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Designing Women

Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870-1914

by Anthea Callen
Pantheon, 240 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Female School of Design, the first art school in Britain to offer art education to women, opened its doors in 1842. I had supposed that it did not do so until a year later; but Ms. Callen is sure that I am wrong and I am equally sure that she is right. We are both agreed, I am glad to say, that when those doors did open a very large number of women were waiting to get in. The schools for men were often ill-attended, the students were sometimes riotous and nearly always discontented, the teachers were divided into hostile factions, and the manufacturers, for whose benefit the schools were founded, were, to say the least, unhelpful. The establishment for women was in almost every way a success, it suffered only from an excess of popularity and was in consequence dreadfully overcrowded; but the standards of work were greatly superior to those of the male school.

This state of affairs was in a large measure owing to the fact that there were in London multitudes of young gentlewomen who hoped to make money by practicing a craft or by qualifying as teachers. Ladies, as distinct from women, were in theory child-bearing ornaments. Women might labor in mines or factories, but the lives of their social superiors were devoted to elegant domesticity. In theory they were to be supported by men, first by their fathers and then by their husbands; in practice a horribly large number of them found no husbands and, when they lost their fathers or their fortunes, were left destitute. Their education had been designed in such a way that they were debarred from useful employment—the education having been provided by governesses who, themselves being ladies trained for a life of ignorant uselessness, could offer their pupils no more than they themselves had received, making them fit therefore for nothing save to become governesses. The alternatives were starvation or prostitution.

One of the very few skills that a gentlewoman might decently acquire was a proficiency in art. It was therefore an important acquisition for a girl wishing to enter the overcrowded teaching profession. Also if she were sufficiently dexterous a woman might make a living by practicing a craft. It is hardly surprising that, when serious instruction and some kind of recognized qualification became possible, there should be a rush for admission. Mrs. McIan, the principal of the Female School of Design, was able to cite numerous cases of really acute hardship among her pupils, and, worse still, she was obliged to exclude gifted applicants for lack of space or funds. The gentlemen who administered the schools were unsympathetic and the principal, a woman of strong character, was loud in her complaints. As a result she became involved in the complex internal politics of the Schools.

It seems likely that from the first Mrs. McIan had invoked the Committee’s disfavor by her unequivocal preference for the methods of the first director, William Dyce, whom she referred to as “a most eminent man, and a most qualified man for the office of director” even long after his removal from office.

(In fairness it must be said that Ms. Callen does not often write like this.) It is not surprising that there was an obstructive and even a hostile attitude to the women on the part of the Committee of Management, an attitude resulting from many different kinds of prejudice. But the gentlemen could always argue that the Board of Trade, which was at that time entrusted with the art education of the nation, had established schools for industrial workers and not for the benefit of distressed gentlewomen. This was the class which filled the Female School in London and some of the provincial schools and it forms the main concern of Ms. Callen’s book.

I hope,” writes Germaine Greer in one of those blurbs which publishers like to extract from authors, “that this book marks the beginning of a trend in art history and criticism, namely, to discuss artistic movements in depth and detail rather than through adulation of giants.”

Historians of the art and architecture of cultures other than our own may find little that is novel in such an approach. There are situations in which we can perceive no giants; but in so far as Ms. Callen has attempted a sociological rather than a biological method she is certainly justified by her subject. Indeed, given the title of this work, it might be hard to justify any other method. The part played by women in the Arts and Crafts Movement is of deep social interest and fully deserves the careful attention that it here receives, but this is not an area in which we shall find many giantesses to adulate. Kate Greenaway, Jessie King, and the Macdonald sisters bear respectable names but they can hardly be considered gigantic.

Sociologically speaking this is no drawback; the predicament of the woman artist during this period and her attempts to confront and to overcome the many obstacles placed in her way is a very worthy subject and it is not unworthily tackled. The trouble comes when one looks for “depth and detail.” The evidence concerning relatively obscure artists must of necessity be slight and it is natural that much of the history of the period should be a history, not of people but of institutions, and institutions, unless one is willing to be rather dull, are very hard to describe.

Still, it is necessary that the associations, clubs, and other bodies concerned with the education of female workers, the manufacture and marketing of ceramics, lace, jewelry, woodcarving, and arts of the book by women should be described as fully as possible. To give life and vigor to an account of the Diss Lace Association is not an enviable task and personally I returned with relief to the Female School of Design, which is always of abiding interest, and in dealing with it Ms. Callen has made good use of the official reports. I only wish that she had taken her researches a little further and considered the Branch Schools—the ladies of York and of Birmingham would surely repay further study and so would that school in the rue de l’Ecole de Médicine which provided a model for the British establishment. It must however be allowed that these fascinating topics do fall rather far outside the given dates of this study.

Considering the book as a whole I cannot but wonder whether it might not have been equally useful and more easily readable if it had consisted of a generalizing essay together with a dictionary of persons and institutions. There would still have been a place for the many very attractive but sometimes slightly irrelevant illustrations. There is indeed a biographical list at the end of the volume, a list which is useful, not only because it is a convenient source of information but because, in an oblique way, it poses the central problem of this chapter in art history. Few names here are familiar except to the specialist and of those few many were made famous by men. There is indeed a paucity of giantesses, nor, it should be said, is the supply of giants very copious. Still, Ashbee, Street, William Morris, Lethaby, Mackintosh, and Walter Crane do come rather nearer to gigantic stature than any of the women mentioned in this book. As we have seen there were a great many women who wanted to study art; it would seem also that there was a great deal of talent, but success, if we compare these with their literary sisters or even with the female painters of the age, is very rare. To say that a great many impediments were placed in the way of craftswomen, that they were not treated seriously, that, when they married the credit for their work was annexed by their husbands is true; but it does not quite account for what seems to have been a stunted development, a general tendency not to excel.

I suspect that the inclination noticed by Ms. Callen to relegate women to the humbler and more finicky processes of a craft and to see in them mere interpreters of men’s designs has much to do with it. After all one of the main achievements of William Morris was to make craftwork respectable, whether in pottery, embroidery, bookbinding, or the design of wall paper. At the beginning of the century the old classification in which “history painting” stood at the summit of the visual arts and ornament at the very bottom was still widely accepted. One of the great difficulties of dealing with art students was that they wanted to become “fine artists.” Nor did Morris altogether kill the old valuation, for after all it is not totally absurd—sculpture in bronze is a more considerable medium, does pack a greater emotional punch than cake decoration. Thus a modest person, and ladies were taught to be modest in every way, might not unnaturally regard ceramic decoration or embroidery as something in itself humble.

Such humility is a dangerous virtue in an artist. The material and moral difficulties of a female bookbinder in Victorian London were not, in themselves, greater than those experienced by the impressionists; the impressionist painter, though he might starve and endure ridicule, never doubted the value of painting itself. Perhaps the female bookbinder did have doubts about the essential importance of bookbinding, and when one suffers from such misgivings then one’s existence as an artist is in grave peril.

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