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1913 Triumphant Feminism

Highlighting the fact that roughly one-third of exhibits in the 1913 Summer Exhibition were by female artists, the critic Frank Rutter described that year’s show as evidence of “triumphant feminism”.1 Rutter was a progressive critic whose writing on modern art deserves to be better known. Many others, like the critic of The Times and the progressive-thinking P.G. Konody in The Observer, ignored these women, while others made an exception for Annie Swynnerton’s Peter, son of Sir John Grant Lawson, Bt., but overlooked the rest. The conservative Spectator mentioned Amy Katherine Browning, Hilda Fearon, and Cecile Walton,2 as did The Saturday Review,3while The Derbyshire Advertiser critic mentioned some “exceptionally good work” by the female exhibitors including Browning, Fearon, Laura Knight, and, of course, Swynnerton.4 But none of these critics did much more than list the artists’ names and titles of some of their exhibits. Rutter was different. He praised the “remarkable success achieved again this year by women exhibitors”, wrote at length about Swynnerton’s “brilliant” portrait, Peter, “a little boy on a pony” which was “simply a blaze of colour”, and advised all of its viewers: “to settle down to study it and let your eye grow accustomed to the glare of bright sunlight and you will find this to be one of the most powerful and convincing works in the exhibition.”5

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Rutter shared the generally high opinion of Browning whose “name was new to him”, admired her “vigorously handled open-air portrait sketch The Garden Seat” and “the pleasing passages of colour” in her full-length portrait of Naomi, and “was altogether bowled over” by March Flowers, which he wrote was “probably the bravest piece of vivid colour in the exhibition, built up joyously with fearless touches of rich luscious paint” that “has something of the passion and vigour of a good van Gogh”. (Unlike the majority of the British critics who were obsessed with van Gogh’s supposed madness, Rutter had championed the Dutch artist when Roger Fry exhibited his work at the 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibition). He liked Walton’s portrait Margery, a “charming still-life” by Frances E. Alexander, and Prince Siddartha hears the Devas play by Barbara Chamier, all of which were “remarkable and original pictures”. To his mind, they were far bolder than the contributions of the cohort of new young male artists in the Exhibition, although—following convention—Rutter did still write at greatest length about some of the more established male exhibitors.6

Today, the names of Swynnerton, who was elected Royal Academician in 1922, and Knight, who was elected Royal Academician in 1936, are well known, but those of the others are less so. Browning, Fearon, Walton, and Wood are the only ones to be represented in a British public collection.7While their presences at the Academy may have been a “feminist triumph”, it would be a long time until female artists were given their just dues at the Academy.

Gender politics manifested at the Exhibition in another transformative way: on 3 June, a group of suffragettes targeted the Exhibition, and held an impromptu meeting in one of the galleries where “flags were waved” and “one of them attempted to make a speech, before being ushered out by detectives”.8 The “flags” were more than likely the banners of the Artists’ Suffrage League; possibly those memorialising Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann, the two female founding members of the Academy, since whose tenures still no women had been elected as Royal Academicians. The speech may have been about this gross neglect, from within the male stronghold of the art world, at a moment when female artists were more numerous and gaining in their public reputations. They perhaps stood in front of The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace by John Lavery, the much-liked group portrait of King George and Queen Mary with two of their children, Princess Mary and Edward, Prince of Wales (Fig. 1). Or they may have placed themselves in front of Konody’s “atavistic wall” in the Watercolour Room where The Vision of Endymion by the President, Edward J. Poynter, was—in the words of a contemporary critic—“surrounded by other nudes that take you back some twenty or thirty years, as though the whole wall was a sad survival of the worst type of Victorian art.”9

Pandora, a large painting in tempera by J.B. Batten, who worked in Hunt’s studio and was a founder member of the Society of Painters in Tempera, was also placed in the Watercolour Room (Fig. 2). A leading practitioner of the technique, he aimed to emulate the technical skill and craftsmanship of fifteenth-century artists.10 Housman, seemingly the only critic to mention it, praised the “ambition” and “fine decorative quality” of this painting in tempera. Probably few would have minded that Batten used such an age-old technique, but can the same be said for his treatment of the subject of Pandora? What would the female exhibitors and the suffragette visitors have made of this representation of Hephaestus gazing at his handiwork, a statue of a nubile young woman being outfitted by Minerva, at the moment she becomes the first human female and the cause of all man’s woes? As a late Pre-Raphaelite, who worked in Hunt’s studio, Batten would have been aware of the popularity of the subject for earlier Pre-Raphaelites, but I cannot help but wonder: was he at all aware that his choice was out of time, by then deeply conservative, and indeed jarringly misogynistic amid the suffrage campaigns inside and outside of the Academy?

  1. Frank Rutter, “The Academy. Mr Lavery’s Royal Portrait Group. Interesting work by Mr. Clausen and Mr. Sims. Post-impressionist Exhibits.”↩︎

  2. J.B., “The Royal Academy”, Spectator, 3 May 1913.↩︎

  3. C.H. Collins Baker, “The Royal Academy”, The Saturday Review, 3 May 1913.↩︎

  4. D.M.M., “The Royal Academy”, The Derbyshire Advertiser, 9 May 1913.↩︎

  5. Rutter, The Sunday Times, 4 May 1913.↩︎

  6. Rutter, The Sunday Times, 4 May 1913.↩︎

  7. This information comes from the invaluable Art UK website,↩︎

  8. Anon, “Suffragettes at Royal Academy”, The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 4 June 1913.↩︎

  9. P.G. Konody, “The Academy. Mediocrity and Reaction. ‘Back to Victorian Days’. The ‘Atavistic Wall’. Mrs Lavery’s Royal Portrait. Best State Portrait for a Generation. Some Fine Sargents”, The Observer, 4 October 1913.↩︎

  10. Laurence Housman, The Manchester Guardian, 14 May 1913.↩︎

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Explore the 1913 catalogue