Exhibition Review: Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950

In 2015, the novelist Kamila Shamsie issued a provocative call to arms to publishers: let’s make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women. What would happen, Shamsie asked, if publishers refused to publish any books by men during the centenary of women’s suffrage in 2018? In the end, only one publisher took up her challenge: the indie publisher And Other Stories, who published books exclusively by women in 2018.

Shamsie might be heartened, however, to see that things are changing, albeit slowly, in both the literary and art worlds. This autumn sees the launch of a new series of books by women about women artists from Eiderdown Press. In London, Soho’s The Second Shelf bookshop has now joined Persephone Books in showcasing books by women: The Second Shelf sells rare and modern first editions by women; Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction by (mostly) women writers. Last month, Baltimore Museum of Art announced 2020 Vision, a year of exhibitions and events dedicated to the ‘presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists’.

In all of these examples, I’m struck not by what’s lost or left out, but what’s gained. Far from being restrictive, the emphasis on work by women or non-binary artists and writers represents an exciting opportunity to discover new voices.

This sense of excitement and discovery permeated the recent exhibition Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn. Designed as a ‘corrective to the exclusion of women from the “master” narratives of art’, Llewellyn assembled an extraordinary cross-section of women’s artistic output during the first half of the twentieth century, from painting to collage to woodcuts to sculpture.[1]

Installation view of Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900–1950, Leeds University Library Blog

In an art world often dominated by modernism, it was refreshing to see a wide variety of styles on display, with realist works placed alongside experiments in abstraction, Surrealism and Vorticism. Even as someone who works on this period, many of the names were new to me. What a delight to discover Marion Adnams, the ‘leading Surrealist in Derby’ and Joyce Bidder and Daisy Borne, two sculptors who shared a studio for over fifty years.[2]

Two paintings which particularly spoke to me were Anna Zinkeisen’s All the Colours of the Rainbow (1942) and Winifred Knights’s Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake (1924-30).

Anna Zinkeisen (1901–1976), 
All the Colours of the Rainbow, 1942, 
oil en grisaille
Collection of Rose Grimond / © The Artist’s Estate

Winifred Knights (1899–1947), 
Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake, 1924-30
oil on canvas
Private Collection / © The Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

Both paintings are characterised by an extraordinary stillness, one that vacillates between a calm serenity and a creeping sense of eeriness. There is something so strange about the contradiction between Zinkeisen’s title and her monochrome palette; looking at Edge of Abruzzi, I was left unsettled by the flat, unruffled water. These are works which ask or invite questions. They encourage dialogue. They draw you in.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Knights’s son John Monnington writes poignantly about being ‘totally ignorant’ of his mother’s ‘true abilities’ when he was growing up.[3] These commentaries, written by academics, artists, writers and family members to accompany each artwork, constitute perhaps the most inventive part of the exhibition. The commentaries are variously enlightening, mysterious and intimate. I loved Griff Rhys Jones on what entrances him about Edith Grace Wheatley’s The China Cupboard (1910), and Frances Fyfield on her encounter with Amy Glady Donovan’s Self-portrait (1926), a work she rechristens as ‘Girl with Buttons’.[4] This mix of biography, autobiography and criticism is innovative and inspiring. It’s a useful reminder to those in academia that human and emotional responses to artworks are as valid as the intellectual or critical.

Useful, too, are the artist biographies, collected and collated by Llewellyn and Alanna Jones. These are a veritable gold mine for future research projects: could anything be more tempting to a researcher than the phrase ‘little is known about…’? Alongside Llewellyn’s introductory catalogue essay, these biographies give a sense of the professionalisation of women artists during this period, and the career opportunities available to them. Some of my favourite works at the exhibition were designs for murals, such as Barbara Jones’s The Resort (1950), Doris Zinkeisen’s [‘Work’] Artist’s record of mural designed for the Arts and Crafts exhibition (1916) and Margaret L. Duncan’s Reigate and its Environments (late 1930s).

Barbara Jones (1912–1978), 
The Resort,1950
tempera on panel
Private Collection / © Tony Raymond

Margaret L. Duncan (1906–1979), 
Reigate and its Environments, c. 1920, 
egg and size tempera on fine cotton, mounted on wood panels
Private Collection / © The Artist’s Estate

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching women muralists from the first half of the twentieth century, including Dorothy Annan, Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge, Mary Adshead, Nan West, Evelyn Dunbar and Olga Lehmann. I’ve yet to establish what drew so many women to the mural form, but I’m beginning to piece together networks of women muralists, especially those working in art education. Before visiting the exhibition, I spent the morning in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections reading Athene, the journal of the Society for Education in Art. In it, I’d come across a 1942 article by Peggy Angus on her use of murals with children evacuated from Streatham High School to Chichester. Angus describes working with students, teachers and fellow artists to produce a series of four murals depicting local scenes, designed to instil a sense of civic awareness and appreciation for the new landscape in which they found themselves.[5]

‘Finishing touches to the painting of Dell Quay, on the West Wall’, in Peggy Angus, ‘Studios at Work’, in Athene, 2.1 (June 1942), Brotherton Collection. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library. 

Angus’s account hints at hidden or forgotten matrilineal exchanges of knowledge, in which women artists taught the next generation of women artists in primary and secondary schools. This exchange is something which still continues today: just this year, the University of Leeds partnered with artists and the Hyde Park community to produce a new series of murals, five out of six of which were designed by women. Workshops were held at Brudenell Primary School, in which children created artwork inspired by their experiences of Hyde Park; in turn, this artwork inspired Emma Hardaker’s and Fem Sorcell’s murals.

A greater awareness of women’s historical involvement in the mural form would no doubt inspire future projects like the Hyde Park or Streatham High School murals. By introducing viewers to the range and diversity of women’s artistic expression in modern Britain, Fifty Works creates a space for new conversations, research projects and exhibitions. I only hope that other galleries will follow suit.

Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn, appeared at The Ambulatory at The Mercer’s Company, London, 3 December 2018 – 23 March 2019 and the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, 9 April – 27 July 2019. The exhibition catalogue, including a commentary on each work, is out now. Images courtesy of Liss Llewellyn and University of Leeds.

Dr Emma West is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She is currently writing her first book, Art for the People: Democracy and the Arts in Modern Britain


[1] Sacha Llewellyn, ‘Introduction’, in Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, ed. by Sacha Llewellyn (London: Liss Llewellyn, 2018), pp. 10-11 (p. 10).

[2] Minoo Dinshaw, ‘Marion Adnams’, in Fifty Works, p. 55; Ayla Lepine, ‘Daisy Borne’, in Fifty Works, p. 67.

[3] John Monnington, ‘Winifred Knights’, in Fifty Works, p. 121.

[4] Griff Rhys Jones, ‘Edith Grace Wheatley’, in Fifty Works, p. 145; Frances Fyfield, ‘Amy Gladys Donovan’, in Fifty Works, p. 89.

[5] Peggy Angus, ‘Studios at Work: Streatham High School, Looking at Chichester’, Athene, 2.1 (June 1942): 17-19.

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