The Royal Academy will be turning 250 this year. Two and a half centuries since it was founded to give a home to Britain’s artistic elite. It’ll be interesting to see how the 250th celebrations are received, and what people make of greater exposure of the RA’s history in the forthcoming exhibition (“The Great Spectacle”) and research project in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Personally, I’m pretty excited about the prospect of the RA's historic Summer Exhibition catalogues being made available online (about which more below).
2018 also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, giving a portion of women the right to vote. This centenary celebration is drawing attention to women in history in a number of ways, I’m happy to say. But the Royal Academy has a pretty dire record of admitting women to the lofty heights of Academician status. Beyond 18th century artists Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann, who were part of the foundation of the RA, no women were admitted as Royal Academicians until Annie Swynnerton in 1922 (admitted as a Associate RA) followed by Laura Knight in 1936 (admitted as an RA outright). So the result is (by my count, excluding Moser & Kauffmann) only 55 women have been admitted as Royal Academicians between 1768 and now.
The Summer Exhibitions, thankfully, tell a different story. That’s why it’s so important that those catalogues are digitised and made available this year. The Exhibition catalogues yield valuable information about the activities of women artists over the course of the RA’s history. And among those women represented in the RA’s Summer Exhibition catalogues are three artists – Jessie Mothersole, Freda Hansard, Florence “Kate” Kingsford – who also worked as tomb-painting copyists for Flinders Petrie in Egypt.
In 1906, Algernon Graves published an 8 volume history of contributors to the Royal Academy. This included artists who had had work hung in the RA’s Summer Exhibitions, and it is a fantastic resource for exploring the history of women artists in Britain. So, how are my three archaeological artists reflected in Graves’s history?
Well, all three had work accepted in multiple Summer Exhibitions. In 1899, Freda Hansard, listed as a painter, had two works exhibited: “Medusa Turning a Shepherd into Stone” and “Isola dei Pescatori in Lago Maggiore”. Kate Kingsford, also listed as a painter, had “Greek girls playing at ball” accepted and displayed. The following year, Hansard’s “Priscilla”, an oil painting, and Kingsford’s water colour “Harmony” and black & white work “1844” were all exhibited. In 1901, Hansard’s “Rival Charms” was exhibited, as well as Jessie Mothersole’s “Lilian”. Mothersole was listed as a miniature painter in Graves’s history, so this may well have been a miniature portrait.
Unfortunately, I have no idea what most of these works looked like, barring a small black & white reproduction of Hansard’s “Priscilla” published in Hearth & Home in May 1900. I don’t know if they are still extant – though you can see two of Freda Hansard’s other paintings online at art.org.uk. One of Jessie Mothersole’s watercolours, displayed at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1911, is also available to see digitally – she included a reproduction of her watercolour “The Oldest Inhabitant – Scilly” in her 1910 book The Isles of Scilly: Their Story, Their Folk and Their Flowers, which you can read and download on Internet Archive.
Follow-up volumes to Graves’s History were published in the 1970s, pushing the history of exhibitors to the Royal Academy up to 1970. These illuminate even further the lives of these women as working artists. Freda Hansard (listed as Freda Firth, her married name), exhibited a rather intriguing piece called “Men may come, and men may go, but I go on for ever” in the 1908 Summer Exhibition. I can’t imagine what it looked like, but I hope it’s still around, somewhere. In addition to her contribution to the 1911 exhibition, Jessie Mothersole submitted one painting in 1913, and two in 1914. Two of these paintings showcased Mothersole’s experiences in Egypt – showing Deir-el-Bahari, the site of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, and Abu Simbel.
There is a lot of art and associated archive material to explore on the Royal Academy’s new Collections interface. It’s there that I discovered, for example, that Florence Kate Kingsford (Cockerell) exhibited her illuminated manuscripts, including “Hymn to Aten, the Sun Disk” (now held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), in the 1916 Arts & Crafts Society Exhibition. And that Winifred Newberry Brunton, another archaeological artist, had her miniature “The Nile” included in the 1915 War Relief Committee Exhibition, held at the Royal Academy.
So let’s hope, that with the digitsation of the RA’s Summer Exhibition Catalogues, we start to learn a lot more about the women whose work was featured there, year after year – so that, as I have argued elsewhere, “the digital makes visible the invisible”. Including the work of Misses Mothersole, Hansard, and Kingsford, artists.
Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society. 1916. Catalogue of the Eleventh Exhibition, 1916. (catalogue online via RA Collections beta site)
Graves, A. 1905. Preface. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of contributors and their work.Vol 1 of 8. London: Henry Graves & Co/G. Bell & Sons.
Royal Academy. 1900. Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts MDCCCC. One Hundred and Thirty- Second. [Catalogue]
Royal Academy. 1911. Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts MDCCCCXI. One Hundred and Forty- Third. [Catalogue]
Royal Academy. 1915. War Relief Exhibition in aid of the Red Cross and St John Ambulancew Society and the Artist’s General Benevolent Institution. London: Royal Academy (catalogue online via RA Collections beta site)
Royal Academy. 1973-. Royal Academy exhibitors 1905-1970: a dictionary of artists and their work in the summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts. EP Publishing.