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1873 A "very distinguished group of Lady exhibitors"

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Royal Academy was predominantly a male institution, and the year 1873 was no exception. Its President (Francis Grant), its Keeper (Charles Landseer), and all its professors, members, and associates were men. Only male dignitaries and personalities spoke at its inaugural banquet, which was exclusively attended by male invitees.1 Men were the dealers who bought and sold the paintings, to predominantly male clients. Women, however, were able to infiltrate this male-dominated institution in select ways.2 They were present in the crowds who visited the Summer Exhibition, and in the ranks of the critics who wrote about it—although these were mainly men too.3 In addition, in 1860, women had been admitted to the Royal Academy Schools, even if they could attend only a handful of its classes.4

Explore the 1873 catalogue

Most importantly, women could show their work at the Summer Exhibition.5 In 1873, out of a total of about 900 artists listed in the catalogue, over ninety were women, their names almost always marked either as “Miss” or “Mrs”.6 Many women artists exhibited miniatures and flower paintings, the subjects traditionally reserved to them. The catalogue, however, also listed women as authors of portraits and landscapes, and even as painters of that quintessential male academic genre, history painting—a notable example being Sintram by Louisa Starr (Fig.1).7 

In its review of the 1873 show, The Times noted that “Lady exhibitors” constituted a “very distinguished group” that year, singling out the names of “the Misses Mutrie, Miss Starr, Miss Martineau, Mrs Anderson, Mrs Robinson, Mrs Charettie, Mrs Spartali Stillman [and] Mrs Hopkins.”8Many of the exhibitors were part of established artists’ families.9 The great majority were “Misses”, not married, and some of them, such as Emily Osborn, and Annie and Martha Mutrie, were to stay single all their life, a status that allowed them to retain their professional independence.10 Women exhibitors were as international as their male counterparts; for instance, Mary Brooks was American, Sofia Ribbing was Swedish, and Sophie Anderson was French.

The press was generally supportive of the women’s output at the Academy, even in a year when doubts were voiced regarding the power of British contemporary painting, at least as seen at the Summer Exhibition.11 In which world did these artists live?, the critic of The Times asked rhetorically; why did the political upheavals that Europe had experienced in recent years not show on the walls of the Academy, which were instead covered in unrealistic scenes from myths and legends?12 In 1873, women artists also painted escapist subjects, and so were implicated in this trend as much as their male counterparts. Marie Spartali Stillman exhibited two Arthurian legends and Emily Osborn imagined a fictional meeting between two women and the eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson. The Times suggested that these iconographical choices were dictated by the market: because paintings were purchased as domestic decorations, buyers did not wish to burden their living quarters with “improper, painful or repulsive” subjects.13

But who bought paintings by women artists in 1873? That year, works by two sisters were much commended by critics: Roses by Martha Darley Mutrie (an example of her rose paintings in Fig. 2) and In the Garden by Annie Feray Mutrie. The “Misses Mutrie” were flower artists who produced accomplished and botanically accurate still lives.14 The Mutries were collected by high-profile artists such as Thomas Creswick, who showed one of their pictures from his private holdings at the Paris Salon in 1855.15 Well-known collectors such as Julius Sichel also purchased their works.16 Their dissemination and popularity, combined with the fact that the Mutries made a comfortable living as professional painters, would suggest a strong market.17 And in April 1873, it was none other than the principal art dealers of the time, Thomas Agnew and Sons (Agnew’s), who purchased from the Mutrie sisters’ studio the two pictures due to be exhibited at the Summer Exhibition. Agnew’s bought them for relatively high sums, paying £70 for In the Garden and £30 for Roses.18

Nevertheless, a study of the entries for the Mutries’ pictures in the Agnew’s stock books, for the years around 1873, reveals their difficult position as women artists in the context of mainstream art sales. Often the Mutries’ paintings remained in stock for months and were eventually ceded at a loss, whereas male painters such as Thomas Faed and Richard Ansdell sold hundreds of works through Agnew’s, at great profit and often in a matter of just days.19 In 1873, Agnew’s purchased only three pictures by the Mutrie sisters, including the two from the Summer Exhibition.20 Moreover, the “Misses Mutrie” were the only women artists exhibited that year to be purchased by Agnew’s, and thus something of a rarity in the success they did achieve. In 1873, women exhibitors were noted as being a “distinguished group”, but their distinction was merely a title of critical esteem. Not only were women excluded from the male institutional control of the Academy, but they also lagged well behind the men in the buoyant market that the Summer Exhibition generated.

  1. For a comprehensive list of speakers and invitees, see “Banquet at The Royal Academy”, The Times, 5 May 1873.↩︎

  2. On the subject, see Ellen C. Clayton, English Female Artists (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1876), 2 vols;  and more recently, Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Victorian Women Artists (London: The Women’s Press, 1987); Deborah Cherry, Painting Women, Victorian Women Artists (London: Routledge, 1993); for up-to-date biographical references, see Sara Gray, The Dictionary of British Women Artists (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2009), 250.↩︎

  3. Cherry, Painting Women, Victorian Women Artists, 71–73.↩︎

  4. For instance, women could not attend life-drawing classes, in which students learned human anatomy by drawing nude (female) models. See Cherry, Painting Women, Victorian Women Artists, 65–67.↩︎

  5. For a complete listing of women exhibitors at the Royal Academy, see Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, 7 vols (London: Graves and Co. & George Bell and Sons, 1906). Exhibiting at the Academy was a qualification used by women artist to solicit business, see the many advertisements in The Times, for instance, “A Lady, Exhibitor at the Royal Academy, Gives Lessons in Watercolour and Oil Painting”, The Times, 3 June 1873.↩︎

  6. There were, however, exceptions as a few women, such as “M.S. Stillman” and “E. Osborn” opted for the initials format rather than the courtesy title. See a complete list of that year’s exhibitors in The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art MDCCCLXXIII: The One Hundred and Fifth (London: Clowes and Sons, 1873), 62–72.↩︎

  7. A woman, Louisa Starr, had won the Royal Academy’s Gold Medal for history painting in 1869 and another woman, Jessie Macgregor, won in 1871. See Gray, “Starr Canziani, Louisa”, The Dictionary of British Women Artists, 250.↩︎

  8. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Times, 26 June 1873.↩︎

  9. Cherry, Painting Women, Victorian Women Artists, 20–25. In 1873, there were artists’ granddaughters (Jessie Macgregor), artists’ daughters (Helen Thornycroft), artists’ sisters (Emma Sandys), and artists’ wives (Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema).↩︎

  10. Cherry, Painting Women, Victorian Women Artists, 32–34 and 45–48. In the 1873 Catalogue, seventy-one women were listed as “Miss” versus seventeen “Mrs”, see The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art.↩︎

  11. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Art Journal (1873): 236–241; “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 6 May 1873.↩︎

  12. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 6 May 1873.↩︎

  13. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 6 May 1873.↩︎

  14. For the Mutrie sisters’ biography, see Robert Edmund Graves, “Mutrie, Martha Darley (1824–1885)”, rev. Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), online: doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19682 (accessed June 2017); Gray, “Mutrie, Annie Feray” and “Mutrie, Martha Darnley”, The Dictionary of British Women Artists, 193–194. A list of the works by the Mutries exhibited at the Royal Academy, in Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts, vol. 5, 334–335. For the Mutrie sisters’ likenesses, see their carte-de-visite by Maull & Co (ca. 1860), London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG Ax14904.↩︎

  15. “Sale of the Late Mr. Creswick’s Pictures”, The Observer, 8 May 1870: “Beautiful examples of Ansdell, […] Egg […], Linnell, Mutrie”, “Orchids, Azaleas and Hyacinth by Miss Mutrie (exhibited at Paris, 1865 [sic]), sold for 56 guineas”. The current database of Paris Salon exhibitors reveals that two paintings by Mutrie were exhibited in 1855, one belonging to Thomas Creswick and one to M.F.R. Lee, see “Salons et expositions de groupes 1673–1914”, (accessed June 2017).↩︎

  16. Agnew’s Stock Book 1A, National Gallery Archive, NGA27/1/1/3, no. 3036: Flowers by Miss Mutrie, bought 28 May 1863 from Page, sold to Julius Sichel on 10 June 1863 for £150. When the Sichel collection was sold at Christie’s London in 1865, the newspapers listed works by the “Misses Mutrie”, notably, Anne F. Mutrie, Where the bee sucks, 32 inches by 24 inches, which was sold for 118 guineas to Ames. Agnew purchased most of the works from the Sichel collection but none by the Mutrie sisters, see “Literature, Science and Art”, The Manchester Guardian, 9 May 1865.↩︎

  17. The Mutries died relatively rich: Martha D. Mutrie’s wealth at death was £8,418 in 1886; and Annie F. Mutrie’s was £9,828 in 1893. See Graves, “Mutrie, Martha Darley (1824–1885)”.↩︎

  18. Agnew’s Stock Book 1A, National Gallery Archive, NGA27/1/1/3, nos 7696 and 7697: 18 April 1873 AF Mutrie In the Garden bought directly from the artist (ipse) for £70 and sold on 14 May 1874 to Albert Grant MP; MF Mutrie Roses bought directly from the artist (ipse) for £30 and sold to HS Gibbs for £47.5 on 23 May 1874.↩︎

  19. See Agnew’s Stock Books, National Gallery Archive, NGA 27/1/1/2, no. 3912; NGA 27/1/1/3 nos 4795, 4796, and 4800; NGA 27/1/1/3, no. 5866; NGA 27/1/1/4, nos 6461, 6605, 6606, and 6607.↩︎

  20. Agnew’s Stock Book 2, National Gallery Archive, NGA 27/1/1/4 no. 7505: Miss Mutrie, Fruit and Flowers, bought from Capers and Dunn, 25 February 1873 lot 151, £10.10 sold for £15 to W. Fenton on 1 March 1873.↩︎

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Explore the 1873 catalogue