Women Artists between the Wars. ‘A fair field and no favour’ by Katy Deepwell

by Katy Deepwell, Manchester, 2010, ISBN 97807 190 80807 £65

This is an important and substantive work of social history. Its main thesis – that women artists working between the Wars were hard done by in not getting equal treatment to male artists and so on – is of no more than passing interest in itself: it is obviously true and, on its own, not something which requires very much analysis to establish its truth. Where the book’s substance comes from is the way in which the author analyses her material. In other words, it is the method used which attracts the attention and admiration.

The book is the product of many years of research and thought. It would be misleading to say that it wears its learning lightly; it is sometimes extremely hard going. But its thoroughness is highly refreshing; it leads to a truly admirable achievement. Writers about 20th century British art need, in my view, to engage with the available material in a way which at least resembles the methodology of the author here if they wish their views to be taken seriously. It is easy enough to make assertions about artists and their lives and the assertions of clever and persuasive writers may make for entertaining reading. In order to sustain such assertions, however, there is no short cut. The material is available to analyse the historical framework within which artists between the Wars existed and by persistent diligence the material may perhaps be made to sustain at least some of our favourite assertions.

The art world today knows the work of a comparatively small number of women artists who were operating in the period covered by this book: Gwen John, Frances Hodgkins, Dame Laura Knight, Eileen Agar, Barbara Hepworth and Vanessa Bell are mentioned at the start of the book. To this short list one could add the work of Ethel Walker, Margaret Fisher Prout, Ethel Gabain and Gwen Raverat; that of Norah McGuinness and Sine Mackinnon from Northern Ireland; Mary Swanzy, Nano Reid, Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone from Ireland; and Anne Redpath from Scotland. Many of these are very important artists of their time and surely known to all claiming to write with any authority about the period. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that if one did the same exercise for men, one could quickly scribble down the names of a hundred artists without pausing – and probably two hundred.

The book does not try to establish whether there is any qualitative justification for the hardships endured by these women artists. They went to art school in large numbers but then often failed to progress beyond that, at least in terms of public recognition and success. There were undoubtedly systemic barriers to them being able to do so. Male art critics, gallery owners and buyers of contemporary art were just some of the possible blockages to these artists getting ‘promoted’, so to speak. Or perhaps some of them were not very good or interesting? Who knows? The author is almost certainly right to take it as a given that there were many good or interesting women artists whose reputations were never able, for whatever reason, to reach their just levels.

There were some female outposts in the art world who might have been able to help struggling women artists if they had chosen to, but even they were perhaps saddled with the hidebound views of the times. I see no evidence, for example, that one of the great lady collectors, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, ever favoured lady artists; nor did the Welsh champions, the Davies sisters at Gregynog, or Winifred Coombe-Tennant. They were all quite happy to buy the best art they could find, which usually seemed to be that of men. Nor should we see this as some sort of English or British problem. There is nothing to suggest that lady artists between the Wars in France or Spain or wherever had it any easier.

Amongst the galleries there were important women making a serious impact on the art world. Lucy Wertheim, Lilian Browse and Erica Brausen (at a later date) were all highly important in their different ways.

Anyway, I liked this book. I liked its thorough engagement with the detail; its determination to explore the facts and to prove its points with relentless attention to the evidence. I wish the author would turn her formidable weaponry onto the whole art world between the Wars, without favouring (or diminishing) the contribution of the women artists. Now that really would be a book.