14 August 2020

Voyaging Out: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties by Carolyn Trant

 It was last September, the 12th to be exact, that I attended Carolyn's talk at Hatchards on Piccadilly.  I remember it so clearly because the ticket is tucked inside my copy of the book.  I was the first person to arrive for the talk so I was able to chat with the Carolyn and her co-presenter Maggie Humm for a few minutes.  There was a slight reaction when I mentioned being thrilled at learning about the event and had booked a ticket straight away.  When I quickly followed up with 'Oh, my trip to London was booked months ago, this talk is a lovely bonus!' they laughed.  Although, no doubt there are privileged people out there who do fly off to single events because they can.  I digress.

Twentieth century writing and art usually draws me in, especially when it's social in nature.  Women writing about domestic situations from the kitchen table or women painting the view from their back garden offers a form of voyeurism I find riveting.  It's a time when women had more freedoms but were still held back for one reason or another.  The domesticity feels calming but these 'thinking' women were striving to make their mark and effect change.  But my sense is also that women writing or painting from home did it with an eye on the clock.  Children to care for, shopping to buy, dinner to make, laundry to do, a garden to tend, calls and appointments.  Most women had to carve out moments for their craft while others demanded it.  Frustratingly, for many women, their drive to pursue their passion came at a cost in a way that, arguably, didn't for men.

When Laura Knight exhibited a painting of young women enjoying a beach in Cornwall while topless she was celebrating fresh air on bare skin....

Most local critics liked and accepted it and the painting was displayed widely, but it caused controversy when it toured in exhibitions.  Badly damaged during the First World War, Laura kept it face to the wall for years and it eventually rotted from mould.

The act of turning a painting to the wall, damaged or not, speaks of a level of shame.  Knight's painting was also seen as a deliberate challenge to the 'male gaze' which wasn't at all her intention and must have been quite frustrating.  Female nudes painted by men dot galleries the world over but Knight was taken to task.  Another frustration of mine was learning there was no obituary for Winifred Knight when she died of a brain tumour and her only National Biography entry is as a wife.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually went on to become president of the RA in 1966 having been greatly influenced by Winifred's work.

As well as pointing out some of the injustices women had to endure, Trant gives equal mention to women who took joy in simply being themselves despite convention.  Hannah Gluckstein's Jewish and very wealthy uncles founded the tea shops Lyons & Co., to place her in context of a social circle.  She was a talented artist whose painting Virago used for The Well of Loneliness...

Gluck, as she liked to be called, dressed in male clothes and visited the best male clothing shops.  She cut her hair short and smoked a pipe.  Her actions drove her parents to distraction but to their credit, they supported her financially so she could attend the St. John's Wood Art School. Parental displeasure crops up fairly often with some of the female artists Trant writes about but it usually has to do with their choice of partner.  More often that not, young women would partner with fellow students from art school leading their parents to despair of endless penury.  Many times the worry was justified.  A common thread running through these partnerships is marriage followed by children, then divorce once the female artist realizes she's being shortchanged in life.  But the American Lee Miller set boundries with her husband straight away....

MY WORK ROOM IS NOT GOING TO BE A NURSERY.  How about your studio?  Ha Ha.

Trant delves into the work and personal stories of dozens of artists such as Vanessa Bell, Tirzah Garwood, Winifred Knight, Dora Carrington, Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth, Margaret Mellis, Evelyn Gibbs and Doris Zinkeisen - who painted painted unbearable scenes during WWII for the Red Cross.  

Unfortunately I have no idea when I'll next tread the floors of art galleries in London due to Covid, but when I do I will have a clearer understanding and more knowledge of the lives of some very talented women.  And hopefully, in the meantime, galleries are reassessing their collections and archives so that work by women from eras past can be experienced and enjoyed by everyone.

Highly recommended....cover to cover!

The Queue at the Fish-shop by Evelyn Dunbar



  1. This sounds a brilliant read, so many excellent artists covered. I can't think when I'll be in the art gallery again, even 4 miles away in the city centre, let alone the London ones, so books like this do help.

    1. Morning, LyzzyBee...I should have mentioned in my post that the book has plenty of paintings included. And yes, I bought an annual pass to the art gallery in Toronto but I haven't visited since they opened up timed visits. Can't wait for all of this to be a distant memory!

  2. This sounds different and better than I thought it did just by reading a brief synopsis! Now I am intrigued. I was supposed to visit Manchester in April (cancelled) and then moved it to October (cancelled) so am feeling very gloomy about missing out on my England trips. But hopefully, this will soon pass and we can travel again next year!

    1. My neighbour's son flies for Air Canada and he's confident we'll be flying overseas again in 2021. Fingers crossed, but I'll be a bit timid about booking when it can be cancelled at a moment's notice - as you know all too well! I'm so sorry for the disappointment, Anbolyn.
      As for Voyaging Out...my hardcover copy has lots of beautiful art, interesting anecdotes about the women Carolyn highlights and social history. I'll be pulling it from the shelf again and again as I learn along the way!
      Hope you're having a lovely day....