▪Eye-opening new book

Review: Women Art Workers and the Arts and Crafts Movement, by Zoë Thomas (Publisher: Manchester University Press, May 2020)

The more one reads history, the more one realises that one is looking through a skein of historians’ own opinions and assumptions – very often second-hand, sadly – not to mention their general prejudices.
And this is why this new book from Zoe Thomas is so refreshing.

Instead of re-hashing previous opinions and giving them a spurious ‘new’ angle, as so many historians do, Zoë has instead gone back to contemporary sources, and is reporting, as faithfully as she can, what she has found. What arises is revelatory.

Women’s Guild of Arts

To ensure her beam of light gets into this very corner of history, Zoe has made her focus quite narrow. Though she is concerned with the period 1880 to 1920 (roughly), Zoe is mostly honing in on the Women’s Guild of Arts , an organisation started up in 1907 – partly as a response to the fact that the previously established Art Workers Guild had barred its doors to women (as it did until 1964!).

A '91 Club 'at home' card
A ’91 Club ‘at home’ card

Of all the organisations relevant to the title of this book, the WGA is the main one, and, importantly, also the one that still has a decent archive. (Sadly, documents from other similar groupings, such as The ’91 Club (see right), The Lyceum Club for Women Artists and the groups around The Englishwoman journal , seem have been not so well retained).
So this is not a book of light reading, but a serious history, with many footnotes and references.

Workers

Though Zoë uses the term ‘art workers’ in the title, this is slightly misleading. The book is not out to describe the work & lives of such as the working-class Staffordshire pottery paintresses who decorated fine ware nor of the many unknown designers of mass-produced glass and jewellery.
Instead she is referring to an elite of about two hundred female artists who practised in what might be called the craft-arts – e.g. enamelling, metalwork, sculpted reliefs, stained glass. We are looking at a slice of the English fin de siècle world, mostly set in middle-class respectability, though with practitioners at the bohemian end too.

But though it may be misleading at first, the term ‘workers’ is not misused by Zoe. The term was appropriated at the time, especially by these particular women craft-artists, because it gave their careers extra credibility, lifting them away from patronising male comments about ‘lady amateurs’, or the assumption that they weren’t serious businesspeople.
The term ‘workers’ also reminds us that these crafts could be physically demanding.

Assumptions

So… through her extensive reading of the contemporary documents, Zoe has revealed that some of our present-day assumptions are quite wrong – for example: –
# To be an unmarried & independent woman in this time-space-milieu was not unusual in fact, nor even a huge handicap. (Is this possibly the earliest point in Western civilisation that this occurred?)
# There was a tension in this milieu over commercialisation: ie, did the pursuit of sales sully the integrity of the work? This tension however only served to create new tactics in how women marketed their work.
# There seemed little denigration of women who chose to see art as a form of career and income. The status of these women ‘art-workers’ was not as marginalised as we have been led to think. Exhibitions of work by these groupings often drew thousands of visitors, (in particular, the ‘Englishwoman’ exhibitions, organised by leading suffragist and stained-glass artist Mary Lowndes, which filled Earl’s Court).
# A few women took the chance of this new approach to set up households of (unmarried) female-only friends. In fact (if they moved to London for example) they did not always have to stay with relatives or in special female-only hostels. It seems that the boundaries of respectability had now extended to include these women artists.
# A lot of men did react badly to the invasion of ‘their space’ – art journals seem to have been particularly sniffy about women craft-artists – but popular culture, especially magazines, seemed fascinated by women artists (even if sometimes treating them as ‘fads’) and welcomed them.

The book is full of interesting insights such as these, which often overturn previously-held opinions.
This is not to say that these women in this period had it easy – far from it – but it is to say that these women practised more independence, and had more respect, than we nowadays might assume.

In the workshop

The trouble with any book of careful history is that it has to restrict itself. Zoe is basically concerned with how the women of this particular section of society saw themselves, and also how society regarded them.
But, inevitably, questions hang in the air.

Although Zoe points out that around half these women craft-artists possessed or ran a workshop, she does not go inside the workshops in detail enough to describe how each artist grafted.
How many got their hands properly dirty? How many, even if possessing their own workshops and being very familiar with the materials they worked with, are more properly to be called designers (using studio employees)? This question matters because, as Zoe points out, the Arts & Crafts philosophy only gave full ‘authenticity’ to the work of those artists who actually shaped their materials with their own hands.

For instance, we know that Margaret Rope worked intimately with ‘slab glass’, a nasty and unforgiving material – yet Marga would not have left all the graft to studio employees. Whereas Mary Newill, who is mentioned a lot in this book, probably did little more than design the illustrations when it came to her own stained-glass work (though, admittedly, Newill’s real expertise was in embroidery).

The Arts of Peace and The Arts of War, sketch (1919) by MEA Rope
The Arts of Peace and The Arts of War, sketch (1919) by MEA Rope, showing the artist’s studio

As we say, it is very understandable that Zoe Thomas doesn’t fling her net too wide. She is very keen to steer clear of generalisation or personal opinion – and so has stuck to analysing the detailed sources available. But, nevertheless, it is a bit of a shame that this means we also hear nothing of people such as the Arts & Crafts stained-glass practitioner Florence Camm, who was employed on the premises of the family glass firm, and thus an art-worker in all senses.

EM Rope

Rope enthusiasts will be pleased to see the names of Ellen Rope, Marga’s aunt, and Mary Lowndes, Marga’s mentor, cropping up. Both exemplified, in their lives and attitude toward business, the new sensibility – that women could make it in the world, and should have the right to try, and also be equal to men. Ellen seems to have especially energetic in the WGA, while Mary was in the forefront of the Englishwoman project as well as a prominent suffragist.
Marga’s fellow Salopian, Georgie Gaskin, also turns up.

However … Margaret Rope herself though is conspicuous by her absence, not just from this book, but (probably*) from these movements. Yet, she lived with Ellen Rope in London, and she was one of the lucky few to get a workshop in the Glass House Studios run by Mary Lowndes… so she could not, and probably would not, have avoided influence from them.
Could Marga’s strict & conservative Catholicism have been a bar to her fully joining in this women’s-equality movement? Possibly, yet Zoe also outlines the story of the writer Patricia Colman Smith, another radical woman art-worker, like Ellen; and Smith seems to have had no problem being both radical and a strict Catholic.

Myth-busting

One can only be grateful to Zoe for this book. By doing some ‘myth-busting’ she has solved some puzzles for us.
Puzzles such as: how did Marga have the confidence to leave home and set up in business on her own in London? How could she have coped in a man’s world? Was her lack of married status a problem?
Thanks to this book, these once apparently insoluble puzzles can now be laid to rest.

If Zoe is right, we have been confused about this period, usually because of the obfuscations of historians (often male, but, sadly, not solely) in the intervening years.
In fact, between 1880 and 1925, Zoe now explains that there was a flowering of women’s confidence, especially in this cross-section of the art-world – and now, thanks to her work, we are aware of it.

(* We can never be sure of course; very little survives of her personal papers)

To purchase Women Art Workers and the Arts and Crafts Movement please click here. Illustrations in this article supplied by the publisher

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