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1800 The Growing Presence of Female Exhibitors

The place of women in the London art world during the Royal Academy’s formative decades is commonly characterised with reference to Johann Zoffany’s canonical painting, The Portraits of the Academicians (1771–1772). By relegating the representation of the Academy’s female founding members to portraits placed high on the wall, Zoffany’s work seems to encapsulate and promote the traditional narrative about women in the early Academy—that gendered social codes, and a related lack of training in depicting the human figure, severely restricted their artistic output.

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However, women consistently participated in the Academy’s Summer Exhibition from its launch. From 1769–1830, works by over 700 women graced the Academy’s walls.1 Moreover, women’s presence steadily grew—from four exhibitors in 1769, to an average of twenty-four per exhibition through the 1780s, falling in the early 1790s, and then rising again rapidly. In 1800, an unprecedented sixty-five women authored 103 entries, which amounted to 9.4 per cent of all works displayed. Despite its numerical heft, the history of these female artists often remains challenging to write. Yet, even in the face of scant contemporary records and few surviving works, much can be gleaned by examining 1800 as a moment of record female activity at the Summer Exhibition.

The sixty-five women who exhibited in 1800 brought a range of prior artistic experience to Somerset House. Fifty-nine exhibited under their own names, twenty-two of whom were showing their art there for the first time. Nineteen participated as honorary exhibitors, six of them anonymously.2 At least thirty came from artists’ families—most had fathers or brothers who were artists, although one had learned from her mother, and several exhibited alongside their sisters. Six had married artists, and five had taken lessons from an artist who was not a relative. These proportions are broadly representative for the period.3

These women’s 103 entries were equally diverse, representing all genres, and again echoed the range of works that women regularly exhibited during that era. There were forty-four portraits, twenty-two landscapes or views, nineteen flower pieces or still lives, thirteen narrative scenes, one animal depiction, and four works of sculpture or wax.

Some of these women were already established, including Anne Damer, a rare female sculptor. A marble dog sold in 2004 may be her “lap-dog” from the Summer Exhibition in 1800 (Fig. 1). Damer showed thirty-two works from 1784 until 1818, mostly portrait busts; when she had debuted with another canine sculpture in 1784, The Public Advertiser had proclaimed,

The oddity of her Atchievement [sic] is striking!—The Marble Statues from a Female Hand!—But so it is, and … with so much Merit … that Bacon himself, or at any Rate the best Pupil of Bacon need not have blushed at owning them.4

Working in marble, Damer here similarly imbues technical prowess with a strong sense of play.

Damer’s friend Maria Cosway was also established, having first exhibited in 1781 with three narrative scenes: two literary and one classical. She would show forty-two works through 1801. In 1800, Cosway exhibited seven paintings; one of these portrayed Mary Linwood, the famed needle-painter. Linwood herself replicated one of Cosway’s paintings in needle and thread, and displayed it in her own Leicester Square gallery. Other works by Cosway survive in printed reproductions. Her Birth of the Thames from 1800 was soon engraved by Tomkins, dedicated to Princess Augusta Sophia, and published by Ackermann; while working in the traditionally masculine genre of history painting, Cosway here inserted a feminine dimension by highlighting a moment of birth.5 Over a dozen of her exhibited works were reproduced in print, a sign of her enduring popularity.

Mary Ann Flaxman, the younger half-sister of the Academician John Flaxman, trod a different path, exhibiting an assortment of twenty-seven genre paintings, drawings, designs, painted and wax portraits at the Academy from 1786 through 1819. Her one entry in 1800 comprised four works, two designs from Samuel Rogers’ Pleasures of Memory, which Cosway also illustrated that year, and two from William Hayley’s Triumphs of Temper, seemingly intended for print; Hayley commissioned William Blake to engrave Mary Ann Flaxman’s drawings for his 1803 edition, which was widely reprinted. The drawings were sold in 1883 and remain untraced, but the engravings show intimately composed scenes.6

Maria Spilsbury, later Taylor, also exhibited profusely, showing forty-nine works from 1792 to 1808—a half-dozen in 1800 alone. While her image of Admiral Hawkins Whitshed’s children was listed as a portrait, Spilsbury too played with genre conventions, here imbuing religious, conversational overtones—the children at play before a ruined church or abbey, the girls dressed in white (Fig. 2). An active evangelical, Spilsbury exhibited two other portraits of the Hawkins family that year; perhaps these canvases also proffered hybrid messages.7

Still, other artists were just budding. Six women from the Serres family exhibited in 1800, as did two Reinagle sisters. Elizabeth Anne Rigaud exhibited a biblical scene of Ruth, pedagogically complementing her father, the Academician John Francis Rigaud’s illustration from Luke. One review highlighted a portrait by the seemingly unknown Eliza Anne Paye, later Briane; citing its “loveliness and beauty”, it added, “If this artist be the daughter of Mr. Paye … we congratulate him on the promising talents of his pupil.”8 She exhibited thirty-two portrait and narrative works from 1798 to 1807, continuing for five years after her father, Richard Morton Paye, had stopped exhibiting. Conversely, the botanical illustrator Mary Lawrance, later Kearse, used Somerset House as an entry to print, often publishing collections of flower drawings after exhibiting specific examples, like her 1800 Passion Flowers. This all confirms what Amelia Noel, an exhibiting artist whose daughter also exhibited in 1800, confided to Joseph Farington, that: “it was of great consequence to Her to have a picture in the Exhibition as Her Scholars judged of Her ability in the Art from that circumstance.”9 Noel gave lessons “to Ladies” in drawing and painting, and sold her own works from her home studio.10

These cases of artistic success, and the record participation of women in 1800, should revise/shift/emend/alter our historical perception of the Academy. These women engaged with a range of media and subject matter, including classical history, alongside tales of national and female identity. They aimed to attract paying clients and garner profits from print sales. Most importantly, their escalation of activity in the 1790s, reaching unprecedented heights in 1800, mirrors the intensification of the Revolutionary wars, echoing other findings of women’s increased civic activity at the time.11 Unable to vote, women throughout Britain were eager to participate in public and political causes in these years. Female artists seem to have shared this heightened impetus for civic participation and partially achieved it by participating in their nation’s most prestigious cultural venue.

  1. These statistics derive from as yet unpublished primary source research carried out by the author in the course of her doctoral studies.↩︎

  2. Four works are listed as by “A Lady”, and two by “A Young Lady”; it is impossible to tell if any of these are by the same anonymous exhibitors.↩︎

  3. These statistics, too, derive from as yet unpublished primary source research carried out by the author in the course of her doctoral studies.↩︎

  4. “For the Public Advertiser”, 1784. Royal Academy Critiques 1768–1842, CRI/I 1638-1793, Vol. 1, 134r.↩︎

  5. Peltro William Tomkins after Maria Cosway, The Birth of the Thames, 1802, stipple with etching, 56.7 x 43.4 cm, British Museum, London, 1873,0809.232.↩︎

  6. Her seven drawings were sold at auction at Christie’s on 26 February 1883, and are now untraced. See Hayley’s Triumphs of Temper went through several editions with Blake’s engravings after Flaxman.↩︎

  7. For this identification and an extended discussion of the work, see Charlotte Yeldham, Maria Spilsbury (1776–1820): Artist and Evangelical (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), esp. 93–94.↩︎

  8. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Monthly Mirror (July 1800): 17.↩︎

  9. Joseph Farington, “8 April 1804”, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), Vol. 6, 2293.↩︎

  10. The Morning Post, 15 March 1803.↩︎

  11. See, most famously, Linda Colley’s chapter on “Womanpower” in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).↩︎

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