British Women Artists Emerge – An Overlooked 20th Century Phenomenon 

Girl in Blue, 1925, Dod Procter, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK © Courtesy of the Proctor Estate Bridgeman Images Women Artists

Western art before the 20th-century was dominated by male artists. There had been celebrated female painters, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Rosa Bonheur, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that women began to enjoy comparable success with their male counterparts. 

The exhibition features more than sixty works by the four artists

Now a new exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery explores this breakthrough which has been taken for granted for nearly a century. The roots of this lay in the Victorian era, when those born, raised and educated in the later decades of the 1800s were able to seize upon the huge changes in society, occurring during a time of burgeoning modernism, transformation and increasing emancipation.

Here in Britain, four female artists exemplified this time of flux against that backdrop of radical change, with their lives and work reflecting the almost constant struggle to challenge the conventions imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.

Women Artists Helen Dudley, c1915, Vanessa Bell © Estate of Vanessa Bell
Helen Dudley, c1915, Vanessa Bell © Estate of Vanessa Bell

They were Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Laura Knight (1877-1970), Gwen John (1876-1939) and Dod Procter (1890-1972) and the Laing’s major new exhibition, Challenging Convention, charts how they made a significant impact on the profile of women artists within traditional institutions and in the public eye.

The exhibition features more than sixty works by the four artists, Challenging Convention represents an immersive introduction to their art, spanning their careers, subjects and most celebrated creations.

Through their compelling works, visitors will see stylistic change, impressions of people and places around them and their emotional and intellectual landscape.

Born within 15 years of one other and from different backgrounds, each of the quartet went to art school. Gwen John attended London’s Slade School of Art from 1895, while Vanessa Bell also studied art in London – albeit she was forced to abandon her studies in 1902 to care for her sick father before his death in 1904 allowed her to return to her artistic studies.

At just almost 14 years old, Laura Knight entered Nottingham School of Art and went on to develop her skills in an artistic colony at Staithes in Yorkshire, before moving to Cornwall.

Born Doris Shaw in North London, Dod Procter lived most of her life in Newlyn, Cornwall, where in her mid-teens she enrolled in a school of painting run by the artists Elizabeth and Stanhope Forbes. Through the network of artists in Newlyn she met her husband, Ernest Proctor, and Laura Knight, who became a life-long friend. Like Gwen John, Dod also studied in Paris.

The sister of the celebrated painter Augustus John, Gwen found fame while living and working in the French capital. Known for preferring solitude and avoiding ‘family conventions & ties’, she nonetheless forged intense friendships and had love affairs with fellow artists, including the sculptor August Rodin, for whom she modelled. In later life, she converted to Catholicism, which informed her subject matter.

As with all the women featured in Challenging Convention, Vanessa Bell was determined to be an artist from a young age. Following the death of her father she moved to a house in Bloomsbury with her two brothers and sister, the writer Virginia Woolf.

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907, and the couple’s house at 46 Gordon Square became a focal point of the artistic circle known as ‘The Bloomsbury Group’. Vanessa’s personal life was unconventional by the standards of the time. She had two sons, Julian and Quentin, with her husband, and a daughter, Angelica, with the artist Duncan Grant, whose lovers were usually male. Her work – often exhibited and associated with his – influenced Grant’s as much as his inspired hers. The modernity of Bell’s earlier work and her exceptional creativity in the fields of colour and design are increasingly celebrated and are wonderfully demonstrated by the artworks chosen for this exhibition.

Women Artists A Dark Pool, 1918, Laura Knight, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2020. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images
A Dark Pool, 1918, Laura Knight, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2020. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Much as she also made beautiful still life paintings, Dod Procter is perhaps best-known for her paintings of young women, which depict them through the less conventional lens of a female artistic gaze. In 1927 she won particular acclaim for Morning, a portrait of Cissie Barnes, the daughter of a Newlyn fisherman, which was voted ‘Picture of the Year’ at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and purchased for the nation.

Laura Knight – nee Johnson – came from a household of women, including her mother Charlotte, two sisters and two grandmothers. With the family lace-making business in decline, Charlotte – an amateur artist herself – gave art lessons to support the family and recognised the precocious talent of Laura. Before her 18th birthday, most of her family had died. Consequently, Laura and her sister moved into lodgings, with Laura following her mother’s example by taking on pupils to help pay the bills while she attended art school in the evenings.

It was at these classes in Nottingham that she met and observed the skills of the star student, Harold Knight. She would set her easel up behind him, to observe how “the work should be done”. This reflected an aspect of her entire life and work, watching and painting people at work. Laura and Harold married when she was 23, and went on to join artists’ colonies in Yorkshire, Holland, and Cornwall.

By the time of their marriage in 1903, both Knights had exhibited at the Royal Academy and begun to sell some of their paintings. Nearly a quarter of a century later, she became only the second female associate of the Royal Academy and, in 1936, the first woman to be elected as a full Academician.

This exhibition is curated by the Laing Art Gallery and brings significant works by Bell, Knight, John and Procter, from over forty UK public collections, to Newcastle. It is presented with support from the Golsoncott Foundation and will be accompanied by a Laing Art Gallery publication.

”Challenging Convention celebrates four extraordinary women who pursued artistic careers with determination and imagination”, says Lizzie Jacklin, Keeper of Art at the Laing Art Gallery. “From quietly expressive interior scenes to bold experiments with colour and form, the paintings on display highlight the remarkable achievements of four of Britain’s most important early twentieth century artists.”

Julie Milne, Chief Curator of the Laing, Hatton and Shipley Art Galleries, says: “Challenging Convention is one of a series of exhibitions which take up the important task of addressing the varying kinds of erasures and omissions that are inherent in the canon of British art, and indeed public art collections like the Laing. Issues of gender equality will have a particular resonance for audiences at a time where challenges of economic hardship, unstable work and child care caused by the pandemic are disproportionally affecting UK women.”

Women Artists A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris - Gwen John
A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris – Gwen John

Running concurrently with Challenging Convention, the Laing is also exhibiting WOW: Women Only Works on Paper (27 March – 19 June 2021), a display of over 50 watercolours and pastels complemented by etchings and screenprints. The artists Vanessa Bell, Winifred Knights, Ithell Colquhoun, Annie French, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Thérèse Lessore, Hilda Carline and Paule Vézelay are all represented, as well as other accomplished – but lesser-known – female artists working in the first part of the 20th century. The exhibition has been brought together by the renowned art dealers Liss Llewellyn and includes some works from private collections as well as pictures from the Laing collection. This exhibition will be accompanied by a new Liss Llewellyn publication.

All income generated from ticket sales support the Laing Art Gallery’s ambitious exhibition programme, help the gallery to inspire audiences through innovative learning activities and help keep the permanent collection free to all. The Laing Art Gallery is managed by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums on behalf of Newcastle City Council and is home to an internationally important collection of art, focusing on British oil paintings, watercolours, ceramics, silver and glassware. The Gallery holds regularly changing exhibitions of historic, modern and contemporary art, and events including artist and curator talks and family activities. Recent achievements include becoming the first gallery to benefit from the Contemporary Art Society’s Great Works Scheme with an acquisition of a Glenn Brown work, and winning an award for Best Programme 2016 from Living North Magazines) and a range of digital platforms. Find out more about Art Fund and the National Art Pass at

Girl in Blue, 1925, Dod Procter, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK © Courtesy of the Proctor Estate Bridgeman Images
A Dark Pool, 1918, Laura Knight, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2020. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images
Young Woman in a Red Shawl (1917 – 1923), Gwen John. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust
Helen Dudley, c1915, Vanessa Bell © Estate of Vanessa Bell

Top Photo: Girl in Blue, 1925, Dod Procter, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

Challenging Convention 27 March – 19 June 2021 – Laing Art Gallery 

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