I’ve recently finished reading Katy Hessel’s fascinating new book The Story of Art without Men. There have been other books exploring the absence of women in written histories of art and she refers to some of them, particularly the work of Linda Nochlin. I can remember my own gradual realisation of the hidden herstory of women artists and wandering round the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) looking for paintings by Gwen John. Frustrated at not being able to find any, in the end I asked at the information desk and was directed to a couple of paintings hanging at the end of a corridor where no-one would have found them unless deliberately seeking them out. The only other woman artist with work on display at that time was Vanessa Bell. This would have been in early 1982 (I remember as I was pregnant with my daughter and had just started maternity leave and had some free time on weekdays).
In 2017 I visited an exhibition of the artwork of Sylvia Pankhurst’s at Tate Britain, having found out about it when it was almost due to close. I was surprised I hadn’t realised about it sooner, having had a longstanding interest in the women’s suffrage movement, and this suggests it was not publicised very well. This was compounded by the man on the gallery’s information desk telling me that this exhibition had already finished! Having found this not to be the case, I spent some time admiring Sylvia Pankhurst’s work. My attention was also engaged by a detailed correspondence posted on the wall and a recorded interview with two women who had suggested that the Tate should pay attention to Sylvia’s artwork which had led to its being displayed, albeit only temporarily.
So, while the work of women artists has become more visible in art galleries in recent years, there is certainly still a need for Katy Hessel’s book which draws attention particularly to 20th and 21st century artists and links many together in ways she finds interesting. One of the artists I’m pleased to have discovered through reading this book is Madge Gill, a self-taught artist, who was working in the early 20th century. I’m excited to find out that her work is currently being exhibited in five outdoor sites across in Newham until 2023 https://madgegill.com/exhibitions/madge-gill-nature-in-mind-by-the-line-2020-21
However, there turned out to be an unexpected connection for me in what Katy Hessel says about Madge Gill – ‘In March 1920, though, her life suddenly changed. Controlled by higher powers, in a ‘trance-like state’, Gill began embroidering and producing ink drawings at aggressive speed. Later admitted to hospital, where she was put under the care of Dr Helen Boyle, a progressive doctor who encouraged her automatic drawings and writings, Gill’s artistic practice thrived’.
I recognised the name Dr Helen Boyle as someone working in the Brighton and Hove area at the same time as another pioneering doctor Louisa Martindale whose life, along with that of her colleague Mary Murdoch, I’ve been researching for many years. Helen Boyle and her partner Mabel Jones were the first women doctors to set up in general practice in Brighton in 1897. Among her achievements was the foundation of the Lady Chichester Hospital which pioneered psychiatric treatment based on psychotherapy for women, including those who could not afford to pay for it.
I didn’t expect to see Helen Boyle’s name leaping out from the page at that moment and it’s given me renewed inspiration to go back to researching and writing about Mary and Louisa and their circle. My interest in Mary and Louisa originated more than thirty years ago when researching into women’s history in East Yorkshire and discovering that they were the founders of the Hull branch of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). Mary died in 1916 but Louisa, who moved back to Sussex where she originally came from, lived until 1966 and I’m still discovering interesting connections that they had. For example, this article from a project exploring lesbian and gay history in the Brighton area focuses on Helen Boyle and mentions Louisa and Mary and also Mabel Jones. https://www.brightonourstory.co.uk/newsletters/winter02/illusion.htm
I often come across unexpected connections such as the one that prompted this blogpost and it goes to show that imagination and serendipity play an important role in research as well as more rigorous approaches.
Yorkshire There and Back by Andrew Martin (I came across this due to hearing on the radio at the last minute about an event in the East Riding Festival of Words featuring the author talking about it and was able to go to it as I was in Beverley!)
The Lake District Murder by John Bude
The Magic Box. Viewing Britain Through the Rectangular Window by Rob Young