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Women Art Workers and the Arts and Crafts Movement


Zoë Thomas


Manchester: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. x+258 p. ISBN 978-1526140432. £80


Reviewed by Jacqueline Bannerjee

The Victorian Web




The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century has always seemed very much a male preserve. Dominated by well-known figures like William Morris and Walter Crane, its history centred on the organisation with which they were associated: the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury. This was founded in 1884, but its doors were shut to women, however successful they were, until the second half of the twentieth-century. Indeed, it was not until 1972 that it elected its first female “master”, the wood-engraver and illustrator, Joan Hassall (1906-1988). Such was the lingering prejudice against women artworkers that Hassall herself had had to battle her parents’ reluctance to let her take up “so unorthodox a calling” [qtd. 223]. Even today, the busts and portraits of past masters, ranged along the sides of the hall, make the Guild a kind of shrine to its early male leadership, a celebration of their pioneering ideals of craftsmanship. Women, it seems, were for many years peripheral to the movement.

This misapprehension was hardly helped by women’s own reluctance to exhibit their work in major exhibitions. They knew that it would be presented separately, in a women’s section — and consequently, they felt, devalued: “the work of artists should be judged without regard to questions of sex”, insisted the sculptor Feodora Gleichen [qtd. 84]. The sentiment was echoed by Christiana Herringham and May Morris when refusing to submit work to the Scottish National Exhibition of 1908. The result of their refusal, however, has been near-oblivion. The way in which they did choose to exhibit publicly, as against in “at homes” or similarly intimate spaces, has been completely ignored by subsequent scholarship. This was in the annual Englishwoman Exhibition held at “prestigious locations” [67] to provide outlets and encouragement for female artworkers. An alternative to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, this was first held at Maddox Street Gallery in November 1911, and became a regular event for many years. Despite its impact at the time, Zoë Thomas’s pioneering history of the movement is the first to examine it closely.

The names of the outstanding women artworkers mentioned above might already be familiar to some. Gleichen’s Artemis fountain in Hyde Park features in Pauline Rose’s Working Against the Grain : Women Sculptors in Britain c.1885-1950 (Liverpool University Press, 2020), another work seeking to set the record straight on women’s contribution to the arts during this period. Mary Lago published her book on Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene (University of Missouri Press), in 1996, and an exhibition of Herringham’s work was held at Royal Holloway College in 2019. May Morris may have been overshadowed by her famous father, but is probably also more widely known because of him: Jan Marsh’s May Morris : Arts and Crafts Designer (2017) was published by the Victorian and Albert Museum. But Thomas introduces us to many others, including Charlotte Newman (1840-1927), “Goldsmith and Court Jeweller”, who served an exclusive clientele from her Savile Row premises; Mary Lowndes (1857-1929), who designed stained glass, who founded the Woman's Suffrage League, and who first thought of the Englishwoman Exhibition; and Mary Sargant Florence (1857-1954), who painted murals and landscapes. In fact, Thomas presents an “extensive network” of craftswomen [5], all of them founding or early members of the Women’s Guild of Arts. This was established in 1907, and had a relatively small membership, at around sixty strong, compared to the Art Workers’ Guild’s 240 or so. But it was very active, and indeed, says Thomas, its members were “central players” in the Arts and Crafts Movement — so much so that no account of it can be complete without discussing them.

The fact that the Women’s Guild was founded in Edwardian times is itself important, because the conventional view is that the Arts and Crafts movement had started to run out of steam by then. Yet, as Thomas argues so convincingly, these women had a new and energetic agenda, “to disrupt gendered marginalisation in the art world and in society” [8]. In doing so, she suggests, they inspired a more diverse following of people from different classes who were more open to new trends. They created new spaces for work as well as new markets, reaching those who (ironically, in view of Morris’s ideals) would never have aspired to Morris wallpaper or, say, a mahogany-veneered etagère by C.R. Ashbee. In this sense, the women carried through and usefully disseminated the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, while their particular political purpose — not the socialism to which Morris and others were attached, but equality for women — helped to achieve practical results. They had a strong presence in suffrage exhibitions, and one of the few artworks shown among the historic illustrations here is a propagandist one, Mary Sargant Florence’s “Dare to be Free” Women’s Freedom League banner, demanding votes [fig. 5.1].


Very much a revisionist history, with cultural and feminist ramifications rather than art criticism, Thomas’s book deals with clubhouses and guild halls (Chapter I), exhibitions (Chapter II), artistic houses and studios (Chapter III), and businesses and workshops (Chapter IV) before a final chapter (“Out of the guild hall and into the city”) on how these women’s work was influenced by the huge changes taking place in British society, and the outbreak of the two world wars — important years when women actually “made the visual spectacle” of campaigns for suffrage and equality [184], and later used their particular talents “in numerous new philanthropic, commercial, cultural and medical spheres” [199] to support the war effort. One example here is Woodward’s training of women to be oxyacetylene welders and metalworkers in factories across the country. Finally, a brief epilogue relates the women’s efforts to “democratise the arts, balance married life and work, fight for a living wage, and tussle with the appropriateness of women-only spaces” [231] to the situation today, when, as Thomas says, these all remain important issues.


Much of this material, such as the information about the various women’s clubs, and the many businesses run by women, is new, and the result of painstaking archival research. Who knew, for example, that the 1890s were a “boom time for women’s clubs” [44], or that women, not only in London but all over the country, set up “artistic” businesses, formed partnerships and generally showed such a strong and adaptive entrepreneurial spirit? This is a wonderful contribution to women’s studies generally as well as to scholarship about the Arts and Crafts movement.  


The text is well illustrated with photographs. For example, one shows the Lyceum Ladies’ Club, formally opened in 1904 [fig.1.4], and still in existence. Another much more recent photograph shows St Paul’s Studios in Talgarth Road, London [fig. 3.11], which Thomas describes as “significant venues in the strategies of professionalisation implemented by women art workers” [139]. Most interesting perhaps are photographs of the women themselves, especially when shown at work on their various crafts. One features Gleichen dealing with a large block of marble or stone [fig. 3.1]; another shows Ellen Caroline Woodward (1859-1943) engaged in metalwork [fig. 4.10], with the various rather daunting-looking tools of her trade — blowpipe, foot-bellows and so on. The point here is that women not only designed but also executed their work with the same detailed technical knowledge, practical skills, and stamina, as men.


Rather disappointingly, however, there are hardly any glimpses of the end-products. Granted, this is an art history rather than an art book, and a very informative and readable one at that. The omission is intentional: one footnote reads, “The artworks discussed in this paragraph can all be located in the Museum of London and the WI” [214]. But nothing could have confirmed these women’s skills more effectively than some photographs and discussion of their work. Judging by one picture of three exhibits at the Modern Living Spaces Gallery in Berlin, in 1905 (the kind of intimate place in which the women liked to show their work), the results were splendid. In the foreground is an exquisite silver casket with bronze panels along the side and figures on the lid, by “Rope and Woodward” — Woodward here collaborating with the sculptor Ellen Mary Rope (1855-1934). More such photographs, perhaps as colour-plates in the middle of the book, would have been very welcome.


 Illustrated version on The Victorian Web :


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