Monograph on Anna Airy 1882-1964

PRESS CUTTINGS in the Imperial War Museum archive describe Anna Airy as ‘a painter, pastellist and etcher, daughter of an engineer, granddaughter of the educated astronomer Royal Sir Biddel Airy, educated at the Slade, and a contemporary of Augustus John’. The press reports from the early part of this century emphasise the intrepid side of the young woman artist’s character: ‘She went in search of human nature in the raw, visiting Thameside haunts of vice and crime, witnessing bare-fisted prize fights and card sharps at play’.

These experiences were reflected in the titles of some of the first paintings she had hung in the Royal Academy: Scandalmongers, 1909; The Expert Player, 1912; and The Gambling Club, 1913. Her ability to depict the tougher side of life must have influenced the commissioning body to select her as a woman war artist. She was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 1918 to produce a series of paintings of the work being done in munitions factories. Interviewed in Pearson’s Magazine in 1924, Airy describes painting in a shell forge on Hackney marshes. The red hot six-inch shells would be brought out of the furnace in batches of 20 to 40 at a time and put on the earth floor to cool. She had to paint very quickly before the metal cooled and lost its colour. The heat was intense, it turned the floor black hot, sometimes burning through the soles of her shoes.


Her oil paint dried as quickly as ink on writing paper. The men working in the factory were supportive, providing copious mugs of government issue coffee, beer and beef extract. They fed her kippers that were cooked by being placed directly on the red hot shells. They rigged up a corrugated iron shelter to protect her from the heat, but the shells would often roll against the side of the screen and create an oven-like effect inside. Her paint rags caught fire if they touched the metal. On one occasion the whole contraption collapsed and she had to grab her painting from its easel to prevent it bursting into flames. The result of this stoic work can be seen in the finished picture A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes in the collection of the Museum.

The terms of the commission were exacting. She was visited by members of the committee while the work was in progress. The subject had been agreed before the painting was started and the completed picture was presented to the committee for either final acceptance or rejection. For each picture that was accepted by the Imperial War Museum, she was paid 280 [pounds sterling] plus 30 [pounds sterling] expenses. The first commission that she painted, Munition Girls leaving Work, was turned down, and it is clear from the correspondence in the archive that she destroyed the painting in 1919.

The Singer Manufacturing Company Works, Clydebank Glasgow, were used for painting A Shop for machining 15-inch Shells. In the picture, Airy shows clearly the hard physical work that women factory workers were doing in the First World War. The description of the painting in the Museum’s catalogue reinforces this: ‘In this large shop, turning and fitting on of copper-driving bands is being carried out on 15-inch shells. Although very heavy work is done here, the shop is staffed entirely by women, under a foreman. A derrick has been arranged to each machine so that there is no unnecessary waiting and the shell may be handled without delay by two girls. Each shell has its little wooden bogey to run about the shop …’

These paintings have recorded in a factual and unsentimental way the essential war work done by women.

A change in subject matter post war is clearly illustrated again by the titles of pictures hung in the Royal Academy in the 1930s: July Piece, 1935; Mirrored Summer, 1936; Blackberry Harvest, 1937; Messages of May, 1938. The titles of her pictures are always descriptive, and it is with sadness that one reads the title of her last painting to be hung in the Royal Academy after a long and successful artistic career: Verdue and Decay, 1956.

1899-1903 studied at the Slade, taught by Frederick Brown, Harry Tonks and Wilson Steer. She was awarded a Slade scholarship. She won the Melville Nettleship prize on three consecutive years, and also won Professor Thane’s prize for anatomy.

1905- Exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time: Michael Lee Esq. Indian Mutiny.

1907- Exhibition at Carfax and Co’s London Gallery.

1908- Her signature A. Airy gave no clue to her sex and she was elected as a man to the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers.

1909- Elected member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

1911- Exhibition at Peterson’s Gallery, London.

1912- Became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers.

1914- Elected member of the Royal Society of Painters Etchers and Engravers.

1915- Exhibition at the London Fine Art Society.

1917- Commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund.

1918- Elected member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. She spent two years painting scenes in munition factories and produced six large canvases. Her first commission was in May 1918 to do a munition works picture for the British War Memorials Committee: Munition Girls leaving Work.

In June 1918 she was given a second commission for four paintings of munitions factories for the Imperial War Museum Committee:

An Aircraft Assembly Shop, Hendon, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″;

Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″;

The “L” Press Forging the Jacket of an 18-inch Gun, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″; A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″.

1919- Before these were completed she was given a third commission in March 1919 by the Women’s Work Committee:

Women working in a Gas Retort House, Scene in the Works of the South Metropolitan Gas Company, London, oil on canvas, 72 3/4 x 85 1/2″.

Of these six pictures the latter five were accepted, the first picture Munition Girls leaving Work was destroyed by her in 1919 after being rejected by the committee.

1931- Exhibition of 60 art works at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead.

1948- In ‘Who’s Who in Art’ she is listed as a member of the Council of A.G.B.I. and President of the Ipswich Art Club.

1951- ‘The Art of Pastel’ and ‘Making a Start in Art’ were published by Studio Publications.

1959- She was included in ‘Women War Artists’, an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum of paintings and drawings by women war artists from World War I and World War 2.

1964- She died.

1985- The largest collection of her work ever assembled was exhibited at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.

Official Purchasers:

HM Queen Mary, The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Imperial War Museum, The National Gallery of New South Wales, The Canadian War Museum, The Toronto Art Gallery, HM Queen Elizabeth, The City Art Galleries of Vancouver, Sydney, Leeds, Huddersfield, Doncaster, Harrogate, Ipswich, Liverpool, Blackpool, Rochdale, Leicester, Lincoln, Birkenhead.

She exhibited in international exhibitions in London, Rome, Milan, Venice, Sweden, New Zealand, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Ottowa, as well as the New English Art Club and the Paris Salon.

She exhibited at the Royal Academy for 45 years.

She lived in Playford near Ipswich, and was an occasional Inspector of Art to the Board of Education.

Her works were reproduced in ‘Studio’, ‘Drawing and Design’ and ‘Colour’ and even in art companies and wholesalers in many countries.  I saw many great art reproductions, especially oil paintings from China. There are lots of art companies and galleries reproducing famous artworks to sell in the worldwide art market.

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


This day conference celebrated the installation of Annabel Nicolson’s Large Drawing (1987) in the Quiet Senior Common Room of Keynes College. An impressive piece, shown at both W.A.S.L. and her recent exhibition at Chelsea Art School, it combines textile, paper, paint, and graphite, which in its shedding triangular form evokes the sensation of deep menstrual pain.

Annabel Nicolson began the day by speaking about her decision to place the work there and proceeded to place the making of the work in relation to her earlier works in diverse media. She described her work from her 1972 performance with a sewing machine and a projector, through more ritualistic, less audience-orientated outdoor performances like Combing the Fields, to performances using fire in the late 1970s where the use of story-telling elements or snatches of experiences became more prominent. Her performance at the Women Live Festival grew out of her frustration with the act of sewing in finishing a textile piece and the dreams which arose because of her conflict with the work.

Her later textile pieces continue to extend her performance concerns with particular aspects of women’s traditional social/cultural labour and creativity as home-makers, carets, textile-makers, and embroiderers in our own and other cultures. The strong emotions aroused through her reconsideration of such activities form the focus of these works as their initial therapeutic role in her own experience emerges as part of a more public discourse.

Such works include One of my wishes was to have a Sister … where the text was both cut through, embroidered into, and written in blood across the red muslin overlaid on white fabric, and many sewn pieces where the hidden ‘private’ messages of the text are revealed through slits in the ‘abstract/public’ qualities of fabric. Her talk concluded with her showing of vaginal drawings and ceramic works begun three years ago in Cornwall, and the Menstrual Hut as a private space for women produced at the conclusion of her residency at Norwich Art School which had led up to the creation of Large Drawing.

After lunch there was a presentation by Margaret Harrison on her art practice and a paper by Gerlinde Gabriel, curator of the recent Nam June Paik show at the Hayward, on the work of six women artists in Germany.

Prefacing her talk with a view to women’s art practice in the 1990s, Margaret Harrison criticised the notion of ‘post-feminism’ which implied a resolution or end to the issues which had been put on the agenda by feminist art practices of the early 1970s, though she was aware that after nine years of Thatcherism the forms feminist art practice appeared in would evidently be different.

Gerlinde Gabriel critiqued the Royal Academy exhibition of German Art where the youngest woman artist, Hannah Hoch, was born in 1889. Acknowledging the pattern of neglect contemporary women artists suffered in international shows, she argued that unlike many of the men included in the RA show who had ‘returned’ to paint and sculpt after establishing names for themselves in performance, video and conceptual work, many contemporary German women like Rebecca Horn and Ulrike Rosenbach had refused this trend because of their active engagement with alternative media. Her interesting argument was flawed however by the detailed presentation of largely experimental works by German women artists from the mid 1970s and its conclusion with the large painterly works of Astrid Klein and Christiane Ney from the 1980s. This presentation, however, usefully led into a discussion of the differences between Britain and Germany in terms of opportunities for selling, exhibiting, and the status and public interest attached to the exhibition of contemporary art in both countries.

This interesting conference should encourage the University to hold more events on the visual arts.

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For works of art by modern French masters, look to Galerie Rienzo on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Robert Rienzo, the exclusive New York representative of the recently passing Bernard Buffet, is also an authority on Cassigneul, Jansem, Matisse, Dufy and other “School of Paris” artists. With a focus on excellent service, extensive research and the highest quality paintings, Galerie Rienzo is the source for finding a particular French 20th-century painting or for guidance on starting or building an entire collection.

A canine oil portrait by Judith Jarcho reveals “the inner dog.” From the wag of a tail to the tilt of a head, each beloved pet has its unique personality that Jarcho can convey in her painting. Delighted clients around the United States excitedly express their satisfaction in letters to the artist. Debra writes: “You captured Beauregard’s sweetness and we will cherish your wonderful work!” Don and Charlotte declare: “Ensign is … the centerpiece of our living room.” Karen comments: “How fabulous Bentley is! I’m so glad I found you in Town & Country.” The painting Tucker with Ball (shown) arrived as an anniversary surprise from the Bauman’s grown children who sent Jarcho videos taken at a family reunion. What was their response? The painting is “something we will cherish forever.” Whatever the occasion, and for a most memorable gift, commission a pet portrait.



Hatton Gallery, The University, Newcastle upon Tyne. Jan 28-March 12


Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. Jan 27-March 19

These two exhibitions, both organised by The South Bank Centre, “The Presence” in association with Michael Tooby, Keeper of The Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, and “The Experience” with The Laing Art Gallery, raised important questions for women artists and the public to whom they are offered. Both exhibitions are touring but unfortunately will not tour together after Newcastle.

The “Presence” is a large and ambitious venture whose stated aim is “to draw together particular strands within a 30 year period of abstract painting in Britain.” Forty-three artists are included of whom eight are women: Gillian Ayres, Jennifer Durrant, Vanessa Jackson, Tess Jaray, Edwina Leapman, Bridget Riley, Yuko Shiraishi and Eleanor Wood. This is not even a quarter. 1957 was chosen as the starting point since it is from this date that American Abstract Expressionism is said to have had an influence upon British art practice. The organisers stress, from the diversity-of the works shown, that this is no straightforward matter.

The exhibition is structured so that small groups of painters whose work is similar are shown together. Such selection cuts across the 30 year period, and so appears largely based upon style, the purely visual aspect of the paintings. The organisers say they have isolated “particular, painterly spheres of interest, such as the nature of the surface, the role of associative titles and attitudes to working processes.” It also attempts to show how the work of certain artists has developed over the period. So, for example, Gillian Ayres has two paintings, each in a different group, the heavily layered and textured jewel-coloured “Achnabreck” (1978), and the looser formed and more active painterly “Cwm” (1959).

Despite the modernist achievement of placing the presence of a painting above all other considerations there are problems. We are not told what the focus of each group of work is–what particular strand of abstract art is represented. What do Eleanor Wood’s pale floating grid structured watercolours on paper “Untitled” (1987) and Yuko Shiraishfs fuzzy edged block painted Vertical “Stream” (1988), have in common with the work which surrounds them? Giving us brief details of the participating artists, quoting from other writings (painting on a par with religious experience–Ben Nicholson Unit One London 1934) and Taoist masters (Lao Tzu’s philosophical work, The Tao Te Ching), is not enough. We need to know more precisely the shared concerns and affinities of the artists selected for this exhibition. To know this is to begin to challenge the inadequate representation of women and the definition of abstract painting itself.


Another major problem is the lack of any accessible historical context. These paintings hang in the air, between 1957 and now. Our understanding of the variety of mid-to-late20th century British painting on show could have been enhanced. What kinds of abstraction were on offer in Britain before 1957? Where did the strands represented here come from? Out of what conditions of artistic practice and social context did abstract painting become acceptable within Britain, Europe and the U.S.A.? What connections do our ideas of freedom, democracy and the importance of the individual (mostly male) have with these? We need another exhibition to try to answer these questions in a clear and accessible way.

The “Experience” at The Laing is a different affair. For a start it’s welcoming; the organisers want us to enjoy the paintings. And we do. They’re big and bold, alternatively vibrant and colourful, then more peaceful and restrained. Eight modern abstract painters (one collagist) have been chosen “to give some idea of the extraordinary variety and vitality of recent non-representational painting.”

Bridget Riley’s work spans 1982-1988 and juxtaposes toned lines of colour in verticals and diagonals. “Isfahan” (1984) consists of thin vertical lines of turquoise, powder blue, pink, salmon, green, ochre, in different combinations, resonates energy. Edwina Leapman’s “Enharmonic Series” (1988) are fluid and sombre dark paintings (six acrylic on cotton, one on linen) which we can contemplate if we wish. She uses a faintly discernible grid-like structure which anchors the painting, yet they float and recede and move within their depths. Leapman builds up layers and layers of colours in thin transparent washes, which are there to negate each other. A green might be put on top of a red, then another red, and then perhaps a blue. So the colour of “Enharmonic Dark Blue and Red” (1988) is difficult to determine. She says this will depend upon the light, and upon the viewer’s familiarity, that the paintings need to be given time and be allowed to become what they are.

This is an exhibition where the artists speak. All are well represented in their own space and have written about their aims and working attitudes, their concerns of space, structure and scale, the nature of reality in their work, and light and colour. Gillian Ayres’s exuberant paint smeared “Fairest of Stars” (1984) shouts its colours and assaults the senses. To her art is an enjoyable thing and colour her vehicle to communicate her truth.

Based on the last year’s sale report of Artbywicks, Large canvas wall art still loved by art lovers, said by Dan wicks, the founder of who specialize in oversized canvas art. The sheer size of Jennifer Durrant’s paintings, spanning 1985 to 1988, are exciting, “There and Back” (1987) covering the wall at 216.6 cm x 335.2 cm. She uses staining techniques, then might tear pear shapes and cover parts of the canvas with shapes, or cover the canvas with paper and cut out stencils with a stanley-knife, and then re-stain exposed parts of the canvas, and so on.

A separate room has been set aside to give an insight into the artists’ working methods. Preparatory drawings, sketches, notes and postcards are displayed in conjunction with the artists’ statements about their work. Books on abstract art are available to read. A video of Bridget Riley at work highlights the deliberation, concentration and painstaking work of all the artists involved. Some historical context is provided–looking to old faithfuls, Turner, Braque, Mondrian–to shed light on later 20th century abstract painting. The links are sometimes tenuous. Why not include Helen Frankenthaler, the American painter who introduced her own novel technique–stain-and-soak–which had important repercussions for the development of colourfield painting, in terms of floating colour, flatness and ambiguous space.

One of the aims of this exhibition is to respond to requests from the public to provide information about artists’ working methods. This the organisers and painters have done in an illuminating way. The problem is that however interesting and informative the artists’ statements are (and all of these fall into that category) they are just that; and are conditioned by how artists see themselves and their role in late 20th century Britain. That sometimes their explanations about the nature of light and colour, truth and reality, become near impenetrable and verge on the spiritual, is to be expected. These paintings do stand in their own right, but it helps to have a fair amount of knowledge of the art of this century and the ideology of its creators. Unless this is supplied, the public will continue to be dismissive of abstract art.

The work of the women artists in this exhibition disputes the dominance of men in the field of abstract painting. Yesterday’s aggressive action men seem outplayed. As an option for art practice, non-representational painting has been a problem for feminists, upholding as it does the “tenets of modernism, with its primacy of the visual and the celebration of the artistic subject as source of meaning and reference for all art.”

Yet there may be possibilities in abstract art for those who wish to communicate and be part of the wider social world. Themes which arise from the work of these women artists are the importance of the intuitive; letting a painting develop and be; the process of discovery and the freedom to give form to the unknowable. Are there things here for us, saturated as we are by the patriarchal/social? Reverence for colour and light and providing quiet space are not incompatible with feminism. Then there is the power assigned to the viewer. Edwina Leapman acknowledges the role of the observer in giving a work its life and meaning. Jennifer Durrant believes that paintings are vehicles, taking the viewer “off to some place else, of your own imagining.” Is this de-centring of the artist and her product useful for feminists …?


Alice Maher: Transfiguration

IN OCTOBER Alice Maher returned to Belfast from California where she has spent almost a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the San Francisco Art Institute. The ten large charcoal, pastel and mixed media drawings in ‘Transfiguration’, in addition to a number of smaller pages from the artist’s sketchbook of this period, demonstrate her continuing investigation of the representation of women and female sexuality within both religious and art historical definitions. Recently this has also included a reworking of selected mythological themes, a shift which is visible in this show.

The basis for Alice Maher’s work is a sharp awareness of the experience of growing up female in a Catholic society. Originally from rural Tipperary, she once described the situation as one wherein the processes of birth and death of animals were familiar from a very early age, yet all aspects of human sexuality and procreation were denied and repressed through the teachings of the Catholic Church. Her drawings and early paintings often include a high degree of biting satire directed towards the repressive morality which has such horrific consequences as the Kerry Babies case or the death of Anne Lovett, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who died giving birth alone in front of a grotto to the Virgin Mary.


Alice Maher consistently uses humour as a means of undercutting the traditional authority given to Church patriarchs and male saints. Centaur Bothered By Fairies (Temptation of St Anthony) reveals the discomforts of a mythical winged figure, an awkward combination of man and horse, being poked at by small spear-bearing female figures. Unlike many of the larger pieces this is worked in rich colour pastel and wash on a dark ground: it suggests fruitful future directions. In fact a clear evolution of both Maher’s thematic concerns and working procedures is visible within the spectrum of works here–even though the time span is one of only a few months from those executed in San Francisco mid 1987 to early 1988 in Belfast. Prior to this she has predominantly used a format of two static figures, generally vertical and alway linked together as if bound into a love-hate relationship. These earlier drawings, similar to The Bride or Mo tHintean Fein, were always monochrome, charcoal and pencil on a white ground. A surrealist juxtaposition of found objects, medical apparatus, household and farmyard implements would combine with organic and physical elements to assemble the figure, and Alice frequently incorporates parts of her own body in unexpected circumstances. In Mo tHintean Fein, for example, her nose appears as a pillar-like support or neck for the figure on the right. This metamorphosis or Transfiguration is a clear example of her working methods–yet the naming of this piece in Irish has a further significance. Not only does it mean ‘my own fireplace’, a symbol of women’s sexual power and source of energy, but it dates from the artist’s stay in San Francisco, and could be read as functioning as a reminder of home.

Alice Maher 1

In later drawings, such as Meeting on the Forest Floor II, this static format has become submerged in a cataclysmic outpouring of figures, both human and animal. Horror and a sense of the macabre are rarely far from the surface in Alice Maher’s work. Based on the myth of Diana and Actaeon, this is the moment of Actaeon’s dismemberment by his hounds, but without the voyeuristic connotations of Titian’s version where the semi-nude goddess also appears. Unfortunately the layers of colour are just too dense here: definition has been sacrificed in favour of a whirlwind of dark tones and half-glimpsed forms–but it doesn’t come off. In general however the later drawing are increasingly subtle. They incorporate elements of recycled previous drawings, torn and stuck down and worked over; previous marks are also partially erased and remain half visible, returning the eye constantly to variation in surface texture. These working procedures actually reinforce the main thematic concerns, a bringing to light of the hidden and repressed aspects of women’s sexuality, something which does not offer itself up for the voyeuristic eye, but remains undefinable.

The transition to the increasingly expressionistic later works can be seen in such pieces as Abundance or Expulsion (After Masaccio). The two figures are whole, increasingly organic bodies even if not fully recognisable as human. It is here also that references to a ‘grand tradition’ of European painting becomes more apparent, yet these references tend to unfix the original meaning, demonstrating that women can use aspects of a male painterly tradition for their own purposes.

A subversion of existing female representations is not without its problems however. The largest piece in the exhibition, Babylon, was intended to represent the Whore of Babylon not as evil and to be despised as in Biblical accounts, but as a powerful, self-determined woman striding forward with the scales of justice balanced on her shoulders. Yet at a discussion held with Alice in the gallery by the Northern Ireland Women Artists’ Group it became clear that there were other more disturbing readings. The lack of spatial cues means that it’s highly possible to read the figure as lying prone, weighed down by the scales and with legs forced open. The exposed backbone, intended by the artist as signifying Babylon’s strength, was seen by some viewers as highly phallic. The image now becomes a rape scene, the archetypal ‘evil’ woman once again punished for her sexuality: the complete opposite of Maher’s intentions. The problem is compounded by the high number of representations of women as victim within male expressionist work from whatever period; women painters can find themselves on dangerous territory here. Yet as also became clear in the discussion, it’s of great importance that women allow themselves and each other to make mistakes. As in Alice Maher’s Babylon, it’s only by pushing a particular representation that we find out the nature and extent of its limits, its strengths and disabilities for the purposes of women artists.


Gwen John

THIS IS surely the definitive work on Gwen John and is essential for anyone interested in women artists or art of the 20th century. Gwen John (1876-1939), ten years ago virtually unknown, today is considered worthy of a place in art history. The book with its magnificent representations of all her 200 paintings and an extensive selection of her several thousand drawings is a sheer delight. Paintmyphotos gallery are currently having an event which providing custom oil painting at 20% discount off. So if you like Gwen’s artworks, you can try their service.  There is a fully documented biography which draws on some previously unpublished material, extensive quotations. Cecily Langdale assesses the artist’s achievements and places her life in a historical context through a complete catalogue of her oil paintings and many of her drawings and water-colours.


Gwen John, born in Tenby, Wales, was among the first women students at the Slade. Her three years of academic training stayed with her always. Augustus John, her flamboyant elder brother, also considered to be talented artistically, was emulated by fellow students though Gwen John always maintained her distance from him. He was frequently concerned and criticised her disregard for her health and well-being, traits which ultimately caused her decline and death.

After leaving the Slade in 1898 she travelled to Paris with two fellow students. There Gwen John enrolled in the Academie Carmen under Whistler who was greatly revered internationally by art students. He declared: ‘I do not teach Art; but I teach the scientific application of paints and brushes’. As Gwen John was already familiar with his art and painted in the low tones he recommended, Cecily Langdale does not find any particular influences apart from her detailed use of written colour notes

In 1904 Gwen John settled in Paris where she worked as an artists’ model and had some exhibitions and sales. Among the artists she posed for was the famous Auguste Rodin. Cecily Langdale has had access to the thousands of letters Gwen John wrote to him over the ten years of their friendship. The author, unlike other biographers, does not dwell on this relationship though she does feel that Gwen John did accept his guidance, in that her linear compositions became looser and more spontaneous during this period. Throughout her life Gwen John formed several very strong attachments to people, often with quite disastrous endings.


Gwen John painted and drew still lives, interiors, cats, children in church but the bulk are portraits in thick oil impasto of single seated women before a simple background. Her main interest was the formal aspect of painting; models were conceived as ‘an affair of volumes, not as individuals’. The pose is simple and static, the body seen as a study in which detail is suppressed. The artist’s palette and tonal values are restricted as a generalised light covers the form. Gwen John repeated compositions, sometimes up to ten times with very little change. As she rarely dated her work the author admits that it is impossible to draw any conclusions of the time progress or changes of her working methods. Previously considered unfinished studies were regarded as finished by the artist as were her large and small canvases. The author explains Gwen John’s working techniques and subject matter through close examination of the work; and combined with the quotations the reader gets a very clear impression of this secretive artist.

In 1912-13 she became a Roman Catholic and thereafter there are portraits of nuns. Gwen John also drew numerous back views of women and children sitting in church; these had colour washes added later. Her faith remained vital to her for the rest of her life.

Gwen John was greatly encouraged to paint by the dealer John Quinn. They were introduced in 1910 and remained in close contact until his death in 1924. He acquired over a dozen paintings and numerous drawings In return she was assured financial security. Their correspondence is a valuable insight into her views of contemporary art, as through his encouragement she visited exhibitions and was introduced to other artists.

In 1935 she broke bones in her hands and wrists which naturally prevented her from drawing or writing, though she apparently ceased painting in about 1928. There is no evidence that she painted during the last years of her life though she did not stop thinking and writing about art. It is believed that she finally gave up on life and stopped eating and looking after herself. She died in Dieppe in 1939. Augustus remarked: ‘she had neglected to bring any baggage with her, but had not forgotten to make provision for her cats’.

The visual and written information make this the most sensitive biography of this artist. Among much current opinion, Cecily Langdale has shown that Gwen John did exhibit and sell.

Uneasy feelings explained

Having seen Mouse Katz’s exhibition, I feel Carole Drake’s review raises many pertinent questions relating to the depiction of the female form with regard to its production by the artist and consumption by the viewer.

The title of the exhibition intrigued me; it indicated a quest had been undertaken, but I feel the central and crucial issue is for women to free the female form from those stereotypical images which have held it fast. The Four Seasons sculptures made me feel particularly uneasy. When I am confronted with diminished female forms, preciously beaded, their legs unseparated and elevated on pedestals, I am aware that myths need exploding.

Methods of construction and the materials used have very powerful associations integral to the work, unless, through intervention, the artist is inscribing new meanings. I could find no visible signs of it here. However, it was interesting to compare these pieces with The Orphic Rights, where more positive elements were coming into play. Three towering women faced inward, their torsos animated, their features expressive of hearing, speaking, seeing; forming a bond of visionary power. These figures seemed to be freeing themselves. I hope it is a development Mouse Katz will see fit to continue.

Carole Drake’s commentary on Mouse Katz’s show focused our attention on the complexities involved in the process of consuming images. All images carry the personal commitments and preconceptions of their creators. Art is action in the subjective realm. It is always a political work and always open to examination in those terms so long as the artist names herself as part of, and accountable to, a community, in this case the women’s movement. Carole Drake provided a skilful feminist commentary which embodies clearly the standards and principles by which the work was being evaluated. Those principles associate growth and change in the representation of women with careful observation of power relations, and are motivated by a desire to make work accessible instead of falling in with male mystification and elitist tactics.

On visiting Mouse Katz’s exhibition ‘In Search of the Femorphic Woman’ I was drawn to the immense detail of the fabric sculptures and the technical skill of the drawings. The exhibition reminded me of an Aladdins cave, but as if walking through a cave I had a very cautious and uneasy feeling.

Carol Drake’s review of the exhibition while at first seeming harsh did in fact explain my unease, skilfully pinpointing how the images only served to perpetuate the stereotypes of women, and society’s patronising view of black women.

The review led me to think very carefully about the artist’s responsibilities and the viewer’s potential for being challenged in our conventionality and racism.

Responding to the apparent outrage at my review of Mouse Katz’s exhibition, I have these points to make.


The review was of the images at that particular show, not an overview of the whole oeuvre of Mouse Katz. Knowledge of an artist’s past work is not a prerequisite for a valid response to an exhibition. Mouse Katz’s past art production and activities do not somehow remove her subsequent work to some fenced off area beyond all criticism.

I know that many women disagree with my assessment of this exhibition, but this should result in a fertile and energetic debate of the issues raised rather than in attempts to dismiss and neutralise my ideas by labelling them as wrong in an absolute sense.

Images are always, to varying degrees, ambiguous. Artists cannot disregard differing or unexpected responses to their work just by saying ‘Oh but I didn’t mean that’, or ‘No, you’re reading it wrongly, you haven’t understood’. Artists have to accept that some viewers may not respond in the way hoped for and that their response is not due to stupidity or other such lack of understanding. The meaning of an image is not formed by the artist alone, the meaning is not made and fixed at the time of making. Meaning changes and develops at the meeting of image and viewer, for instance. Can there be one correct interpretation of an image?

As for the accusation that ‘Eyes full of theory may be blind to fact’, we all employ theories or ideologies when articulating ideas, verbally or in writing, whether we recognise them or not.

The W.A.S.L. Journal is the right arena for debate on issues around women making images of women, the uses and practice of life drawing and the role of the model, and the ways in which meaning is made. The Journal is not a self-congratulatory club in which all criticism of women artists is exorcised and in which all questioning and disagreement is silenced. Does Mouse Katz think all adverse criticism of her work should be quashed?

I look forward to more women putting forth their ideas on these issues, in discussion with friends and by writing to the Journal, in a dynamic and constructive way in which all views are given space.

Carol Drake’s angry review of Mouse Katz’s exhibition

Carol Drake’s angry review of Mouse Katz’s exhibition (Issue 20) ‘In Search of the Femorphic Woman’ suffered from a problem clearly identified by its author–that of the need to consider the power of the viewer’s gaze and preconceptions. However hard we may work to overturn them we all have preconceptions and here I would include the reviewer herself.

While her article was highly readable–the arguments put forward being all of one kind and well constructed–its very simplicity, however, precluded a sense of balance, leaving the author in danger of attempting to replace one set of assumptions with another. Perhaps this is true of most criticism? The exhibition was entitled ‘In Search of the Femorphic Woman’. The reviewer seemed more concerned to present her own emotions and findings than to consider seriously the artist’s search, a pity as I believe Mouse Katz’s work deserves serious consideration.

I am a committed feminist. I am angry that you printed a blatant attack on a sister Mouse Katz. Especially as she has contributed so much to feminism in art in the UK. Does Carole Drake’s awareness extend to the ‘Pandora’s Box’ exhibition? I spoke to Katz for a long time while the show was in Edinburgh (1985). The show, her organisation of it, and her own art work have been a source of inspiration to many of us. The Art Space Gallery was too small for her work, but genius shone through. I had a lot to think about when I left. I went back twice before it finished and would like to see the work again. This is not my usual reaction to art exhibitions. Carole Drake had better see to her own feminism before throwing stones at Katz!


As a Black feminist and model, I object to Carol Drake’s review of Mouse Katz’s work. I choose to model rather than clean white women’s houses or work in the white man’s office. I am proud of my colour, my body and my African heritage, which includes textiles and turbans. I have modelled for Mouse and I own two of her drawings of me. I gave one to my mother for Christmas. I don’t think her titles, drawings or attitudes are racist in any way. I don’t want some art reviewer to tell me what I should wear or how I should sit or where I should work. Carole Drake’s review is paternalistic and offensive.

I was introduced to your Journal last week. The first article I read was the review of Mouse Katz’s show at Art Space Gallery. Frankly, I was stunned. My reaction was, if this is feminism, I don’t want any part of it. I want to explain why.

I saw the Mouse Katz show. I also saw the Sue Atkinson show at Air Gallery. Although the same woman reviewed both shows, there was a huge discrepancy in her attitude to these two artists, who both work in textiles. I have been using textiles for many years and consider myself somewhat knowledgeable. I, and most of my friends, found Sue Atkinson’s work crude and amateur. The craftsmanship was insulting to women seriously working in the textile format. Poor workmanship is not politically advantageous to feminism. Contrary to the reviewer, we could see no meaning in this work. To paraphrase the reviewer’s words to Mouse Katz and apply them more aptly to Sue Atkinson: does she think she can hang badly seen and executed landscapes on a wall, give them political titles, and expect us to see some meaning in them? Her work looks very much like it is made by a woman jumping on the textile bandwagon, without taking the time or trouble to learn anything about it. This does nothing to increase acceptance and respect for textiles as an art form. Sue Atkinson’s work was easy to dismiss, and forget. I would not have bothered to write were it not for the reviewer’s hostility (obvious) to Mouse Katz.


On the other hand, we were knocked out by Mouse Katz’s work at the Art Space gallery. The workmanship, which the reviewer mentioned in passing, was excellent. I would strongly recommend anyone in textiles to see her work. Her imagery was very moving. Contrary to the reviewer’s point of view, I find Katz’s work inspiring to my understanding of feminism. Her work gives many women, including myself, a way in to feminism that the reviewer, and W.A.S.L. in printing this review, seem totally ignorant of. Not all of us see man as the ultimate and hated enemy. Some of us are even married, relatively happily. I like beautiful objects and fabrics, and my interests are wider than the political. The reviewer threw mud on everything I hold dear in her review of Katz’s work. I found the review patronising, and I think it was inspired by jealousy, and ignorance on the part of the reviewer.

I was struck, in particular, by the sculpture in the Art Space show, Madonna of Flames, that the reviewer found so repulsive, and offensive.

I hope we will soon see Katz’s work at a larger and more prestigious gallery such as the ICA or the Whitechapel. The work deserves public acclaim, not the abuse of feminist critics. I am surprised that W.A.S.L. would consider printing a review like this and I hope you will give equal space to the response. I will be looking at the next issue to see if I still want to call myself a feminist.

Is it elitist or ‘feminist taboo’ to make work about our spiritual lives as women? We all have one, in addition to the social and economic power structures which mould us. For me, the ‘important’ work in Mouse Katz’s solo show were the painted fabric sculptures. Although the 2 groups, The Orphic Rights, and the four ‘seasons’, Spring Heiress, Madonna of Flames, Falling to Earth and Winter Pearls, did not have enough room in the gallery to enable us to see and think around them adequately, despite their bold presence and extremely high standard of craftwomanship.

Carole Drake’s slaughtering ‘review’ did not take the time to say why she found The Orphic Rights, ‘strong’. For a start, they are around 7 feet tall! And can she say that 4 feet (plus a stand,) is really, ‘toy-sized’, especially when you are obliged to kneel in order to read the statements at the base of each sculpture of the ‘seasons’. There was little flattery or adornment in The Orphic Rights–three women locked in witnessing: seeing ‘the horror’, hearing ‘the horror’, and despite brutalisation, speaking out. If Mouse Katz was on ‘her pedestal’ here it was to get a clearer view.

Making images of our bodies is a big problem for ‘conscious’ women artists– but we have to face it and do it, censor it often too; but ‘passive’, reflective or even conventionally ‘attractive’ images of women by women should not always remain locked away with the skeletons in our cupboards. Perhaps those of us raised in a post Church of England dominated country find iconic female images, colourfully and elaborately embellished to be repulsive. This would be true to our cultural heritage. However Carole Drake should be aware of the narrowness in opinions of taste and also be informed of the cultural background of the artist when attempting an interpretation of the work. I did not feel that Katz’s ‘seasons’ were images of ‘woman’ specifically, but rather images of ‘states of consciousness’ and changes of sexuality. We are subject to change as the larger natural world is: women and men have to live through change and accept it without trying to escape it in fear of death. The idea that men are in control of nature is a sad joke, a short-term balls-up in the lifetime of the planet.


I am interested to read more debate about the issue of Women/Nature/Art, hopefully through W.A.S.L. Journal. The physical world is very important to my own mental and spiritual life, and I would like to re-form the context of these issues into relevant work for our times. How? is the absorbing question.