggart, The Storm (1890)

And of course her husband’s work influenced hers as hers did his:

A characteristic fisherman’s wife scene (click to enlarge)

Martin Hopkinson’s review of a recent biography of Forbes, Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth Forbes by Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie and Christina Paine, suggests the wide range of influences and center of art Forbes attended (see The British Art Journal 2:3 (Spring/Summer 2001):108. It’s true that what’s depicted may seem insular English as in The Edge of the Wood (1894), a “love tryst” (Christopher Wood’s term, from Paradise Lost: Paintings of English Country Life and Landscape, 1850-1914, p 199) something from a Hardy novel


or ideas for a new BBC film adaptation of elegant rich Edwardians

The Minuet (1892)

but note the rich coloration of her Forbes’s art, her use of animals, the leaves, the wood; the second picture’s center is the child’s yellow dress, with triangular shades of light and three women watching over her while a fourth works near a window.

She is included in a few of my surveys of women painters, mentioned in others. Greer places her alongside Mary Cassatt and Laura Knight because she worked in “the fragile” (and demanding) “medium of watercolor, leaving grander genre and history compositions in oils to her better-known husband. Often the simplicity of her work seems slack and spurious, but occasionally, as in her pastel, The Kiss, some greater intensity swells the small statement” (Obstacle Race, p 113). What a put-down.

Those women who write about her art sympathetically say forget the fashionable masculine schools of the era (impressionism, Pre-Raphaelitism); to align Forbes with these or the anecdotal Victorian naturalistic depictions gets you nowhere. You have to stake out a terrain of femininity for her as much as her you do for Allingham and Modersohn-Becker. This seems to me right: like the woman authors of the 1930s who are marginalized (see Alison Light, Forever England) in favor of say Graham Greene or George Orwell because these women don’t fit in the political movements of the day, the marginalization of Allingham and Forbes is the result of looking for what the women don’t want to be there.

Her art is so varied: suggestive, wonderful use of space and line, decorative bright colors, the picturesque and the plain and real, movement within a picture and stylization, so many influences too, from book illustrators and Millet to costumes and Art Nouveau. For myself I am deeply attracted to women artists of this era, and in Forbes’s case the melancholy and in her illustrations overt poetic feel. As a girl I learned to love Arthurian stories because of the illustrations that accompanied them in Edwardian books.


Elizabeth in 1882 by her husband, Stanhope Forbes

Born December 29, 1859, in Kingston, a suburb of Ottawa, Canada, daughter of a government official. At age 16, 1875, she went to the South Kensington School of Art to study; she returned home when her father died (presumably she lack funds to stay on). Two years later we find her in NYC under American influence while studying at the Art Students League, and then going on Munich (encouraged by William Merrit Chase). In 1882 she moved to Pont Aven (France) where she met leading “plein-air” painters, people working in smocks out-of-doors. Decisive, though. was the autumn she spent in Newlyn, Cornwall, with her mother, both for choice of subject and execution:

A Zandvoort Fishergirl (1884) (click to enlarge)

and because she met her husband, Stanford Alexander Forbes there. A yet stronger luminous quality and use color and light, respect for a humble occupation, and expressiveness has lead to critics regarding her Boy with the Hoe as one of her outstanding paintings:

Elizabeth Adela Forbes - Boy with a Hoe
(click to enlarge)

The couple married in 1891; she had a son in 1892. She wrote and illustrated a children’s book, King Arthur’s Wood, and edited a magazine called The Paper Chase. She had been doing etchings from a time in St Ives, but gave this form up. She also could no longer keep up the French connections directly. To support themselves she and her husband opened a school of art in Newlyn (1899), but her predilection for presenting her modernity as the working teacher began before that, as seen in her fine School is Out(1889):

(click to enlarge)

Deborah Cherry (Painting Women, pp 183-6) argues that Forbes’s images take issue with masculine definitions of what is modern art, she (in effect) refuses to imitate paintings focusing on “the commodification of [sexually available] women’s bodies.”

Blackberry gatherers

Pleasure has other sources too, like in this Christmas Scene

Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes (Canadian artist, 1859–1912) Christmas Tree

Here is her husband reading a very thick book:

Stanhope Alexander Forbes

Using just lines and shades an umbrella:


Her first individual exhibit was held in 1900 at the Fine Arts Society of London; she was elected a member of the watercolor society; 1904 she had another individual exhibit at Leicester Gallery in London. She died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1912.



She is known for her depiction of children. Alone:

A street in Brittany


The Half-Holiday

Grouped in scenes:

Looking over a wall

In a wood

But there is equal adept depth and individual use of different painting techniques for adults:

A Fisherman (she seems usually to avoid the stereotype Cornish fishing and fishing equipment scenes

An Old Man

She did many and varied illustrations: Another Arthurian:


Some consciously sexy:


Take oh take those lips away (!)

She did sheer fairy tale:

The Pied Piper

Probably today she would be more admired for landscapes and simpler expressionism:

Across Mount Bay

A Holland scene: Volendam, from the Zuicende

[A] balanced, typically Dutch landscape … The spatial conceptions lends he work a homogeneous image constructed around the strong verticality of the canal and its banks… striking for its sense of depth, and the harmony of light and color, with a strong colorist atmosphere far removed from somber English landscapes. The force of light increases through the use of color, with luminous effects concentrated on the water in he canal, represented as a mirror reflecting the sky .. Vigue, p 304)

But she could be very Henry-Jamesian:


And some of her compositions defy allegoresis or ready comparisons as this of a country girl stroking a goat who is eating wildflowers from her flower-laden wheel barrow

Jean, Jeanne, Jeannette (1880) (click to enlarge)


She seems to love water-imagery and when not painting working women and children at play, she is a poet of painterly reverie.

Two self-portraits

In her studio, from the early phase of her career with her husband

Later in life


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Beside the Old Church Gate Farm, Smarden, Kent

Coming Events — a hand holds out a knife to the back …


Dear friends and readers,

As for this brief survey of the life and art of Helen Allingham (she excelled in watercolor, oil, illustration, drawing) is (unlike the previous woman artists I’ve covered), I’ve too many pictures to share, I start with a characteristic one, women at work, where line and color and stance make for a sense of vital life; Coming Events, her alert capturing of everyday life; and Torcello, her paintings from Italy, unhappily not well-known. (If you click on some of the images, they enlarge beautifully. Just try.)

Helen Allingham may be distinguished from the seven women artists not because she made a lot of money or was successful (several of them were), but because of the seven I’ve covered thus far, Allingham is the only one not included in any of my basic surveys, though mentioned once by Germaine Greer as a type of “the wrong women singled out for praise” (p. 87) by her contemporaries and “the masculine establishment.” Not much by the latter as she’s singularly absent from most surveys (those dubbed general when they are mostly by and about men), except those specializing in Victorian/Edwardian genre (e.g., Christopher Wood). She is apparently sometimes likened to Fred Walker who painted and drew socially realistic pictures, but I suggest her vein is much richer, more varied, women-centered (a visual equivalent of l’écriture-femme).

Justice is done to Allingham by Deborah Cherry, in her full, informative, insightful Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (8 straight pages and many single and double-page entries); a concise, reproduction-laden informative study by Ina Taylor, Helen Allingham’s England: An Idyllic View of Rural Life (Devon: Webb and Brower, 1990) more than compensates. The pictures are what matter.

There is only one known self-depiction (and I’ve not got a good copy, so Borzello ignoring Helen in her Seeing Ourselves has some justification), but she painted others:

Thomas Carlyle, a close friend to her husband

Willam Allingham



and his favorite dog:


Then there are the riots of delicate watercolor:

Tig Bridge

Chase Cottage Ponds

She loved blue:

Girls on a Beach

Purple Bluebells

Cow Parsley

There is much that is not idyllic:

Digging Potatoes

The Governess and the Ayah on the beach — most of Allingham’s women are embedded among children

Or with farm animals, domestic pets (here cats), standing among ruins or by buildings they never choose:

Venetian Fruit Stall —

Another — we have the stains on the buildings, the fruits and vegetables real, how wretched she looks

She was a popular illustrator.

for her husband’s play, Ashby Manor (never produced)

and another of her brother, Henry Paterson, who died at 39 in an aslyum


Famously, she illustrated Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (includes detailed discussions of some of the illustrations), and Hardy, then very unhappy with his wife, appears to have found in her a kindred soul. In 1874, He, she and Annie Thackeray dined together (1874) and he wrote this poem 40 years later on what he dreamed they might have known in marriage:

The Opportunity (For H.P)

Forty Springs back, I recall,
We met at this phase of the Maytime:
We might have clung close through all,
But we parted when died that daytime.

We parted with smallest regret;
Perhaps should have cared but slightly,
Just then, if we never met:
Strange, strange that we lived so lightly!

Had we mused a little space
At that critical date in the Maytime,
One life had been ours, one place,
Perhaps, till our long cold daytime.

— This is a better thing For thee,
O man! what ails it?
The tide of chance may bring Its offer;
but nought avails it!

The line “strange, strange that we live so lightly” deeply suggestive about the nature of life

Helen Allingham, in her later years, widowed

There are many online biographies, from art galleries, to an official society website

What to say in brief? She was born into a comfortable middle-class family, her father a physician, and a mother with talent for art (shelved to provide a dowry for her husband to start his practice, to have 7 children), but part of the Unitarian dissenting world (so her father had hard times building a practice), with an aunt, Laura Hertford, a successful professional painter whom she emulated. Her father died relatively young (diphtheria , a harrowing time), and Helen experienced the necessity of making money. Her talent was cultivated: her Paterson aunts sent her to the Birmingham School of Design (studying drawing, painting, perspective, practical geometry, costume, and art-teaching).

By age 18 she is living in London, with a place at the Royal Female School of Art (learning anatomy), and supporting herself by jobs as an engraver, illustrator for Once a Week (among other magazines) where she learned to produce quickly:

Pencil Sketch for a woodcut

A transformative event was her meeting with William Allingham (1874), originally from Ireland, had worked for Irish Customs and Excise for 20 years (he was 24 years older), wrote poetry and journalism, friends with Leigh Hunt, Tennyson, Browning, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood; he especially venerated Carlyle; they may have met at the theater and when he was hired as editor of Fraser’s (for 400£ a year), they married (1874). She worked at her career (remained convinced he had the superior talent, just not recognized), had children:

Her daughter, Margaret

They went to Margate and Surrey for holidays, but when Carlyle died, they moved to Surrey for a country life, of work for her — she loved to go and paint the seaside:

the Allinghams’ Surrey home

A Seaside study

At the shore

1889 they lived in London some of the time, and had set up another home in Hampstead, with new and old friends (next to the Martineaus), more memberships in art societies, before he died in 1889. She was a widow for 37 years, filling her life with intense activity. She had to support her household, but she also returned to her husband’s home in Ireland (acting out what she conceived was her husband’s desire he never got to do) where she painted dozens of watercolors for once capturing the poverty and bleakness of what she saw in the houses themselves.

Ballyshannon, 1891

These years see her moving into more large landscapes

Hindhead, Surrey

She traveled to Venice in 1901 and 1902 as part of attempts to break away from her usual subjects. Later in life she moved into landscape painting.

A study of Aire, St Maclou, in Rouen, done on the way to Venice — brilliance of line design, perspectives

A different color palette for Italy — gorgeous marble, cascading flowers, notice the woman and child with basketed flowers — are they transferring these to a husband/father to use with his customers or selling them or is that another woman selling flowers?

Hers was not a life of tragedy, but hard work, in a changing world; she was on the side of preservation, and there seems no doubt that her exclusion of the ubiquitious abysmal poverty and miseries of the era did not allow her work to be part of needed economic, social, political reform. She had a close friendship with Gertrude Jekyll (a career in photography, studying vernacular buildings and celebrating crafts), and Kate Greenaway, and after 1890 enabled one another (by going together) to paint more subjects, in more places, though her times painting alongside Greenaway didn’t last (their work was to unalike):

‘it was in the spring of 1888 that we went out painting together in the copses near Witley and became really friends …. One day in the autumn of 1889 [when they were neighbours in Hampstead] we went to Pinner [where from the cancelled manuscript of Persuasion we know Jane Austen meant Anne Elliot] together on an exploring expedition for subjects and were delighted with some of the old cottages we saw there. I had been pressing her ever since our spring time together at Witley to share with me some of the joys of painting out of doors. Another day we went farther afield – to Chesham and Amersham . . . . In the spring of 1890 I took my children to Freshwater, Isle of Wight and found ms for us near Kate. She and I went out painting together daily, either to some of the pretty old thatched cottages around Farringford or to the old dairy in the grounds …. During the summer of that year (1890) we continued our outdoor work together, generally taking an early train from Finchley Road to Pinner, for the day. She was always scrupulously thoughtful for the convenience and feelings of the owners of the farm or cottage we wished to paint, with the consequence that we were made welcome to sit in the garden or orchard where others were refused admittance.
Though we often sat side by side, painting the same object (generally silently – for she was a very earnest, hard worker – and perhaps I was, too), it seemed to me that there was little likeness between our drawings — specially after the completion in the studio. But she was one of the most sensitive of creatures and I think she felt it might be wiser for both of us to discontinue the practice of working from the same subjects …. (Cherry, p 177)

So what is this world of women in rural and eastern England:

An earlier picture: a version of her cradling her son, Henry


Women also hung out the wash in Verona

This is a woman gathering sticks and wood for the fire for winter

A dreaming young girl

Worn old woman

Valleywood Farm — lost in the middle distance

Buildings inside and out:

The Interior of Cheyne House (Carlyle’s)

Stanfield House, Hampstead — stodgy and respectable

Aldworth — covered in flowery ivy, this mansion of the wealthy

A fantasia of St Mark’s Cathedal, Venice, or as pastoral, Santa Maria:


More typically:


A big and old tree: Old Beech Tree

She loved gardening and has many still lifes of flowers and gardens, hills and meadows:


Blackdown, Sussex (I use this as my computer wallpaper)


Allingham’s best known book is The Cottage Homes of England; she saw herself as recording a vanishing way of life, and Christopher Wood suggests we should see her art as the visual equivalent of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. Deborah Cherry argues that Helen Allingham’s pictures present female sexuality centrally in discreet (coded) ways, and were an influence for good from the respect they showed for women’s ordering, work, and past places and ties too.

I’ll end on a poem by Amy Clampitt, which while intended to characterize “George Eliot Country” and written for Eliot’s first magisterial biographer, Gordon Haight (1901-1985) seems to me to capture the same world as Allingham:

From this Midland scene – glum slagheaps,
barge canals, gray sheep, the vivid overlap
of wheatfield and mustard hillside like
out-of-season sunshine, the crabbed silhouette
of oak trees (each joint a knot, each knot
a principled demurral – tough, arthritic, stubborn
as the character of her own father) – fame,
the accretion of a Pyrrhic happiness, had
exiled her to London, with its carriages
and calling cards, its screaming headaches.

Griff House – dear old Griff, she wistfuly
apostrophized it – in those days still intact,
its secrets kept, has now been grafted to a
motel-cum-parking-lot beside the trunk road,
whose raw, ungainly seam of noise cuts through
the rainy solace of Griff Lane: birdsong,
coal smoke, the silvered powderings of
blackthorn, a flowering cherry tree’s
chaste flare; the sludge-born, apoplectic
screech of jet aircraft tilting overhead.

The unmapped sources that still fed nostalgia
for a rural childhood survive the witherings
of retrospect: the look of brickyards,
stench of silk mills, scar of coal mines,

the knife of class distinction: wall-enclosed,
parkland-embosomed, green-lawned Arbury Hall,
fan-vaulting’s stately fakeries, the jewel-
stomachered, authentic shock of Mary Fitton and
her ilk portrayed, the view of fishponds – school
and role model of landed-proprietary England.

Born in the year of Peterloo, George Eliot
had no illusions as to the expense of such
emoluments. Good society (she wrote) floated
on gossamer wings of light irony, required no less
than an entire, arduous national existence,
condensed into unfragrant, deafening factories,
cramped into mines, sweating at furnaces, or
scattered in lonely houses on the clayey or chalky
cornland… where Maggie Tulliver, despairing
of gentility, ran off to join the gypsies.

Violets still bloom beside the square-towered
parish church where Mary Anne was christened;
the gnashed nave of Coventry fills up with rain
(another howling doodlebug of fright hurls itself
over); the church from which, refusing to commit
the fiction of a lost belief in One True Body,
she stayed away, upholds the fabric in which her
fictions, perdurable now, cohere like fact: Lydgate
still broods, Grandcourt still threatens, and
in Mrs Transome disappointment turns to stone.

One last connection, back to Charlotte Smith with Near Beachy Head:


Allingham’s is a world of women at work, women surrounded by children, and their work. She seeks them out, she records them and celebrates their creations, adds to these:

A Side Canal in Venice (notice the woman high up behind the arch banging out the wet or dirt from a pink cloth of some type

Mrs Eden’s Garden, Venice


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Demelza in characteristic hat delighted to look at a poster for a troop of actors come to Truro

Dear friends and readers,

As Anibundel suggests, the way to understand and enjoy costume dramas is to look at the costumes. What more indicative than hats?

Spurred on by her fun discoveries of who wears what hat in the 2015 Poldark, I looked at the state of millinery for Graham’s first two novels 40 years ago and found the costume-designers included many more working and lower class head scarves, mob caps, and simple bonnets and flat hats with ribbons, and specific headdresses for ritual occasions.

For her wedding day (and possibly traveling) Keren (Sheila White) has decorated a simple bonnet with lace

Our female characters moved to forms of cloth hat to signal religious sects. When it came to creating beauty, glamour, suggesting upper class decor, much more attention was paid to wigs (big hair which blended fashions of the 1970s with those of the 1780s through 90s) than hats, but these covered a wider range, from pancake, to wide brimmed decorated, to tricorn, and simply (on your wig, threaded in), feathers, woven braids, and the rare jewel. There were also scarves which fit into political headgear which may be a blend of Jacobin, Cornish and mining community.

What they all show is that in comparison to 40 years on, the earlier series was interested in historical accuracy, yet made no attempt to film and showcase hats separately; each and every still shows a woman character in the midst of doing something that is part of the story or a product of their inner life. They signal class, politics, the personality of the character, and mood of the story line.

This is for those interested in how the 18th century has been depicted and love the old familiar pictures I hope seen anew.

The first hat we see is a respectable traveling wide-brim with ribbon under the chin:

This actress would play Jane Eyre (1983, with Timothy Dalton)

This opening Part 1 (1783), coresponding to the revenant’s return of Ross Poldark, runs the gamut of Verity with her characteristic mob cap:


not much different from the servant’s, Mrs Tabb:


to the high elegance of Elizabeth’s bridal veil:


and Jinny’s imitation (bridal veil on limited budget):


And this range is echoed in Part 2, where we move from another kind of head cover, the scarf tied behind the head at the nape of the neck, with cloth fanny out behind, signalling Jinny’s place in the political spectrum:


We see it women of Jinny’s class, but not character, at a fair, in the streets:



And Keren boasts a headscarf too:


Here is another house mob cap, more elaborate as worn by Verity as she asks Ross to help her see Blamey regularly:


Demelza graduates to her first hat showing she is growing up in Part 3 (1785 or to)


echoed by Prudie’s similar number as she watches Demelza scrub a table:


For outdoors, against the wind, and to protect her ears, Demelza in a sturdy kerchief bringing out lunch to Ross and Jud in the fields.

Jud snatches an apple

Our costume designers turned the pages of their script until they reached the death of Charles Poldark requiring a funeral required elaborate headdresses from the women, of which I choose just two from our central heroines:



The latter has grown intensely restless, dissatisfied, and soon after tells Ross so in an elegant wide-brim with ribbon under her chin, matching her suit-like outfit:


Meanwhile Demelza had fled home to her methodist step-mother:


who must’ve made it clear that similar attire for the head was expected of her stepdaughter:


Although the stepmother knows by this time that Demelza is with child (by Ross), Elizabeth is still dreaming of running off, and wears a fetching triangle for outdoor love-making (matching the same outfit, thrift, thrift):


A new book, Demelza, and our heroine has had her baby and there is a christening. We get some elegant headgear now:

See what you missed, Ross

A sweeter lace wide-brim for Verity reminds me of 1950s Easter hats

Unfortunately some of the women use their hats to exclude others, to crowd out and stigmatize those without these or who have not their confidence:


Following the debacle of this christening, the married lady takes heart and plots to help her kind cousin-in-law meet Blamey once again. They go off to shop: Verity in a small pancake, and Demelza in a delicious concoction of pancake, frills and kerchief:


Some time later our Cinderella goes to a ball, alas hatless, ribbonless, but not Lady Brodrugan:

who sports feathers and discreet jewels in a high class wig

Margaret with less money, makes do with a large white feather

and a clutch of pearls around the neck

Verity has gone all out (expecting Blamey):


There is too much bankruptcy and trouble to foster much millinery in the last parts of Demelza, so we have to make do with troubled women in the street:


Lady Brodrugan at Christmas in emerald green tricorn (surely meant ironically):


concluding with Demelza in one of her blends of Jacobin, working class and Cornish scarf:

plain cloth version — there is this lace one too:


After all, it’s called costume drama first and foremost, no?


P.S. Next up wigs, and what the men wore on their heads.

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