20th Century Women Artists Challenging Conventions In Britain – Revd Jonathan Evens

Vanessa Bell The Tub 1917

The twentieth century was a time of great change for women. Those born, raised and educated in the 19th century, then forming relationships and working in the 20th century saw extraordinary progress. But against that backdrop was their struggle to challenge the conventions imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.

This exhibition spotlights four British artists working in the early 1900s – Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Laura Knight and Dod Procter- to explore their lives and work in a climate of modernism, transformation and increasing emancipation. They were all born towards the end of the 19th century and were each determined to pursue their art, seizing the opportunity to enter art school and to exhibit their work within a changing society as the 20th century dawned. Each established a successful career at a time when there had been few celebrated women artists.

The exhibition reveals how these women challenged the conventions of their day to become respected painters, while showcasing each as an important artist in her own right. Laura Knight became the first elected female Academician in 1936. As Knight herself commented, a lack of opportunity had held women back. But in 1930 she wrote: ‘at last they are having their chance.’

Girl in Blue Dod Procter (1892–1972) Laing Art Gallery
Girl in Blue  Dod Procter (1892–1972)  Laing Art Gallery

Each of them was embedded within a web of fellow artists and intellectuals; and made a significant impact on the profile of women artists within traditional institutions and in the public eye. My interest in this article is in the differing contacts that each had within their networks with the Church and the varying forms of support they received.

Gwen John entered the Slade School of Art in 1895. A prizewinning student there, she continued her studies in Paris, where she eventually settled. She was well-known to other artists working in Paris, a centre for artistic ideas, and exhibited her work on both sides of the English Channel. An American collector called John Quinn purchased many of her paintings. In 1911 she moved to Meudon, a Paris suburb, and converted to Catholicism. She lived quietly there, avoiding the ‘family conventions & ties’ that could present an obstacle to her art. Many of her paintings return to the same select group of subjects that preoccupied her.

John’s life was full of paradox. Her reputation is as a recluse, yet she was an independent woman who earnt her living from modelling and her art. She was successful in her lifetime, exhibiting to favourable reviews in London, New York and Paris, her reputation only limited by the slowness of her working methods, which curtailed the frequency of her exhibitions. Despite her independence as a single woman in what was still a male world, John had a consistent need for intense and, at times, obsessive relationships and showered her lover Auguste Rodin and friend Vera Oumançoff (Raissa Maritain’s sister) with drawings and letters that she called ‘her babies’.

John wrote of herself as being ‘God’s little artist’ and friends saw a spiritual quality in her; one commenting that she had a ‘rare and sweet humility’ giving her a halo; another saying she was ‘a woman brave enough to live touching spiritual reality every day of her life’. Her paintings, however, have a stillness that is harmonious and ordered and it seems to have been this aspect of her personality and art that drew her to Catholicism; she wrote of God as ‘a God of quietness’ and viewed every moment as holy and not to be soiled. This understanding seems to be reflected in her working practices where she painted multiple series of the same image with minute differences affecting the tone and atmosphere created.

Following her conversion, religious subject matter appeared in her art in the form of paintings and drawings of religious figures, some historical and some contemporary. These include the 16 Mere Poussepin paintings that she made of the foundress of the convent at Meudon through which she received instruction in the Roman Catholic faith. Sir William Rothenstein commented that John had given her ‘cool nuns with their quiet and beautiful hands … the wisdom of quietude and purity.’

She became an artistic observer of the religious life of the Catholic community in Meudon where she had made her home. She also came into contact with Jacques and Raissa Maritain, through Raissa’s sister, but never became part of their Study Circle or their connections to artists such as Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Denis, Georges Rouault and Gino Severini, all of whom played a part in the Catholic revival of Sacred Art in France.

Her depth of faith was not primarily expressed in the content of her art but instead through the practice of her art. She wrote of entering ‘into art as one enters into religion’ and the attention that she paid both to the subjects of her slowly evolving oil paintings and in the rapid sketches she made of local people in church seem to have equated with prayer for her. She viewed herself as a sensual creature unable to pray for any length of time but, inspired by the ‘Little Way’ of Saint Therese of Lisieux, which outlines how the smallest thing can be done in the name of God, wrote that she must be a saint in her work. What she could express in her work, she wrote, was the ‘desire for a more interior life’.

John achieved a sense of quiet meditation on the beauty of everyday existence that sets her work alongside that of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Giorgio Morandi and Vilhelm Hammershoi. Ultimately for her, post-conversion, this sense of stillness and tranquility derived from her prayerful attention to the holiness of each moment. By this means, she truly became ‘God’s little artist … a seer of strange beauties, a teller of harmonies.’

Laura Knight had to overcome many challenges to build a hugely celebrated career. Her talent was first recognised by her mother, who worked as an art teacher and helped Laura enter Nottingham School of Art as a teenager. There, Laura resented the fact that female students were not allowed to draw from nude models. She developed her practice further at an artists’ colony in Staithes, Yorkshire, before moving to Newlyn in Cornwall, where she revelled in the light and landscape.

A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris Gwen John
A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris  Gwen John

From 1923 the Newlyn-based artist Doris Procter exhibited her work under the gender-neutral first name ‘Dod’. In Newlyn she met other artists, most significantly her husband, Ernest, and her good friend, Laura Knight. From the early 1920s Procter focused on depictions of young women, seen through the unconventional lens of the female gaze. She also made still life paintings, which continue her explorations of femininity using objects. In 1927 her painting Morning was voted picture of the year at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and in that same year Knight became only the second female associate of the Royal Academy. In 1936 Knight was the first to be elected a full Academician and, while enjoying these and other accolades, she continued to fight the inequalities facing women artists. Procter followed in Knight’s footsteps by becoming only the third woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1934. She became a full Academician in 1942.

The artist Annie Walke was also one of the Newlyn School of Artists and, through a party hosted by Alfred Munnings, Knight and Proctor were introduced to Annie’s husband Bernard, Vicar of St Hilary Marazion. Though the Knights later confessed that ‘they did not know, nor did they want to know, a ‘clergyman’, they were all – Knights, Proctors and Walkes – to become fast friends; Knight later said of Bernard, ‘Wasn’t he the best?’[i] In his book ‘Twenty Years at St Hilary’, Bernard Walke describes Chaucer Parties at the Vicarage with the Knights and Procters and later visits to the Knights in London where they met circus artistes and attended dinners at the Royal Academy.

During the 1920’s Laura’s husband Harold, Dod and Ernest Proctor, Norman and Alethea Garstin, Harold Harvey, Gladys Hynes, and Annie Walke, all Newlyn and Lamorna Artists, decorated St Hilary’s Church beginning with paintings of Cornish saints on the front of the choir-stalls. Other stall and pulpit paintings, statues, and altarpieces, including one by Roger Fry, were also added before the scheme attracted the ire of those to whom these artefacts and Walke’s Anglo-Catholic practices were highly controversial. Cornwall was well known for extremes of religious persuasion, predominantly Methodist and Weslyan, and this opposition resulted in a Consistory Court hearing followed by a raid on the church by activists in 1932. Items were removed, some damaged in the process, but over the succeeding years many have been returned. The scheme of artworks initiated by Walke, however, is probably the earliest example in the twentieth century of a British church engaging effectively with artists and seeking to use the Arts, including drama, in ministry.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa Bell moved with her siblings to Bloomsbury, then a bohemian part of London. She married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907, and the couple’s house became a focal point of the artistic circle now known as the Bloomsbury Group which included Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry. Vanessa had two sons with her husband, and a daughter with the artist Duncan Grant. In 1916 Vanessa moved with Grant and his lover David Garnett to Charleston in Sussex, which became a unique and unconventional home. She embraced motherhood while retaining an intense focus on her art, a rare feat in her day. While at Charleston, Bell, Grant and Bell’s son Quentin received a commission from George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, to paint murals for the Sussex Church of St Michael & All Angels Berwick. Charleston Farmhouse at the foot of the Downs is just three miles to the west of Berwick Church.

George Bell was seeking to stimulate Church patronage of the Arts within his diocese in response to the initiative of Sir Kenneth Clark who, in 1939 formed the Central Institute of Art and Design (CIAD) to respond to the plight of artists in wartime. Through CIAD Bell was introduced to the Society of Mural Painters whose membership included Duncan Grant. Grant was the lead artist and put forward the initial proposals for the murals, which were commissioned in 1941. The murals represented a fulfilment of George Bell’s vision to be a catalyst for promoting the relationship between the Arts and the Church as, for the first time, modern artists of national standing would undertake a complete decorative scheme for an historic rural church. If the project was successful, they believed it would stimulate demand for commissions in churches all over the country to alleviate the plight of many artists.[ii]

Vanessa Bell recorded the activity at Charleston in a letter of 13 June 1941 expressing her delight that they were all once more occupied in the way they loved most: ‘As for us, you will never guess what we are up to. It starts by the curious fact that Duncan is in touch with a Bishop, the Bishop of Chichester. So friendly have they become that it seems extremely likely that we shall all, D., Q., Angelica and I, be turned into a neighbouring church (Berwick) and allowed to cover the walls with large works. What a wartime occupation! It needed Hitler to bring such things to pass. We have got as far as doing sketches, which have met with approval on the whole, though D.’s Christ was thought a bit too attractive and my Virgin a bit frivolous. Still that is easily changed, and on the whole we accept every suggestion and read our Bibles diligently. How we shall ever manage to paint walls 30ft high I can’t conceive, but that trouble is in the future. Q. of course doesn’t get very much time – he’s planning the Wise and Foolish Virgins climbing an immense staircase seen from below… So you see we do manage to spend a good deal of our time as usual.’[iii]

The paintings at Berwick exhibit ‘something of the artists focus on the intimacy of the home and personal relationships and their love of the beauty and simplicity of the Downland landscape.’ Despite the war the paintings seem to stem from: ‘a desire to create a happy, uplifting space in which the imagination is awakened and set free to rise above the darkness and horror of war. The paintings are a tribute to the capacity of art to lift the human spirit. The horror of war would always be part of human life but so also would be the ascent of the human spirit in joy and celebration over it.’[iv] Vanessa Bell painted The Annunciation and The Nativity bringing ‘people and distinctive features of the locality into the painting thus rooting her art in the realities of what she saw and loved in everyday life.’[v] George Bell reflected these aspects of the scheme when he said in his dedication sermon: ‘The pictures will bring home to you the real truth of the Bible story …help the pages of the New Testament to speak to you – not as sacred personages living in a far-off land and time, but as human beings …with the same kind of human troubles, and faults, and goodness, and dangers, that we know in Sussex today.’[vi]

While at the beginning of a much larger engagement between artists and the Church, the love that all these artists had for and their use of local people and the local landscape showed how the divine was part of the everyday and enabled others to sense the closeness of God to their own lives.[vii]

Top Photo: Vanessa Bell The Tub 1917

Challenging Convention at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (17 May – 21 August 2021) 

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[i] Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary, Methuen and Company Ltd., 1935.

[ii] Bloomsbury in Berwick, The Vision of Bishop Bell – https://www.berwickchurch.org.uk/bishop-bell.html.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Bloomsbury in Berwick, The Bloomsbury Artists – https://www.berwickchurch.org.uk/the-bloomsbury-artists.html.

[v] Bloomsbury in Berwick, The Nativity by Vanessa Bell – https://www.berwickchurch.org.uk/the-nativity.html.

[vi] Bloomsbury in Berwick, The Vision of Bishop Bell – https://www.berwickchurch.org.uk/bishop-bell.html.

[vii] Ibid.