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Extract: British Women Artists: From Suffrage to the Sixties

Posted on 08 Mar 2024

In this extract from ‘British Women Artists’, Carolyn Trant draws upon Virginia Woolf, Linda Nochlin and more, interrogating what it means to be a woman in art history.

‘It is probable…that both in life and art, the values of a woman are not the values of a man. When a woman comes to write a novel she will find that she is perpetually wishing to alter the established values – to make serious what appears to be insignificant to men, and trivial what is to him important…’ Virginia Woolf, ‘Women and Fiction’, 1929

Stories about artists have been popular since the time of Vasari, but the ‘history’ of the art of the first half of the twentieth century seems rather skewed by the absence of a coherent narrative about those artists who were women. Of course, like the ‘discovery’ of America, they were there all the time, and many are currently being discovered by way of exhibitions and catalogues, to much surprise and delight. This book aims to put the lives and work of British women artists of that period into some form of context.

Written by an artist rather than a critic or historian, British Women Artists examines women’s contributions to visual culture from a female perspective. Considering women working in a variety of artistic practices, the book looks at who knew whom, what ideas they might all have been discussing, the effect of topography on their artworks; it discusses war, significant others and how belonging to artist groups affected work, fame and fortune.

The subject headings are a hook on which to hang women’s stories. Some of the women were known to me, often in one way or another through my long association with Peggy Angus. They all seemed strong and idealistic, many with a reckless generosity and hospitality, and were enormous fun; how could they, who had such breadth of knowledge themselves, not now be better known?

The shadow of Peggy Angus hovers over this book in many ways. She would doubtless be delighted by the manner in which artists such as Grayson Perry and Jeremy Deller are now, as she did, rattling the cage. Like Peggy, these artists show real respect for all kinds of work, and the different reasons for making it. Artists today are branching out into curating, writing and making television series; now is a time for rethinking art, and its history and presentation, too.

Context aids our understanding and appreciation of art but it can also be a curse when life stories start to overwhelm the artworks. Tragedy – Nina Hamnett’s descent into alcoholism, Dora Carrington’s suicide – can overshadow a productive output. But so can women artists’ work be overshadowed by that of male artists, particularly when the language of art ‘movements’, with their leaders and disciples, skews discussion. This survey, looking at the lives of women in dialogue with their work, is an affirmative one.

In The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first female heroine journeys towards the realization of her sense of self, raising questions about what being a woman might mean. Do Woolf’s ideas in ‘Women and Fiction’ about the tension between women’s values and men’s still ring true? And does it apply to the visual arts as much as to fiction? Many of the artists in this book would have disputed that their work was fundamentally different from men’s; others might have agreed. Linda Nochlin was possibly right when she asserted in 1988 that there is often a different kind of ‘greatness’ for women’s art than for men’s. I leave it to the reader to decide.

Discover the book

British Women Artists

From Suffrage to the Sixties Carolyn Trant