Distinguishing practising women sculptors of the twentieth century, Against the Grain: Women Sculptors in Britain c. 1885–1950 differentiates almost fifty women artists to revivify their neglected agency.
An extensive canon of literature, beginning with Ellen C. Clayton’s English Female Artists (1876), which initiated the recognition and worthy inclusion of women sculptors in the art historiography, was punctuated by Linda Nochlin’s essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’(1971).1Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ in L. Nochlin (ed.), Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, New York: Harper and Row, 1988 edition, pp.145-78. Intermittently, publications about women sculptors included the post-war greats Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink and, more recently, provided contemporary monographs portraying later generations of women sculptors who have similarly captured our imaginations.
Yet the labours of other, earlier, twentieth-century women sculptors have been only sparsely documented due in part to lives lived less publicly and the ‘assumptions and generalizations’ made of their gender.2Pauline Rose, Against the Grain Women Sculptors in Britain c.1885-1950). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020, p. 1.
Foregrounding a sophisticated evaluation of patriarchal constraints and cultural privations imposed upon women sculptors, Pauline Rose — Emeritus Professor of Art History, The Arts University Bournemouth — has assessed the control of gender, personal and professional identities, and the lost legacies of women sculptors to offer an important publication that contextualises and defines her ground-breaking survey as essential reading for sculpture scholars.
Evidence of women’s bold agency may be found in the Rose’s forensic exploration of family and archival ephemera, local council minutes, ecclesiastical records and occasionally in published forms, predominantly as the subject of an art journal or magazine essay rather than comprehensive monographs. Such articles frequently trivialised their work arguing of women sculptors that ‘owing to their gender they were incapable of reaching the highest standards’.3P. Rose, Ibid, p. 90. Consequently, the exquisite creations of these women sculptors must stand as mute testament to their perspicacity and skill.
Defined by its scope as an appraisal of ‘Women Sculptors in Britain’, works by other nationals, ethnicities and those of unconfirmed transgender identity have been omitted. Acknowledging that more research remains to be done and with these exclusions in mind, Rose offers her publication as ‘an introduction to a field of study’ rather than a comprehensive opus.4 Rose, Ibid, p. 11.
Each chapter thoughtfully crafts a robust analysis of key themes: Artistic Context, Presentation and Reception, Domestic Scale, The Sculpted Body, and Public Practice. Throughout, Rose’s informed narrative reveals the diverse social status, challenges of patriarchy and patronage, lack of financial independence, restricted access to training, arguments of physical strength and technical competency, and society’s assumed interest in domestic duty which coalesced around one fundamental truth: that these women frequently required the permission of a man as gatekeeper to achieve their professional ambitions. Few married women could draw upon such willing support. Ultimately despite engineered exclusions, the ingenious ways in which specific women sculptors participated — beyond an ‘honorary’ designation — thwarted the constraints of fraternity, leading to an exhibiting artistic sisterhood.
Rose’s appreciation for each of the women sculptors presents an objectively critical yet vigorous evaluation of their character and unique contribution to the prevailing art movements. Moreover, class contrasts are made stark, for example, the impoverished Dorset cottage existence of Elizabeth Muntz juxtaposed with the privileged aristocratic lifestyles of Lady Feodora Gleichen or Kathleen Scott ennobled as Baroness Kennet.
Studies of further remarkable talents including Anne Acheson, Joyce Bidder, Mary Pownall Bromet, Ruby Levick, Edna Manley and Phoebe Stabler offer a rollcall of those whose work should become as familiar to art historians as that of Hepworth or Frink.
Amongst several debates addressed by Rose, is the prevailing belief that, due to their lack of physicality, women sculptors were constricted to ‘modestly scaled decorative work’5 Rose, Ibid, p. 3 which is disproven as clearly erroneous when assessing the magnificence of Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams’ monumental war memorial, The Spirit of the Crusaders (Paisley, Scotland, 1923).6https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/paisley-cenotaph-301796, accessed 3 May 2023. Unveiled in 1924, though perceived to be a subject unsuitable for a woman’s delicate sensitivity, it became known as the Paisley War memorial, or Paisley Cenotaph.7https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/28974, accessed 3 May 2023. Williams’ remarkable work was equal to the contemporaneous scale and technical complexity of Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial (1925) at Hyde Park Corner, London.
Notable too, are the significantly numerous ecclesiastical commissions, such as Violet Pinwill’s elaborately carved pulpit for St Peter’s Church, Stoke Fleming, Devon. Religious sculptures often remain hidden in plain sight as the unlabelled industry of women sculptors. Perceived as less prestigious, the institutional disparity maintained, not only by religious orders but also by other commissioning authorities, also suppressed the recompense that women received for their artistry.
Several of the sculptures referenced in the book are made known to us through the illustrated, grainy, two-dimensional black and white photographic images. Despite the ravages of time, imperfect storage, water damage and conditional reproduction, they manifest the tantalisingly intense professional persona of each sculptor and the ingenuity of her sculptures. Contemporary colour plates highlight the vision, dexterity, and intricacy of extant sculptures.
These images are important because, with the exceptions of Hepworth and Scott, there was a notable omission by these sculptors to ‘construct their own legacy’8Rose, 2020, p. 276 by documenting records of materials, maquettes, sculptures, commissions, sales, and other artistic ventures. Rather than as reticence, this absence might be considered as the almost inescapable, polymath existence of dutiful daughter, wife, mother and — time permitting — as sculptor. Simply put, these women lacked this vital freedom.
As Rose observes ‘To believe that a women sculptor cannot be of importance because she has not been the subject of a major exhibition or book is to set up a circular argument: the existence of such women first needs to be known before such attention can be given to them’.9Rose, Ibid, p. 276 Importantly, Rose has accomplished their introduction.
Cover credit: Mary Spencer Watson carving, c.1935. Mary Spencer Watson archive, courtesy of Dorset History Centre and Liverpool University Press. Photo: Pauline Rose