No place for an Edwardian Lady: New Women and Old Art.
The Slade "crop-heads:" Dora Carrington, Barbara Baegnal and Dorothy Brett.
In 1910, a young woman nervously carried a portfolio of sketches up to the doors of the Slade School of Art. She was twenty-six, dressed in the heavy long trumpet skirts and billowing blouses of Edwardian fashion, with her long dark hair pinned up and her eyes cast modestly down. The daughter of Viscount Esher had spent a sheltered childhood in Mayfair, sharing dance classes with Queen Victoria’s children. Educated to be launched in polite society, she had loathed the limited education she received at the hands of governesses and, according to her sister, used to throw candlesticks at her unfortunate instructresses.
Her eyes were not unintelligent but her cheeks, full with the flush of youth and her parted lips, along with her slight deafness, gave her a rather startled expression as the omnibuses rushed past her along the Euston Road. Yet behind that surprise was a steely determination. For a decade she had fought against her father’s resistance, pleading and persuading to be allowed to attend art school, long past the age when most of her contemporaries were married with children. Finally, friends had intervened and helped changed the Viscount’s mind. With the paternal obstacle overcome, Dorothy Brett now had to prove her abilities to the world. As she later said, “I’m a woman and therefore I’ve got to force myself on people; a young man is watched by collectors to see if he is a clever student… society women are on the lookout for him and get him in tow if they can and buy a few a few works and keep him alive… None of this happens to a girl.” But this girl was one of a growing breed of Edwardian women who turned their back on contemporary notions of female duty and carved out a more Bohemian path.
Dorothy Brett had chosen well. The Slade school of Art had been founded in 1871, with the intention of offering female students education on an equal footing with men, although in practise this meant they were assigned separate classrooms and not allowed to mingle with the opposite sex. Illustrious women had walked the path before Dorothy. In the 1870s, illustrator Kate Greenaway had been a pupil, followed by Gwen John and Edna Clarke Hall in the early 1890s. But more than an opportunity to develop their artistic skill and be taken seriously, it offered young women an unprecedented level of social freedom, releasing them from the confines of the family home, to take lodgings in London, to live something of an autonomous, independent life. However, the Edwardian patriarchal system still had a firm hand in the governance of the Slade.
Inside the hallowed doors, Dorothy she was shown into a room with the illustrious Frederick Brown. The sixty-year-old Professor had been a founder member of the New English Art club, studied in Parisian ateliers, become Headmaster of the Westminster School of Art and now ruled the Slade with a misogynistic rod of iron, well known for reducing the girls to tears, telling them to go home, sew dresses and get married. The best response to this was made by Barbara Baegnal, who earned his respect with the prompt reply that she had made every stitch of clothing on her body but he succeeded in scaring away Vanessa Bell, who only managed to endure him for a few weeks and defected instead to the Royal Academy school. In 1910, Brown took one look at the well-heeled, timid young lady before him and made up his mind. “We don’t like people from your class,” he told her. “They usually come only for amusement or because they are bored at home. They take the place of a girl or boy who needs a scholarship.” Then he opened her portfolio. Later, he would go so far as to fall in love with her.
Dorothy Brett would win first prize for figure painting at the Slade in 1914. By that point she had started a new trend by chopping off her long locks and wearing plain dark clothes, banding together with fellow students Dora Carrington and Barbara Hiles, to earn the epithet of the “crop-heads.” As well as rejecting one of the potent symbols of Edwardian femininity, they cast off their sentimental Christian names and became known, like the men, by their surnames alone. Soon Brett had taken her place among a new generation of artists and writers who would put the modern into English Modernism. She shared a studio with fellow Slade artist Mark Gertler, was portrayed in novels by Aldous Huxley, miscarried writer John Middleton Murry’s child and moved to New Mexico with D H Lawrence. Whilst there, she produced her best works, large canvases depicting the Pueblo Indians, a far cry from the polite parlours of Mayfair.
In many ways, Brett was very lucky. Hers was not a typical struggle against Edwardian expectations of the female path; wealth, independence and status facilitated her success in a way that was beyond the reach of many of her contemporaries, no matter how gifted. She was also fortunate that her father finally capitulated and that her abilities were spotted by someone who was well positioned to open the relevant doors. Even though it took a decade of persuasion, her time at the Slade was commensurate with the most revolutionary years of English art and by the time she left, in 1914, the world picture had changed so significantly that women were able to reshape their lives along lines of greater personal and professional freedom. For many of her contemporaries, their efforts to juggle the roles of woman, wife and mother with creative self-actualisation were fraught with difficulty. They were part of the first generation of H.G.Wells’ “new” women equally championed and lampooned in contemporaneous English literature, who benefited from broadening social opportunities and the expansion of drawing room accomplishments into specialist careers. The two decades that preceded the First World War were characterised by the efforts of women to integrate themselves into the male-dominated artistic world, with varying degrees of success.
The story of Edna Waugh in the 1890s marks how rapidly things were changing. As one of the Slade’s earliest female stars, whose precocious talent had led her philanthropist father to enrol her at the tender age of fourteen, she won a scholarship and a string of prizes. The 1890s marked a period later Slade students looked back upon as a golden era, which Augustus John explained as being due to the presence of so many “…talented and highly ornamental girl students: the men cut a shabbier figure and seemed far less gifted” in comparison. Edna’s beauty attracted the attention of an older suitor, family friend William Clarke-Hall, who initially supported and encouraged her work. They married in 1898, when she was nineteen. It had been an ideal romance, fuelled by conversations about poetry and art, whilst the couple rambled about the idyllic pre-war English countryside, listening to birdsong and sketching fields. On their engagement, he had promised her “if you do me the great honour of marrying me, you must have no trouble about domestic affairs at all. I want you to consider Art your profession and I will not have you hampered in any way by stupid domestic details.” He did not keep his word.
Overnight, everything changed for Edna. As his wife, William expected her to relinquish her work in favour of domesticity and motherhood; he seemed uninterested in her “own springing passionate self.” Her devastation was a source of martial tension, provoking her husband to tear down her pictures and break her brushes, so she learned to keep her art secret and never speak of her ambitions to him. For two decades, she barely worked, until a breakdown and the independence of her children prompted the loosening of the patriarchal vice. Established in a London studio, she went on to be named by the Times in 1926 as “England’s most imaginative artist.” Living to a hundred, Edna later urged women to realise that their responsibilities lie equally with their children and “…in the development of the powers in herself which are (their) true expression.”
While a large percentage of girls now attended school until the age of fourteen, most of their upper class counterparts were still educated at home. Growing up in the 1880s and 90s, the young Virginia Woolf did not receive a formal education. Instead she following a reading plan set by her father, wrote her own family newspaper and learned Greek from a friend and attended those lectures at University College where women were welcome. Clad in white, with her hair plaited, the young Virginia may have envied her brothers’ opportunity to study at Cambridge but it was she who returned there, three decades later, to deliver her seminal lectures about women and fiction, published as A Room of One’s Own. Drawing on her own creation of Shakespeare’s talented but unrecognised sister, she personified the importance of space and independent means if a woman was to overcome domestic drudgery and cultural limitations.
Breaking into the market was difficult for an unknown. Woolf was fortunate to have connections in publishing. The English old network of public school and Cambridge, as well as that of the Indian Civil Service, determined the family’s social circle, but her half-brother Gerald had founded the publishing company Duckworth and Company in 1898, when Virginia was just sixteen. There was never really a question whether she would see her name in print and went on to found her own Hogarth Press, with husband Leonard. The only woman writer among Woolf’s contemporaries whose work she admired was New Zealander Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield’s career path had been very different, as she built a reputation by placing her short stories in school and college magazines. The explosion of Modernist periodicals and manifestos in the pre-War years afforded women further opportunities to contribute. Mansfield was published in A.R.Orage’s The New Age, which sought to define and review Modernism as an emerging movement, before founding Rhythm with husband John Middleton Murry.
Women were also playing a part in introducing new art to the masses. Woolf’s elder sister, Vanessa Bell, had helped conceive and plan the 1910 Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. A Bloomsbury triumph, it brought the work of Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Derain and Picasso to a stunned and often disbelieving British public. It was little wonder that the exhibition and its sister show, in 1912, caused such ripples. English art at the time was lagging well behind the revolutionary work being done in Paris, by male and female artists. Vanessa though, had borne her second son less than three months earlier and was still in recovery, caring for her infant, who stuggled to gain weight. Recognising the exhibition had brought a “sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself which were completely overwhelming,” Vanessa was more active in planning the second show, in which she also exhibited, alongside the Russian cubo-Futurist Natalia Goncharova.
It was frequently expected that women’s artistic ambition could find complete satisfaction in domesticity alone. Woolf attempts a compromise by suggesting her To the Lighthouse heroine, Mrs Ramsay, is an artist by dint of her creative nature. As a mother, nurse, wife and hostess, she constantly brings people together and forms the glue of family life. She personifies the Angel in the House as Woolf’s own mother did, before her premature death at forty-nine, worn out by caring for others. Slade student Mark Gertler said a similar thing about his own mother, Golda, a warm East End Jewess whom he described as the only “modern artist.” Unquestionably, there is an art to living, a real value in creating a warm, nurturing home, even one filled with the applied and decorative arts, as Vanessa Bell did at Charleston on the Sussex downs. Yet this was in addition to her work as a post-modern fine artist. She shared her life with men who did not expect her to make the compromise; influential art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant, recognised her abilities, while the financial cushion of their class allowed them to employ the cooks, nannies and nursemaids that left Vanessa free to paint.
The short lived Vorticist Magazine Blast, which ran for two episodes in 1914, featured a significant number of women artists and writers alongside its more well-known proponents Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. In spite of some resistance, when fellow artist Christopher Nevinson had railed against the inclusion of the “damned women,” they were present in the first edition of July 1914. Journalist Rebecca West, then embroiled in an affair with H.G.Wells, helped edit and write the manifesto of ideas, which was signed by abstract artists and ex-Slade students Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders. Dismorr was referred to by a friend as “the Edwardian phenomenon of the New Woman” and rejected a traditional private life in favour of a string of affairs with men and women. Saunders rejected two proposals of marriage from Walter Sickert, for the reason that if two artists married, the woman’s career would always have to come second. This had been proven to be the case for Ida Nettleship, another talented Slade graduate, whose marriage to Augustus John in 1901 saw her mired in domesticity, bearing five children in six years, her artistic abilities forgotten, before dying of puerperal fever.
Ida Nettleship, by Augustus John
By 1914, what might now technically be considered modernism, was actually drawing to a close. It was the most exciting of years, with England having finally opened its doors to cubism, fauvism, futurism, vorticism and any number of other “isms” that demonstrated just how far the strictures governing the fine and applied arts had been broken. On March 10, a day after the arrest of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, a twenty-five year old Canadian, Mary Richardson, smuggled a meat cleaver into the National Gallery. In a gesture of protest against the hypocrisy by which a “government of Iscariot politicians” ogled the painted female form, yet restrained and inhibited their own women, she attacked the Rokesby Venus, by Velazquez, inflicting seven deep cuts upon the canvas.
The biographies of Edwardian women artists and writers reveal constant compromise between more conservative, traditional values and new codes of conduct and experimentation. Even when experiencing a degree of financial or social independence, they ran up against a solid wall of expectations, typified in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse by Charles Tansley’s casual statement that “women can’t write, women can’t paint.” In striving to prove this wrong, many women also rejected the biological family unit. Woolf herself belonged to a milieu renowned for its bohemian lifestyle. Bloomsbury was known for “living in squares and loving in triangles,” and in spite of her flirtations with lesbianism, many elements of her life remained traditional, as did those of her lover Vita Sackville-West. Her predecessor in the stream of consciousness style, Dorothy Richardson, began conventionally enough, working as a governess, then a dental secretary, before penning her extraordinary novels and marrying the flamboyant Alan Odle, fifteen years her junior. In spite of professional, social and cultural barriers, a few did succeed as leaders in their field.
Many women rejected the marital ideals of their families in order to follow their hearts, often living in experimental liaisons that were typical of a new Modern sensibility. Their quests for romance were not always successful though, as the men they encountered could be predatory and selfish, exploiting double standards of sexual behaviour even when professing themselves most in love. Nor did marriage guarantee security. Instead, many women sought to forge new family units and open relationships that allowed for greater sexual and personal freedom, although the idea often proved more fulfilling in theory than practice. Virginia Woolf’s sexless marriage was complicated by a her lesbian affair with the heavy-lidded aristocrat Vita Sackville-West and Vanessa’s open marriage allowed her to fall in love with the predominantly homosexual Duncan Grant, with whom she lived for over forty years, bearing his daughter.
In carving out this new future of personal and artistic freedom, there were moments of loneliness and despair for these female pioneers. Ida Nettleship was helpless to prevent her marriage from become a ménage, and eventually she left husband Augustus John to set up home in Paris with his lover, Dorelia McNeil. Described as “bohemian”, “enlightened” and “experimental,” their lives illustrate the inconsistencies between the ideology and practice of this freedom. They may have been prepared to dedicate their lives to art and to eschew marriage and the traditional outlets of female sexuality but that does not mean their world or the men in their lives were always prepared to accept them. Ida died exhausted in a Paris hospital, having borne five children in six years. Needless to say, she no longer had time to pursue her own artistic dreams. Historian Virginia Nicolson has gone as far as to call the women in such relationships the “casualties of male egos.” For many, their modernism was fragile and costly. It would take the monumental social changes brought about by the first world war, to being the emancipation of women in their private lives and the arts.