Colourful lives and affairs of the art

Portraits of Women
September 1, 1995

The Slade School of Art opened in 1871 as part of University College, London. It offered the same opportunities to women as to men and, situated on genteel Gower Street within the confines of the University of London, it had, "the necessary air of respectability to make it acceptable to anxious parents".

The class of 1895 included Edna Waugh, Ida Nettleship, Gwen Salmond and Gwen John. Waugh soon married William Clarke Hall who was to become a distinguished barrister and leading figure in the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The sad story of Nettleship's marriage to Augustus John, her quick succession of pregnancies, her desperate attempts to accommodate not only Dorelia with whom John insisted on setting up a menage a trois but numerous other female lovers as well, is familiar at least in its outlines. Gwen John's economic and artistic struggles in Paris are also well known. Salmond, after a successful independent life, married - again disastrously - the depressive and melancholy artist Matthew Smith and was left after a few years to bring up two sons, both of whom were killed in the Royal Air Force in the second world war.

Apart from Gwen John, these women were all economically well off by present standards. Their fathers and husbands made them allowances, they took studios in attractive and remote places, they enjoyed child care and domestic help. Emotionally, however, their lives appear to have been fraught with frustrations and difficulties. Their men find new models and new lovers and they are left holding babies rather than paint brushes. Edna Clarke Hall, on whose unpublished papers this book is based, was fortunate in that (as far as we can tell) her husband did not betray her. On the other hand, if this account is to be believed, the marriage was arid. Clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1922, Clarke Hall consulted the psychologist Henry Head. The result was a London studio where she was able to pursue her drawing practice, producing delicate uncontroversial watercolours for exhibition at the Redfearn Gallery, until the studio was destroyed by a bomb in the blitz while she, fortunately, was at the family's country home.

This book brings into focus some English female practitioners between the 1890s and the 1950s. It is entertaining and informative but its usefulness for historians is seriously diminished by its cavalier approach to data and its naive acceptance of personal statements at face value, even when they are recollections of events from many years earlier. This is a novelistic world in which the sun always shines, girls are passionate, fires blaze on hearths, and breath is permanently bated. As the narrative is heavily dependent on Clarke Hall's unpublished memoirs, and as Alison Thomas adopts the same reverential tone as Clarke Hall appears to have written in, there is much talk of "dreamy introspection", "deeply sensitive artistic natures", "intensity of a moment's vision" and other fin-de-si cle stereotypes.

The most preposterous instance of authorial credulity occurs when we are told that in 1918 when the Clarke Halls decide to take a summer holiday and travel to a delightfully remote Normandy village that can only be reached by a 16-mile track. Having made this uncomfortable journey with small child and baggage, lo and behold, whom do they find but Augustus John, Dorelia and enfants. "Edna's delight", we are told, "at finding herself in such an idyllic place was further heightened on the unexpected discovery that Augustus John had also chanced upon this isolated Normandy village as an ideal spot." The subsequent attempted seduction is treated by Thomas with pious solemnity.

It is frustrating to read descriptions of images that are no longer extant or are not illustrated. It is impossible to gauge whether Clarke Hall, or indeed any of the other women, had any serious talent. There are 43 illustrations but no plate references in the text. One chapter is titled "Motherhood" in the text whereas in the footnotes is is called "Ida". Footnote information is insufficient in most cases for a scholar to follow up information, punctuation is curious, and there are frequent misspellings. There seems to have been little attempt to cross-reference archival or even standard published material.

Personal narratives of the sort that form the foundation of this book can offer useful historical insights but rigorous editorial control is required to recognise how anecdotes mediate events of a personal as well as a public nature.

Marcia Pointon is Pilkington professor of history of art, University of Manchester.

Portraits of Women: Gwen John and her Forgotten Contemporaries

Author - Alison Thomas
ISBN - 07456 0661 X
Publisher - Polity
Price - £29.50
Pages - 259

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