Women's artwork

EMMA LEE The pioneering Society of Women Artists was founded to give mid 19th century female artists the rare opportunity to exhibit their work in public. Although attitudes have long changed, the group is still promoting work by women and is about to hold its first exhibition in Norfolk – one of only a handful that have ever been held outside Norfolk. EMMA LEE takes a look.


In the mid 19th century women weren't seen as serious contributors to the field of art - and it would be even more unlikely for them to compete for professional honours.

But in around 1855 the Society of Women Artists was founded to give female artists the opportunity to put their work on show.

Although the history of the society is sketchy - many documents were lost during wartime - information has been gleaned from the records at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It was originally known as the Society of Female Artists. In 1869 it was changed to the Society of Lady Artists, before adopting its current name in 1899.

When its first exhibition was held in 1857, 149 artists showed more than 300 works, with some of the exhibitors giving themselves pseudonyms to protect their real identities.

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For those women who did gain a place at art school, the model in the women's class would be decorously draped on grounds of propriety.

Of course attitudes have long changed. But the Society of Women Artists lives on as a mark of appreciation of the pioneering work that was done in the past.

As well as holding annual exhibitions in London, they're holding what they call an Out of Town exhibition in Norfolk, at the Picturecraft Gallery and Exhibition Centre in Holt, which runs until November 8. It's a real coup for the county. “As far as we know it's our first exhibition in Norfolk,” says society president Barbara Penketh Simpson, who is showing some of her work at the gallery.

“There are no other records of it. We've had a few Out of Town exhibitions before, mainly in the home counties. We heard about the PictureCraft gallery and heard it was wonderful and we're very excited to be exhibiting here,” she says.

“When the first exhibitions were held back in the mid 1800s, some of the women hid their identities. They called themselves things like Miss A Lady.”

The Society of Women Artists has had royal patronage since 1865 - its current patron is Princess Michael of Kent.

It has limited membership, and anyone wishing to be considered has to go through a strict selection committee.

It has just over 140 members, with some as far afield as America. And 40 of them are taking part in the Norfolk exhibition, which will include around 250 contemporary artworks.

The Society of Women artists has only held a handful of Out of Town exhibitions in the last 10 to 15 years.

“We're a charity and basically we need to raise money to exist and this exhibition came in as one of the fundraising ideas. And it's another outlet for the members,” says Barbara.

She adds that they see themselves as a forward-thinking and pioneering organisation in keeping with its original aims.

The Society of Women Artists attracted some of the most noted female artists of their time such as Rosa Bonheur and Lady Elizabeth Butler who exhibited as Miss Thompson.

When her painting, The Roll Call, was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1874, crowds had to be controlled by the police.

The Prince of Wales pronounced the picture “deserving of the highest admiration” and Ruskin admitted to revising his opinion that no woman could paint.

Current members include Daphne Todd, the first woman president of the Royal Portrait Society, well-known portraitist June Mendoza, Suzanne Lucas, past president of both the Society of Botanical artists and the Royal Miniature Society and Philomena Davis, who was elected the first woman president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1990.

“There's no longer any need to be a 'female' society, but it would be awful to rubbish what such pioneering women have done in the past,” Barbara says.

Managing director of the Picturecraft Gallery and Exhibition Centre, Adrian Hill, described it as an honour to have such a prestigious society exhibiting there. The Society of Women Artists was approached with the idea of holding the exhibition after he met one of its members.

“It's incredible,” he says. “It's a shock to think they're actually going to be exhibiting at the gallery. And it's such a diverse range of work. I've been to their big exhibition in London, and it's an amazing show. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to show their work in Norfolk, and especially to have it come to Holt.”

t The Picturecraft Gallery and Exhibition Centre is at 23 Lees Yard, off Bull Street in Holt. The Society of Women Artists Out of Town Exhibition is open from 9am-5pm daily, except on Sundays when hours are 10.30am-4.30pm, until Wednesday November 8. For information contact 01263 711040.

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