Bringing women artists to the fore: Challenging Convention

In conversation with Keeper of Art, Lizzie Jacklin

Challenging Convention focuses on the work of four British female artists — Laura Knight Dod Procter, Vanessa Bell and Gwen John — who were all born in the late nineteenth century but worked in the early decades of the twentieth century. What sort of issues did these women face in order to have their work showcased in galleries?

By the time Gwen John entered the progressive Slade School of Art in 1895, more female students than male ones were enrolled there. But women didn’t always receive an equal education in UK art schools. Laura Knight, for example, could not attend life drawing classes due to her gender. Receiving an art education — as all four of the artists in exhibition women did — was crucial, but it didn’t translate to equality in terms of showcasing their work after completing their studies. Leading institutions such as the Royal Academy were male dominated. In fact, Laura Knight was the first full female academician for 168 years, and during her long lifetime only Dod Procter went on to also achieve this status. Women often didn’t have a seat at the table. That is one reason why the close-knit networks of the four women artists — which included artist husbands and siblings — had a fairly important role in their successes.

Close up of gold frame against a red wall, showing a painting of a woman in a red dress on a rock, looking out to sea
A Dark Pool, c.1917 by Laura Knight / Laing Art Gallery © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight / Bridgeman Images. Photo by Colin Davison

More generally, financial independence was also much more difficult for most single women to achieve at this time than it was for men, and at the same time, married women were often expected (or required) to give up work. It wasn’t easy for some of the artists in the exhibition to support themselves early in their careers. For example, Gwen John worked as an artist’s model in Paris rather than being able to concentrate more completely on her own practice.

A photo of a gallery wall with gold frames hung on it, with a painting of a sitting woman wearing a black dress
A photo of a gallery wall with gold frames hung on it, with a painting of a sitting woman wearing a black dress
Installation view of Challenging Convention. Foreground painting: Portrait of Chloe Boughton-Leigh by Gwen John (1876–1939). Leeds Art Gallery / Bridgeman. Photo by Colin Davison

Dod Procter focused on art through the lens of the female gaze. How important is it to showcase art through the female gaze in galleries today?

Procter’s position as a female artist approaching female subjects sympathetically is very different to the male desire arguably reflected in paintings by some of the male artists whose work she studied. Renoir’s The Bathers (1918–19), for example, seems to suggest the availability of the fleshy female body in a way that is very different to the way Procter and the other artists included in the exhibition painted female bodies. This is a point PhD student Ella Nixon has explored further in the Picture Article accompanying the exhibition.

In general, we aspire to showcase a diverse range of art in our galleries to reflect the broad audiences we serve. In terms of paintings of women, it is all too easy in historic museum collections — which tend to be male dominated — to have a gallery of collection works in which all of the women have been painted by men. So, it’s important to make sure we’re balancing out that picture both within our permanent displays so far as possible and through our exhibitions programme. All four of the artists featured in Challenging Convention made sympathetic paintings of women.

Image: The Golden Girl, c. 1930 by Dod Procter (1892–1972). The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art © The Estate of Dod Procter / Bridgeman Images

Do you feel galleries and exhibitions have become more focused on gender equality now compared to when these women were working in the early twentieth century?

Yes, the four women artists we explore each broke ground through their own successes, and lots has changed in galleries and art institutions since then and since the first wave of feminism. I’ve personally noticed a lot of progress during just the past decade. Momentum has been building to balance out exhibition programmes so that more women are represented in both national and regional institutions. But there is still work to do.

The Laing Art Gallery has been developing its collection of art over the past 100 years. How is the gallery today addressing the imbalance of male and female artists in its collections and exhibitions?

In terms of galleries such as our own with a historic collection, we have to recognise that these collections are usually male dominated; while this could be partly said to simply reflect a male dominated art world at the time things were collected, it is also the case that there were women artists working whose work was not collected when it could have been. We are actively trying to address such historical omissions through our approach to acquisitions and by ensuring our permanent displays highlight existing works by women artists in our collection. We also aim to explore women artists in more depth within our exhibitions programme, as you see in Challenging Convention.

Installation view of Challenging Convention, displaying works by Laura Knight. All rights reserved to artist. Photo by Colin Davison

Challenging Convention features Vanessa Bell’s large nude painting ‘The Tub’ from Tate. How radical was this work at the time, in terms of women artists painting nudes of female figures?

Other women artists were also painting nudes, but stylistically The Tub is a particularly bold painting for a British artist working at this time. It is interesting to compare it to similar subjects by male artists Bell might have looked at, particularly on the other side of the English Channel where the subject of ‘Bathers’ was taken up by Cezanne, Matisse and Degas among others. Bell absorbed some of these influences, but it seems to me that her canvas might reflect a different perspective on nude women in comparison to those artists. Her female figure feels like an individual — and is contemplative rather than being more of an idealised or desire-driven idea of a woman bathing.

Women could certainly still raise an eyebrow or two by exhibiting paintings of nudes at this time, something the writer Virginia Woolf (who was Bell’s sister) noted in her introduction to Vanessa Bell’s 1930 solo exhibition. The Tub was not exhibited during Bell’s lifetime, although a small woodcut version of the composition was published.

Gwen John, Laura Knight and Dod Procter all also painted female nudes during their careers, sometimes ruffling a few feathers along the way.

A blurred photo of a man reading text on a wall
Left: Installation view of Challenging Convention, featuring The Tub by Vanessa Bell on the left. Photo by Colin Davison Right: The Tub © estate of Vanessa Bell. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: Tate

Do you feel that by raising the profile of women artists it inspires more women to pursue artistic careers now?

I hope so. From our point of view, it is important to try and present a diverse history of British art. For Laura Knight she was almost in unchartered territory in gaining the positions she did within the art establishment; but at least women trying to pursue a career these days can see there are famous British women artists in the fore. Still, significant inequalities remain; in fact, some of the challenges the women in the exhibition faced — such as the problem of balancing childcare with work — feel more alive than ever right now in the context of the pandemic.

Challenging Convention is on display until 21 August 2021

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Major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine venues across Tyneside and the Archives for Tyne and Wear.