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1972 Better Late Than Never?

At the age of seventy-one, Gertrude Hermes exhibited as a Royal Academician at the Summer Exhibition for the first time. In 1972, she presented four drawings, in pastel, pencil, and wash, alongside the diploma work that was required of each newly elected artist.1

In Hermes’ diploma piece, a linocut called Waterfall (1967), she scored a diagonal swell of line and tone to describe the flow of water from a single stream to a churning of froth and spray (Fig. 1). The water carves its channel, a thin line through the top left of the image among the feint curves of a linear landscape, and goes on pooling at the intersection of bolder, cross-cutting contours. The rock face then splinters and the white of the water spills into an angry matrix of black stone. There was always the potential for bursting dams in the watery worlds Hermes concocted, but this linocut is also about the small liquid beginnings that can bring about great rumblings of noise and activity.

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Throughout her career Hermes would go for long beach walks, combing the shingle for soft chalky pebbles that might yield to the blade of her penknife.2 Having studied with Eileen Agar, Henry Moore, and Blair Hughes-Stanton at Leon Underwood’s Brook Green School of Drawing—where an emphasis on direct carving and nature were central to her education—Hermes surrounded herself with fellow foragers, rock-scrapers, wood-engravers, and sunbathers; a set of “social arcadians intent upon unfettered freedom”.3Yet, though the Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison would later describe her as “that wild girl Gert Hermes”, she also recognised that, as a printmaker and sculptor, a professional approach to publishing and exhibiting was essential if she wanted to make her living as an artist.4

A glance at her working history reveals that, whether with graver and scorper or hammer and chisel, Hermes was rarely idle and often worked simultaneously in several media. Throughout her career, she made wood-engraved illustrations for books and regularly exhibited her sculptures and prints with societies like The London Group, the Women’s International Art Club, and the Artists’ International Association. She contributed to mixed shows, including the Room & Book exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1932, the 1948 Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture in Battersea Park, and exhibited both sculpture and engravings at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions from 1934—which she described as the “widest shop window in the art world”.5 And yet, while the inter-war period saw the first election of Royal Academicians from those artists working in the oft-dismissed “black and white” section of the Annual Exhibition, and despite her significant exposure during this period, Hermes was not made an ARA until 1960.

Even with a public profile, international exhibiting history, and regular contributions to the Summer Exhibition, Hermes—like many other less researched artists—struggled with structural frameworks that, as far as possible, excluded women from important positions in a predominantly male profession. As Katy Deepwell has pointed out in her study of women artists between the wars, women had contributed to the Summer Exhibition from the start, and despite making up roughly a third of contributors between 1929 and 1948 only five were elected as Associates and Academicians.6 Of these, three were elected when they were over or close to the newly introduced retirement age—automatically advancing RAs over the age of seventy-five to Senior Academician status—that effectively saw them barred from serving on the influential Council or Academy committees.

Those women who were elected could expect to be treated as oddities in the press, where their ambition as artists was rendered non-threatening by the language deployed against them. In one piece about her role on the Summer Exhibition Hanging Committee in 1968, Hermes is introduced not as an ARA or an important member of the Committee, but as “a delightfully modest […] grandmother seven times over [who] lives in a council flat in Chelsea”, who somehow has a say in “what you will be seeing at the Royal Academy Show.”7 The way in which, during this period, a predominantly male press denied female artists the seriousness of attention afforded to their male contemporaries, combined with the fact that women were habitually elected—by an invariably male council—to the Academy at a later age than their male colleagues, paints a picture in which the very idea of the professional woman artist was resisted at every level.

Later in her career, Hermes was altogether committed to the Academy. “You can’t be with-it all your life,” she once admitted, “there comes a time when you have to accept the fact that you’re square.”8 But she saw no reason to accept everything as she found it. Two years after her election as an Associate, in 1963, Hermes began leading classes at the Royal Academy Schools as one of the visiting tutors. There she taught lithography, etching, and wood-engraving once a week. As a tutor and ARA, Hermes was in a position to challenge the institutional prejudice, shored up by Academy tradition that regularly discriminated against women. On 8 December 1966, she wrote to the Secretary, Humphrey Brooke, to protest their exclusion from Academy Annual Dinners. While observing that she was “very proud to be an Associate of the Royal Academy”, she suggested that “if these ancient rulings continue”, she would have to reconsider her membership of an establishment whose rules were “quite out of tune with the pattern of life today”.9 Despite her claim that she was “not a feminist”, the fact that drafts of Hermes’ letters and the responses she received on this subject are the only correspondence kept in the Henry Moore Institute’s collection of her papers suggests that, to her, this moment of protest still meant a great deal. Following a tense exchange of letters among members, the rules were changed and in the summer of 1967, for the first time, Dame Laura Knight, Dod Procter, Jean Cooke, and Gertrude Hermes were invited to the Academy banquet.10 “Better late than never”, as Hermes is reported to have said.11

In the same year, at a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery—her first retrospective—Hermes exhibited the recently completed linocut of a waterfall that she would eventually submit to the Academy as her diploma work. In 1967, it was one of her latest works—but it was also to be one of her last. By the time she was elected an RA four years later, Gertrude Hermes had more or less stopped working; in March 1969, she had suffered a debilitating stroke. While, with the help of therapy, she regained the ability to speak and continued to sit on the Summer Exhibition Selection Committee (Fig. 2), Hermes would later reflect: “I didn’t have an idea in my head … anyway I think I’ve said all I’ve got to say, artistically”.12 It is tempting to imagine that when choosing which of her many prints to submit to the Royal Academy’s collection as her diploma piece, the events of 1966–1967 stood out in her mind. When informed that she was the first woman engraver to be made an Academician, Hermes is said to have shot back: “shame on them”.13

  1. Diploma works are submitted by artists to the Royal Academy’s Collection when they are elected as Academicians.↩︎

  2. Avril Groom, “Pioneers for Art’s Sake”, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1981, 17.↩︎

  3. Jane Hill, The Sculpture of Gertrude Hermes (Farnham: Lund Humphries in association with the Henry Moore Foundation, 2011), 16.↩︎

  4. Naomi Mitchison, “Gert”, Gertrude Hermes: Bronzes and Carvings, Drawings, Wood Engravings, Wood and Lino Block Cuts: 1924–1967, exhibition catalogue (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1967), 5.↩︎

  5. Anne Steel, “The Shy Grandmother who had a say in what you will be seeing at the Royal Academy Show”, The Daily Telegraph, 24 April 1968, 15.↩︎

  6. Katy Deepwell, Women Artists Between the Wars: “A Fair Field and No Favour” (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 105–106.↩︎

  7. Anne Steel, “The Shy Grandmother”, The Daily Telegraph, 24 April 1968.↩︎

  8. Anne Steel, “The Shy Grandmother”, The Daily Telegraph, 24 April 1968.↩︎

  9. Letter from Gertrude Hermes to Humphrey Brooke, 8 December 1966, Henry Moore Institute Archive, 2000.40.↩︎

  10. Including the government’s Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee, who had not been invited in the previous year because of the rule barring women.↩︎

  11. The Daily Telegraph, 21 January 1967.↩︎

  12. Avril Groom, “Pioneers for Art’s Sake”, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1981, 17.↩︎

  13. Obituary, The Times, 11 May 1983.↩︎

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Explore the 1972 catalogue