Women Painters and Illustrators

Six mornings a week the Burlington Gardens is invaded by groups of young ladies laden with portfolios and cases of drawing materials. These are the girl-students of the RA. Most of them are quite young and the number who exceed 21 is very small indeed... All these young women might have made up their minds to be Angelica Kauffmanns or Rosa Bonheurs, or to die in the attempt. Yet such is the irresistible force of circumstances that probably not more than 2 or 3 per cent ever become professional artists and exhibitors 'upstairs'.

The opportunities for women to become painters were indeed small, compared to their male counterparts. And when they married, unless to another artist, that might be the end of the career. This explains at least in part why the number of important female artists of Victorian times is very small. What does 'important' mean? Well, high up on my list, apart from Rosa Bonheur already mentioned, are Lady Butler, Evelyn de Morgan, Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, Henrietta Rae, Marianne Stokes, Anna Lea Merritt, Clara Montalba, Maude Goodman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Marianne North and perhaps Margaret Dicksee. None of these became Academicians - since Angelica Kauffman in the 18th Century, this remained the case right through until the 1920s. There are a variety of less familiar names or more minor talents, for example Elizabeth Rossetti, Louise Jopling, Rebecca Solomon, Ethel Wright, Henriette Ronner, Kate Perugini, Marie Spartali Stillman, Helen Margetson, Maud Earl, Edith Corbet and Kate Bunce.

Illustration by Margaret Dicksee, 1890

Female illustrators are rather more prolific, especially towards the end of the century. The lists overlap of course, but as primarily illustrators we can add to the list our most familiar name, Kate Greenaway, and also Celia Levetus and Mary Newill of the Birmingham School, Millie Ellen Edwards, Sophie Anderson, Rose Pitman, Helen Stratton, Jessie M. King and Helen Allingham among others.

Ophelia, by Amelia Bowerley

Some girls, mainly the better off, went abroad to be trained in art, to Paris mainly. Louise Jopling was one who trained in a Paris atelier.

In England, the pre-eminent place to study art was of course the Royal Academy Schools, which took in girl students from the year 1861, increasing the number to a still modest 13 per annum in 1869. Entrance was by drawing from the antique, with a second drawing being made on the premises within two months. As for male students, winning entry meant a three year studentship, or exceptionally six years, starting with perspective, the elements of drawing, and then the Preliminary Painting School. The Upper Painting School or life school separated the female from the male students, and the former painted entirely from the costume model,

'since only an insignificant proportion of the female students become professional artists, it has been thought unnecessary and undesirable that in the Ladies' Life School there should be any study of the undraped model.'

Lady students in a Continental art school

The South Kensington School - the National Art Training School - was intended to teach art teachers for the country:

'At Kensington everybody is in grim earnest, for the primary object is to turn out masters and mistresses... the vast majority of the students intend that art shall be the business rather than the solace of their lives'

In fact the School took both those studying to become teachers and private fee-paying students who could do what they chose, and did not have to take the series of exams leading to the certificates necessary to find employment as a school art teacher. As at the Royal Academy Schools, the first study was drawing from the antique, with a progression through to the life school. Unlike at the Academy, girl-students were able to paint the half draped or costume model alternately with the nude female model, and there was an emphasis on applied and decorative art, with male and female students together. Students of the South Kensington School who illustrated at least occasionally included Amelia Bowerley, Lady Butler, Maude Goodman, Kate Greenaway, Evelyn Paul, Mary Ellen Edwards and I. L. Gloag.

Illustration by Evelyn Paul

Outside London, Herkomer's Bushey School took pupils from the early 1880s, and Lucy Kemp Welch and the illustrator Amy Sawyer both trained there. And moving northwards, we can pick out the Birmingham School of Art as being particularly important in training book illustrators: Kate Bunce, Georgina Gaskin, Celia Levetus and Mary Newill all studied there.

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List of women artists noted on this web site

Illustration pages // Full list of artists