Thursday, September 16, 2010

An historical perspective

Michelangelo had no baby’s bottle or teapot hanging round his neck’ 
~ Dame Laura Knight

Women artists of the twenty-first century seem to have it all. Two examples which spring to mind are Tracey Emin flaunting her promiscuity in textiles, and Louise Bourgeois (with whom Emin collaborated towards the end of the latter’s life) – maker of disturbing soft sculptures which grew out of the emotional pain inflicted by her father’s infidelity. This early experience cast a shadow over her French childhood, and shaped the tone of Bourgeois’ output. By the time of her recent death, she had achieved acclaim both in the USA, where she had lived since 1938, and internationally. However, it was not until late in life that Bourgeois achieved recognition as an artist in her own right. Until then she was known primarily as the wife of a prominent American art historian.

While both Bourgeois and Emin have produced work susceptible to accusations of being self-referential, it is their exceptional public profile which has helped to secure their status in the contemporary art scene. Women’s art practice generally has been sidelined in western society for hundreds of years. My particular interest is the stories of women working in Cornwall in the early part of the twentieth century, and who struggled to forge their own artistic identity.

One hundred years ago women artists were working in a social climate which valued propriety above all else. In Wesleyan Cornwall, which had become a focus for artists returning from the heady bohemian existence they had enjoyed in Pont Aven or Concarneau, the use of models from London was frowned upon, and painting was prohibited on a Sunday. Despite such constraints, artists such as Stanhope Forbes, Lamorna Birch and Alfred Munnings enjoyed successful careers. This was due, in part, to the perpetuation of the myth of the male genius which has dominated the story of art since the early Renaissance. In this milieu, their female counterparts had to be content playing the role of muse to their men folk.

The founding of the Newlyn School attracted art students of both sexes to the fishing port, and romantic attachments often led to marriage. But typically the wife was expected to play second fiddle to her husband. His career would be promoted at the expense of her talent, which was sacrificed so that she might fulfil the supporting role of home-maker and mother.

The Newlyn School was set up jointly in 1899 by Stanhope Forbes and his wife. An established artist who had studied in Europe prior to her marriage, Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes nevertheless suffered from her husband’s professional disapproval. Influenced by her friend Whistler, Elizabeth developed an interest in etching. Stanhope was jealous of their acquaintance, and of her enthusiasm for the Aesthetic Movement. He criticised her skill in etching, and his attitude discouraged Elizabeth from pursuing her own career. Having suffered from prolonged bouts of poor health, she died in 1912 aged only 53. It is generally considered that, under different circumstances, her reputation would have outstripped that of her husband.

A Zandvoort Fishergirl 1884

Elizabeth Adela Forbes ARWS (1859 – 1912); Oil on canvas; Penlee House Gallery & Museum; on loan from Newlyn Art Gallery.

As a student of Stanhope Forbes, Ruth Alison met her husband Charles Simpson in Newlyn, and they were married in 1913. Ruth, encouraged by Charles, executed a number of well-received portraits of women including fellow-artists Ella Naper and Gertrude Harvey. The Simpsons later settled in St Ives where they set up a painting school together. In response to popular demand for Charles’s hunting scenes, the couple moved to London in 1924. Deprived of the comradeship of her fellow artists and lacking a London studio, Ruth Simpson suffered a crisis of confidence and never painted again, according to biographer John Branfield. The couple returned to Cornwall in 1931, by which time she was suffering from ill-health. She died in Redruth in 1964. 
Maroon and Gold 

Ruth Simpson née Alison (1889 – 1964); Oil on canvas; Penlee House Gallery & Museum; on loan from Newlyn Art Gallery; Gift of Miss Leonora Simpson © The Artist’s Estate.

Geoffrey Garnier was an engineer whose artistic talents emerged later in life. While studying at the Newlyn School in 1913 he met Jill Blyth, a cousin, by coincidence also a student there. They fell in love and were married in 1917, their home in Newlyn forming the backdrop to many social gatherings. Geoffrey was the only dedicated print-maker to emerge from Newlyn, focussing his energies on etching and aquatint, displaying a level of virtuosity and originality which earned him international acclaim. Though they worked as a team, Jill Garnier felt that her ambition as a painter of portraits and landscapes was thwarted by the demands of domesticity and bringing up her family – a source of constant frustration to her. Jill’s oeuvre included beautifully designed works of embroidery. The Garniers had three children, of whom only one, Peter, survived them. He considered that his mother’s talent had been unjustifiably overshadowed by his father.

Jill Garnier (1890 – 1966); Oil on canvas; Penlee House Gallery & Museum; © The Artist’s Estate

The Garstins were a Penzance family closely associated with the Newlyn School. Norman Garstin, who had studied art in France, exhibited widely within the UK and became a well-known art critic. His daughter Alethea, who remained single, was taught by her father. Though she accompanied him on sketching trips abroad, she never obtained formal tuition. Despite being a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, Alethea Garstin avoided publicity, devoting herself instead to caring for her ageing parents. It was not until 1978 that this neglected artist achieved wider recognition, at a posthumous exhibition in St Ives of works by her and her more famous father. Many of her small-scale landscapes form a record of her travels. She was subsequently described by Patrick Heron as ‘England’s leading Impressionist painter’.
Little Farm Place

Alethea Garstin (1894 – 1978); Oil on board; Penlee House Gallery & Museum; © The Artist’s Estate.

A handful of women working in Cornwall in the early part of the twentieth century stand out as exceptions. Associated with Newlyn were Ella Naper, Laura Knight and Dod Procter, the latter two overcoming institutional prejudice to attain membership of the Royal Academy in 1936 and 1942 respectively. (A separate article on Laura Knight accompanies this piece.) St Ives’s most famous woman artist from the 1940s onwards was, of course, Barbara Hepworth. Her workshop and garden at Trewyn Studio form a poignant backdrop to the extraordinary works inspired by the coastal and moorland forms of the Penwith peninsula, which defined her as Britain’s foremost female sculptor of the post-war years.

More recently, Rose Hilton (née Phipps) obtained belated recognition as an artist in her own right. A graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, and on the verge of establishing her reputation, she met Roger Hilton in 1959. After the couple moved to Cornwall, Rose acquiesced to her husband’s demand that she refrain from painting. She put her own career on hold, while his exploration of abstraction secured him a position of prominence as one of Britain’s foremost post-war painters. Occasionally if Roger was away from home she would get her paints out, but on his return, the smell of turps would generally betray her, putting an abrupt end to her creative efforts.

In 1975 Roger died after a long battle against alcoholism. Subsequently Rose was able to resume her profession to great critical acclaim, culminating in a solo retrospective at Tate St Ives in 2008. Her wonderfully luminous interiors, delicate yet vibrant, are suggestive of Bonnard, while a deep affinity with Cornwall in all its moods is revealed in landscapes whose semi-abstraction infuses her work with a spirit of timelessness.

'Strangers' by Rose Hilton

So the fight goes on. Women artists have made great strides throughout the twentieth century, but in this age of so-called equality, many still struggle in a society which continues to equate genius with masculinity.

What’s your opinion?

What is life like in Cornwall for the woman artist of today?
Is she benefiting or suffering from being away from the mainstream of the urban environment?
What’s your own experience of prejudice against the work and status of women artists?

Let’s start a lively debate!

Copyright © 2010 Helen Hoyle

1 comment:

  1. Helen, I found this really interesting, gorgeous pictures, the article made me want to find out more.