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…

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