PAMELA NUNN has produced a substantial and well-researched contribution to the growing body of feminist knowledge about the achievements of 19th-century women. The book centres on the early Victorian period 1840-1880; the end of the century is dealt with only briefly at the end of the book. As well as spelling out key issues and ideas of the period about women as artists, the book contains some valuable new research into the Society of Female Artists and the Old and the New Watercolour Societies, and some useful statistics about the numbers of women exhibitors.
Five case studies of individual women artists form the focus of the book. The women selected are designed to represent women’s diverse aspirations to be an artist within the male-dominated Victorian culture and society. As Nunn herself writes (p.130): ‘Joanna Boyce wanted to be a radical woman artist, Rosa Brett wanted to be a Pre-Raphaelite, Henrietta Ward wanted to be an accepted woman artist, Emma Brownlow wanted to make a living, Lady Waterford just wanted to make art’.
Nunn sketches a context for such positions, primarily in terms of the Victorian notions of ‘femininity’ expected of the middle-class women. Their aspirations to be an artist–on whatever terms–is conceived as a transgression of these social norms, rather than a negotiation, during a period when the very notions under discussion were being consolidated, as bourgeois society matured. The reclamation of these women’s lives, both the professional and the amateur, the ‘notable’, average and the forgotten, is the main purpose of the book. The argument is conceived in terms of women overcoming the obstacles they faced from their families; in obtaining education and exhibiting space; and, in being able to support themselves and make art. Thus, Nunn spells out both the negative and positive implications of the artistic family in which many women artists were given both support and encouragement yet at the same time, through the constant comparison with their male relatives, were rendered as ‘lesser lights’ to them by critics and historians.
She points out how the struggles in education, particularly study of the nude, became the basis for feminist agitation for skill and training for women artists and for better exhibition spaces.
Only one of the women discussed, Rosa Brett, remained single, and the thesis is put forward, though it is unsubstantiated, that single women had long and continuous careers, rather than intermittent or faltering ones, like married women, because of the social expectations for wives and mothers (even when married to a male artist). That social norms were transgressed because women artists tried to, expected to, or did earn money from their work, is frequently raised, particularly in relation to the way financial gain was perceived as the rough and ready test of distinction between the amateur and the professional. Nunn notes that the ‘make do and mend’ attitude of the Victorians to middle-class women only earning a living when faced with necessity (as widows or spinsters) doomed women artists to amateurism.
However, and this is what generalises the argument, this is not discussed either in relation to the growing obsession of the Victorians with the numbers of single middle-class women, or the campaigns for the Married Women’s Property Acts in the 1870s and 1880s, whereby women fought to regain control of their own property and income lost to their husbands on marriage.
Throughout the book, the increasingly organised and campaigning women’s movement remains in the background, and such examples as the women artists in the Langham Place group, or the work of women for other women remains, for the most part, undiscussed. Women artists remain within male-defined terms, as a ‘relative creature’. And, in the extracts from their letters, diaries, and journals, where their voice does break through, it is discussed only as an individual experience within a more general term like the domestic, or childhood experience.
This concentration on individual women, coupled with the enclosure of the book in the more traditional terms of art history/biography serves to isolate each example from the others. What is rendered absent, though suggested in many other works on 19th-century women, is the relationship of women to each other as mothers to daughters; or women as teachers of other women; or within a network of female friends.
More explicit, however, in accounting for the neglect of women artists are the developing notions of difference and originality for the male romantic Bohemian artist in such writers as George Moore and Frith who sought serious discussion ‘away from the ladies’ and espoused only ‘friendliness’ to women artists’ activities. Although the notions of separate spheres, the ‘feminine stereotype’ and concepts of femininity are all discussed they remain implicit within the book because its base is a pioneering thesis. Perhaps this also explains the total absence of contemporary feminist research (i.e. that which was published after 1980). However, together with her other work ‘Canvassing’ (Camden Press), these two books offer us much interesting, accessible, and valuable material about Victorian women artists, making visible to a wider audience their lives and work.