Our favourite (deceased) female Irish artists Part 1 — Emma Cownie
After writing about Paul Henry’s work, I was embarrassed to realise that I am very ignorant about Irish Art/History, especially female artists. So to remedy this woeful ignorance I set myself the challenge of a list of my favourite Female Irish artists, in the spirit of my earlier series of blogs on Our Favourite Female Artists. I initially thought about a top ten but I failed miserably to limit myself to 10, I came closer to 18 in the end. I am absolutely no good at throwing stuff out, and my list of artists is no exception, so I have organised each selection by the date of birth of the artist.
I will freely admit that my taste is pretty traditional, preferring figurative to abstract art but I do like a lively personal life too (I am rather nosy). I also like and admire the work of long-dead artists, especially those who lived and worked in the period from the 1870s to the end of the Second World War. I think that I feel that I can safely admire their work without accidentally copying it, which always seems to be a danger with living artists. A lot of the information in this blog is taken from the Catalogue for Irish Women Artists 1870 -1970 Summer Loan Exhibition and Wikipedia.
It is a universal truth female artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked under very different circumstance to male artists. In 1870 women were seen as amateurs in the art world and lacked the opportunities for training, exhibition, and sales. They were chaperoned by men and when in 1893 they were eventually let into professional schools such as the RHA school, they were barred from life drawing and anatomy classes (think of those unsuitable naked bodies!). Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them), many Irish female artists traveled abroad to train and returned to Ireland with wider horizons than their male contemporaries.
Visual arts were seen as a ‘genteel hobby’ rather than a genuine vocation for women. Many of the Irish female artists of this period came from well-off, if not always extremely wealthy, origins. A middle-class Protestant background was more likely to be an encouragement to female artist’s talents, rather than working-class Catholic roots. They also generally remained single and only a few became mothers.
Sarah Purser (1848–1943)
The female artists of Ireland tended to come from wealthy (usually Protestant) backgrounds. Sarah Purser was no different, as she was born into privilege although she made her own fortune through hard work and canny investments. She was the daughter of Benjamin Purser, a prosperous flour miller and brewer. At thirteen she was sent to school in Switzerland where she learned to speak fluent French and began painting.
When in 1873 her father’s business failed and she decided to become a full-time portrait painter. She used her many social connections to gather commissions — she famously commented “I went through the British aristocracy like the measles”.
She was a trail-blazer in many other ways too. From 1911 she held regular social gatherings for Dublin’s intelligentsia at her home, Mespil House. Sarah became wealthy through astute investments, particularly in Guinness, for which several of her male relatives had worked over the years.
In 1924 she founded the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland and was instrumental in setting up the Hugh Lane Gallery. She was also the first woman artist to be elected a full academician of the RHA in 1925. Elizabeth Coxhead remarked, “At thirty she was the oldest and most serious, with no time to waste on cerebral love affairs and agonies of the soul”. I have a sneaky feeling that Sarah was not interested in men, anyway.
Rose Maynard Barton (1856–1929)
Tipperary-born Rose Barton began a long relationship with the Royal Water Colour Society of Ireland in 1872 when she first exhibited with them. Three years later she spent some time in Brussels, taking painting and drawing classes, and in 1878 she exhibited for the first time at the RHA. The following year she sat on the committee of the Irish Fine Art Society. Her watercolours, mainly painted in Dublin and London, are distinguished by an emphasis on the almost tangible atmospheric effects of weather conditions. She became known not only through these original works but also through her illustrated books of both cities
Her version of smokey London was very appealing.
She was a great observer of children. The child in white in the painting on the right isn’t a girl, but George, Prince of Wales!
Gladys Wynne (1876–1968)
Gladys was the was the fourth daughter of George Robert Wynne, Archdeacon of Aghadoe, Killarney, County Kerry. She was a watercolor artist, who spent most of her life in Glendalough, County Wicklow, living in Lake Cottage. The landscape was her chosen field and she painted the area throughout her career. It seems that Gladys might have preferred a different life, that of being a wife and a mother as she apparently turned down a proposal of marriage, and regretted having done so. Her work is very chocolate box-ish but I like their gentle character.
Now to two a female artists who interest me because they were witnesses to, and involved in, the Irish Rising: Kathleen Fox and Estella Solomons.
Kathleen Fox (1880–1963)
Kathleen was the daughter of Captain Henry Charles Fox of the King’s Dragoon Guards. She was from an Irish Catholic upper middle class family with a British Army tradition. She attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, studying under William Orpen. As it was almost impossible to get a female model for the nude in Dublin,William Orphen brought girl models from London. He also allowed his students to talk and smoke in his life-class.
Whilst in Dublin, Kathleen got to know Constance Gore-Booth (Countess Markievicz) and Willie Pearse (brother of Pádraig). After 1912 She spent 4 years in Europe, returning to Dublin in 1916, and she witnessed and recorded some of the events of the Easter Rising first hand. She sketched at the scene as Countess Markievicz and her 118 fellow rebels were surrendering to British troops outside the Royal College of Surgeons, St. Stephen’s Green. Conscious of the existing political tension, she completed the painting in secret and then sent it to a friend in New York for safekeeping.
Unlike many of our other female artists, Kathleen became a mother, although as she married at the relatively late age of 37, perhaps she had not expected to do so. Whilst in London, Kathleen had met British army Lieutenant Cyril Pym, and married him in 1917. Cyril was killed in action in 1918, and she gave birth to their daughter later that year. In the 1920s she focused establishing herself as a portrait painter. Her work was shown in London at the New English Art Club, the Society of Women Artists, and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She later became known for her paintings of interiors and flowers in the 1940s and 1950s.
Estella Solomons (1882–1968)
Estella’s family, the Solomons, came to Dublin from England in 1824, are one of the oldest continuous lines of Jews in Ireland. Her father, an optician whose practice in 19 Nassau St., Dublin, is mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
From age 16 she studied Art in Dublin and London. Estella was a committed nationalist who sympathised with anti-Treaty forces during the Easter Rising and Civil War. Her studio in Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) became a regular rendezvous for Dublin’s artistic and political community, including Arthur Griffith and Horace Plunket. She was a member of Cumann na mBan, an Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation, and her studio was often raided, leading her to burn portraits of those she harboured, for fear they could be used as evidence against her.
She painted landscapes and portraits, including Jack Yeats, Arthur Griffiths, poet Austin Clarke, James Stephens and George Russell. She later married poet and publisher Seumas O’Sullivan, although her parents opposed the relationship as O’Sullivan was not of the Jewish faith, so they waited until her parents had both died to marry in 1919.
Joan Jameson (1892–1953)
Joan Jameson was the daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Musgrave of Tourin, Cappoquin, Waterford and she studied in Paris at Academie Julian. She was a member of the Society of Dublin Painters (founded in 1920) which provided exhibition space for many female modernist painters. I like her depiction of the life of ordinary people, such as fishermen and farmers but also the daily work of women, as shown in the painting of two women making the bed (bottom right).
Norah McGuinness (1901–1980)
Norah was a rebel. She rebelled against her Protestant family of coal merchants in Derry by becoming an artist. Norah won a three-year scholarship to study at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of 18. Her family did not approve of her choice to study art and become an artist. I think that she is unique in my collection of female artists in that respect. Norah moved to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art. In 1923 she won an RDS medal and the following year exhibited for the first time at the RHA. During these years Norah supported herself by designing sets and costumes for the Abbey and Peacock theatres and illustrated books. Her travels and her quest to gain artistic knowledge had her travel from France to London, to New York and then finally settling in Dublin.
With Nano Reid she represented Ireland in the 1950 Venice Biennale. This was the first time Ireland participated in this international exhibition. Each artist showed 12 works and in Italy at least, the response was positive — the Italian President even bought McGuinness’s painting “The Black Church”. You can read more about Norah’s career here
Norah’s personal life was pretty scandalous by any standards. Norah married Geoffrey Taylor also known as Geoffrey Phipps (a poet — known as the “Irish Adonis“), in 1925 but the marriage was dissolved in 1929 because Norah had been having an affair with the writer, David Garnett and Geoffrey started an affair with the American poet, Laura Riding. Geoffrey ‘behaved like a gentleman’ in allowing Norah to divorce him in an undefended case. Then the Daily Mail splashed on its front page the judge’s summing up, with vituperative condemnation of the scandalous immorality of bohemian writers.
Laura Riding’s 1934 novel “14A” reads like some crazy bedroom farce, with a ménage à quatre involving writer Robert Graves (“I Claudius” etc), his wife Nancy, Geoffrey and Laura and culminating in both Laura and Robert throwing themselves out of different windows. Laura’s book portrayed Norah as a jealous hysteric and thief. So Norah sued the publisher for libel, and the book was immediately withdrawn from circulation and did not appear in any authorised bibliographical or biographical account until 1976. The Daily Mail was still getting excited about these antics in 2018!
Phoebe Donovan (1902–1998)
Phoebe came from a well-off family in Wexford. She began painting as part of a local art group. Donovan grew up on a farm and raised animals and sold eggs to gather the money needed to attend art college. Eventually, she studied Art in Dublin. Sean Keating taught her portraiture. When the Art school closed for the afternoon, she would “make sure to get locked in so I could keep painting; usually still-lifes.”
Her dedication to art meant she never considered marriage. “Art is a full-time job — you just can’t live a normal life,” she explained. “I always painted better when I was lonely. Not just alone. Lonely. I put more into it.” Throughout the 1930s and 40s Donovan was a member of the Society of Dublin Painters.
In this selection, Phoebe Donovan’s work is my personal favourite, largely for her painting of Vinegar Hill. I love the sense of airiness and the treatment of the foliage. This selection of female artists is pretty diverse. Many of them were very determined individuals who challenged traditional gender roles by supporting themselves (and their families) through their art, rather than marrying. Some led quiet lives, others were actively involved in politics. Most of them traveled extensively, and at least one of them was a working mother. For a fascinating personal life and good old front-page scandal, though, you can’t beat Norah McGuinness. Actively rejecting contemporary social conventions, these women independently pursued their own goals as artists, educators, and pioneers.
This was originally published as a blog post on www.emmafcownie.com
To read more about Irish Art see:-