WORKING AGAINST THE GRAIN: WOMEN SCULPTORS IN BRITAIN c.1885-1950
By Pauline Rose
Liverpool University Press. 300 pages. £30. ISBN 978-78962-156-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
In 1901 a leading critic, Marion Harry Spielmann, referred to “a bevy of fair sculptresses” when writing about the growing number of female artists making their presence felt in Britain. Spielmann would probably have been described as a sympathetic observer of the scene, but there was something of a patronising tone in his choice of words. It was generally felt that women were mostly just dabbling when it came to the arts. And with regard to sculpture, there was often an expression of surprise that an activity supposedly involving carving and chiselling, and large lumps of wood or stone, should attract members of the “fair” sex.
Even when it was accepted that some women were determined to make themselves known as sculptors, it was often assumed that they would be best occupied with decorative rather than any kind of monumental work. They neither thought imaginatively enough in big terms, nor had the physical strength and stamina to carry out any projects beyond the modestly planned. Or so it was suggested. Pauline Rose says that “where their sculpture was praised this was often hedged about with hints of substantial input from male assistants”.
Rose refers to the practical problems faced by women: “Sculpture is an expensive practice. For work in marble or bronze the artist would need access to workshop facilities where clay models could be cast in plaster to produce a template for a stone or bronze sculpture”. But she also stresses that many female sculptors were “sensibly pragmatic in the pursuit of their careers. Few of them were in a financial or social position to deliberately make work that might not find a buyer or was not part of a paid commission”. They sculpted statuettes which could be editioned, “thus generating a reasonably reliable income with which to make more individual pieces”. And they sometimes had “a flexible attitude towards operating as an assistant or as a ‘professional’, and moving between the ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ arts as opportunities presented themselves and as financial concerns demanded”.
It is probably true to say that, compared to women painters, little attention has been paid to women sculptors in art-history projects. According to Rose, there is a bias in much art-historical writing “towards work that is seen as innovative”. Barbara Hepworth has been extensively written about and is probably the best-known British sculptor in Working Against the Grain. But she is not typical of the majority of the women that Rose focuses on. They could not usually afford to experiment, or stray too far stylistically, and so had to “recognise the preferences of patrons as opposed to those of art critics”. Patrons mostly meant buyers and not subsidies from arts associations and the like.
It was probably also a fact that many of Rose’s subjects were born, brought up, and were trained in art techniques in a period when Pre-Raphaelite and late-nineteenth century representational painting and sculpture generally dominated thinking and practice. Having said that, it seems obvious that not all women sculptors were oblivious to influences from abroad. Some had studied in Paris and elsewhere, and although extreme-innovations and abstraction were never likely to seize the imagination of a wide audience, various modernist ideas about figuration did creep in. Things are never as clear-cut as some commentators like to suggest, and movements towards change, and the incorporation of new ideas into existing frameworks, are an ongoing process and not really a matter of totally divisive breaks in continuity.
The examples of individuals who were prominent among women sculptors are instructive to consider. Kathleen Scott is a key figure in Rose's book, and there is little doubt that in her day she was an active and important sculptor. She had broken away from the “restrictions of the British art school system” and had studied at the Académie Colorossi in Paris. It’s said that Rodin admired her work. She came from a reasonably well-to-do background and was married, until his death in 1912, to Captain Scott, famous for his doomed attempt to reach the South Pole. She appears to have been well-established within a social and artistic community that afforded her access to commissions. Her skills as a sculptor are not in doubt, though as Rose comments, quoting David Getsy, her work was noted for “its commitment to the definitions of professional sculpture and for its continued efforts to work within these parameters in the face of a vibrant and burgeoning modernism”. Her “The Kingdom is Within”, is a striking, blindfolded male nude, and is, in Rose’s opinion, “an impressive work by any standard” and “bears comparison with the work of Auguste Rodin”.
An important point is raised in connection with this sculpture in that it appears to have “vanished” from its place at Hestmonceux Castle in Sussex, though a statuette version without a blindfold is in a museum in Northern Ireland. It’s not unlike some other works that Rose looks at in that a record of it now exists only in a photograph. And, as she discusses in her book, photographs of sculptures, while useful in their way, can never be totally satisfactory. Sculpture is three-dimensional. A painting can be photographed in full and, while it may lose some definition in terms of colour and tone, it does at least offer a complete view of its subject, if not on the same scale as the original. Not so with a sculpture, a photograph of which provides a “partial and selective” view of the subject. It is possible that seeing art of any kind through photography can affect the writing of art-history.
Kathleen Scott was accorded a fair amount of media attention, possibly because her social position (she re-married and became Lady Hilton Young), and her activities as a sculptor, made good copy for journalists. But it’s unfair to suggest that it was the sole reason for her being noticed, She was talented. Still, newspapers and magazines do like to have a peg on which to hang a story, and when Elizabeth Muntz was featured in The Illustrated London News, photographs showed her dressed in a duffle-coat and gumboots and riding a pony to a place where she was carving an in-situ memorial to novelist Llewelyn Powys. Looking at the examples of Munt’s work in Rose’s book, I was struck by the way she had incorporated modernist ideas into “Arms and Baby”, “Child with a Fawn”, and especially the 1927 “Valentine with Bird (Seagull)”. Muntz, a Canadian by birth, had studied in Europe before arriving in England. Rose says that her work was widely reviewed, and that she taught at Bryanston School, but that she’s now “hardly known”.
A third sculptor worth mentioning because she might illustrate how women found ways to make their mark in a world largely dominated by men, is Violet Pinwill. She is quite an intriguing figure. She was the fifth of the seven daughters of the Reverend Edmund Pinwill, and from an early age had an aptitude for wood carving. With two of her sisters she formed a company to specialise in church woodwork, and in 1911 Violet became sole proprietor of the business: “The bulk of the work for an individual church would be hewn and carved in the company’s workshop, while the final assembly was carried out on site”.
Rose says that Violet ran the company for around fifty years, and that examples of her work can be found in over two hundred churches in Devon and Cornwall. She employed a team of workmen and reference is made to their loyalty “given their unusual position working for a woman”. Rose does also add that questions can be asked about “to what extent were the carvings from her own or from architects’ designs, and how much work did she produce by her own hand?” None of this detracts from her achievements, in my view, and she is to be admired for both her skills as a carver (there are examples of her work in the book), and for running a successful business for many years. There is an affectionate memoir by her great-nephew in which he recalls seeing “a little old lady, by then well into her seventies and not five feet tall, carving great pieces of wood, always oak, with the facility of a man”.
There was a boom in public sculptures following the First World War when what Rose refers to as “the largest public art project ever seen in Britain” got underway in the shape of war memorials. I suspect that many of us may have only ever come across examples of sculptures by women in this form, and we probably didn’t know who’d created them unless we were specifically looking for the name of the sculptor. Most war memorials were conventional in their design and structure. And as they were usually commissioned, often by local bodies, it was inevitable that largely traditional values would dominate when it came to questions of taste and what was considered suitable for a memorial of this kind. Patriotism, religion, noble sacrifice, and similar matters, had to be represented, on the whole. It was permissible to show a certain amount of suffering, the war having brought it home with a vengeance, but not the actual horrors of combat. But some of the examples Rose uses do push a little beyond the ordinary. Kathleen Scott’s Huntingdon War Memorial, with its soldier in a “pensive stance”, had an element of ambiguity in that, as one reviewer noted, it showed the soldier “not so much as the fighter, but as the thinker and watcher”.
Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams’ “Spirit of the Crusaders”, with a mounted knight in armour leading soldiers in the battledress of the Great War, might have been what some people wanted to see, but a somewhat starker image occurred in Rosamund Praeger’s Omagh war memorial which admittedly has an angel hovering over two soldiers, but they are clearly about to die. The basic style in all these memorials is overwhelmingly figurative. I doubt that many of them now appeal on aesthetic grounds, but as Rose insists, “they are a real reflection of contemporary life, as historically rooted artefacts and symbols expressive of the national mood and values”.
There is little discussion of sculpture being used for political comment, perhaps because so much political matter is ephemeral and the time taken to produce a sculpture might mean that anything but the broadest of statements could be outdated when it appeared in public. But there are two excellent examples of social commentary in Ruby Levick’s “Boy’s Fishing/Fishermen hauling in a net” (the latter title is more apt), and “Joyce Bidder’s “Labour”. They both seem to emphasise the fact of what hard physical work can be like. Was Levick’s sculpture typical of her style? A critic writing in the Studio seemed to suggest that she was mostly concerned with “the small circumstances of life”.
With regard to Joyce Bidder, Rose says: “Her sculptural groups express a sense of empathy with the working man and are also aligned to a clear understanding of the international language of conservative modernism”. The works referred to both date from before the First World War, but in the context of social commentary it’s worth taking note of Betty Rea, who was active in the left-wing Artists’ International Association in the 1930s, and who thought that “the artist had a responsibility to address contemporary issues”. Her “Mother and Child” is not directly political but does incorporate modernist ideas into its structure.
Rose admits that locating information about some of the sculptors she discusses was not easy. Unlike many male artists they were not always interviewed or reviewed to any great extent. Nor did they tend to write memoirs which were designed to establish places for themselves in art-history. Women were also less likely to be able to exploit unconventional behaviour as an element of their artistic role in society. Was there ever a female Augustus John? Think of the reticence of his sister, Gwen. Any interviews that were conducted with them were as likely to focus on their domestic arrangements as on the quality of their work. A tone of surprise that someone who ran a home and had children might additionally be capable of turning out valid works of art seemed to dominate. And it was a sad fact that too often the domestic responsibilities frustrated efforts to produce anything of quality on a sustained basis. The drop-out rates in the arts for both men and women are always high, but I suspect that it has often been women who have been most affected.
Working Against the Grain is a thoroughly fascinating and informative book. Pauline Rose writes in clear, direct prose, avoids art-history jargon, and her research is impressive. There are ample notes and a good bibliography.