Women Artists

Power, strength and hope

Manchester: home of Corrie, football and rain. Right? Well, yes, but Manchester is intrinsically linked with protest and the fight for women’s rights. The city was home to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, born in Moss Side in 1858, and the stage of many of the movement’s key moments. The fight for women’s rights was also true within Manchester’s art arena where there were many obstacles to overcome.

One of the first women artists in MAFA was Annie Swynnerton who established a career spanning over 60 years. In 1922 she became the first women to be elected an Associate member of the Royal Academy since its foundation 154 years earlier. Shortly before her death in 1933 she said ‘I have had to struggle so hard. You see, when I was young, women could not paint – or so it was said. The world believed that and did not want the work of women, however sincere, however good.’

Throughout history women have been portrayed in works of art, often as nudes and muses, but until the last century women struggled to achieve recognition as serious artists in their own right. When Manchester Academy of Fine Arts was originally set up in 1859 both men and women could be admitted but it was some years before women applied for membership.

At this time it was not unusual for women to receive art education or to exhibit work. However it was a social taboo for both sexes to work from life at the same time. Six years after women spoke out for the first time at a Manchester Suffrage Society public meeting on women’s vote, newspaper articles expressed ‘shock and disbelief’ that women had applied to become members of the Academy.

An unnamed journalist wrote, ‘Ladies would not care to avail themselves of full rights of membership’ as it would mean studying from life in mixed classes. It would be ‘particularly indelicate as the nudes would be alive, unlike dead ones that the ladies of the medical school in Edinburgh had recently been granted permission to work with.’

Pioneering women

The rules to become a MAFA member meant that artists had to attend draped figure classes before their work could be exhibited. Academy members held life classes, but it was a social taboo for women to attend them. With mounting pressure to accept women artists, Manchester Academy of Fine Arts set up a women’s only class. In 1875 nine women were elected to the society: Annie Robinson (Later Swynnerton), her sisters, Emily and Julia Robinson, Emily Gertrude Thompson, Mary Southworth, Ann Crozier, Eleanor Wood, Annie Hasling and Susan Isabel Dacre. However they were admitted as ‘lady exhibitors’ rather than as members or associates.

Infuriated by the refusal of MAFA to admit women on an equal basis, Annie Swynnerton and Susan Isabel Dacre, who shared a studio, established their own association. The Manchester Society of Women Painters held exhibitions and art classes, including life drawing, for five years, until the MAFA relented. In 1884 it finally accepted women on an equal footing to men and allowed them access to paint nudes in real life.

Annie Swynnerton

Annie Swynnerton blazed a trail for female artists. This was not an easy journey at a time when women were not permitted to study art on equal terms to men. Nevertheless, she acquired the training she needed through persistence and determination. She challenged convention both in art and in life.

If her father’s business not gone bankrupt Annie may never have become an artist. However this unfortunate event led Annie and her two sisters to enrol at the Manchester School of Art. In 1874, she won a scholarship for £11 and took the opportunity travel to Rome with her fellow artist Susan Isabel Dacre. The impact of Italy comes through in the vivid colours and her portrayals of women. Throughout her career she captured women of all ages and walks of life. Her pictures challenging conventions of beauty and capturing female power at a time when women’s roles and opportunities were changing.

From the outset of her career, Annie had aspirations to paint the human form. A major barrier to this, as mentioned before, was lack of access to life classes. At Manchester School of Art, as in most English art schools, women were only permitted to study draped and clothed figures. To address this, she went off to Paris and attended the progressive Académie Julien at which female students were allowed to study the nude.

From 1879 the Manchester Society of Women Painters arranged life classes for women and exhibitions so Annie was able to gain the skills and opportunities she needed to paint and exhibit classical subjects with nudes.

When she was elected an Associate member to the most exclusive society in British art, the Royal Academy, it was a male-only club. It had taken so long that she was 77 by the time she was admitted – most men gave up their positions at the age of 75. Annie produced over 200 paintings including landscapes, portraits, subject pictures and nudes. Thirty-six of her works can be found in public collections in the UK and they give us a valuable insight into her artistic development, interests and life. Swynnerton’s art was intertwined with activism and politics.

She was not a ‘feminist’ in the modern sense, or an active suffragette, although clearly supported these causes and was friends with the Pankhurst family. She signed the Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage in 1889 and led the Artists’ Suffrage League section of the Women’s Coronation Procession in 1911. Her clear-eyed, strong depictions of her subjects appealed to members of the suffrage movement. Some bought her paintings, while others – like suffragist leader Dame Millicent Fawcett – sat for portraits.

Pioneering women like MAFA member Annie Swynnerton pushed the boundaries. We should be thankful for her determination and the legacy she left. Today 49 out of our 110 members are successful women artists.

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