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Women Artists

UCL Art Museum’s Slade Collections 1897 – 2020: 45% work by women artists (1500 works)


Curating Equality is a suite of bold interdisciplinary and collaborative projects that uncovered hidden histories in UCL’s collections and addressed their contemporary relevance. These brought forgotten artists, many of them women, into the limelight, but also uncovered their relationships with peers across disciplines, the conditions that made it possible for them to thrive, and those that led their stars to wane. UCL is well suited to exploring the visibility of women within institutional narratives and British history more widely. The university paved the way to advancements in gender equality in education and research, and was at the vanguard of co-education in art.

The models employed in Curating Equality drew on earlier projects that focused on diversity such as Black Bloomsbury (2013). New initiatives are currently being developed with colleagues at the Slade and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art for Slade 150 anniversary in 2021.

Curating Eqaulity projects include: Prize & Prejudice (2018), Instruction and Access: Women in art education (2018), The Magic Fruit Garden (2018), Disrupters and Innovators: Journeys in gender equality at UCL (2018-19), Passing In: Access and influence in higher education (2018),  Slade Sculpture Prize (2019) and Redress (2018). These projects drew on Spotlight on the Slade, a curatorial research project funded by Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (2015-2018).

Twenty-six women artists were featured, eleven women in other fields, alongside work by six living artists. The suite of projects overall incorporated research from ten academics, nine students (BA/MA/PhD) and ten collections and archives. All projects were supported by student volunteers and placements.

Women Artists

UCL Art Museum is a valuable resource for exploring gender imbalance in the arts. Its Slade Collections span 150 years and reflect the history of art education at the school. Slade Prizes were awarded from 1871 and retained from 1897. In the first year that prizes were awarded, three of the five winners were women and women consistently won prizes at the Slade thereafter.

The museum has helped restore reputations of artists lost in the gaps of history through ongoing research, loans and exhibitions working with cultrual sector partners as well as students and academics. Early examples include: Winifred Knights – the museum was the major lender to the first major retrospective of this artist at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016.

Curating Equality projects have enabled us to establish that 45% of the museum's Slade Collections holdings comprise of work by women artists and connect contemporary artistic practice to research in other disciplines.

What can we learn from these collections?

The collections are a valuable resource for understanding the career paths of women artists of the past and that which connects them with their contemporary counterparts. For example, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, education and public engagement – all now at the forefront of contemporary art practice, characterised the careers of many nineteenth and twentieth century women artists. And yet, the contributions of so many of these artists remain invisible, having failed to be mapped along with their influence and legacies by the generations that followed. Being able to conisder the conditions that impacted the professional advancement of women artists who demonstrably out peformed their male peers in art school when the playing field was level sheds light on conditions that perpetuate gender imbalance in the arts today.

The slides above provide a snapshot of history.  

The drawing featured here by Elinor Monsell would have been one of the first to enter the collection in 1898 while recent additions to the collections through the prize system and and other methods include work by 21st-century award winning artists like Sophie Bouvier AusländerYvonne Feng, Lily Johnson, Sofia Mitsola, Anya Olofgörs and Marianna Simnett that sit alongside works by key 20th-century figures such as Dora Carrington, Paula Rego, Ana Maria Pacheco.

  • No other art school collected in this way – this is a unique record of the theory and practice of art education at the Slade from 1897 to the present day
  • The Slade Collection was built up through the prize system – almost the opposite way to the way in which other public collections are built. UCL Art Museum holds examples of work by artists before they began their professional careers –with no foreknowledge of their future position within the art world
  • The Slade Collections and in particular the list of prize-winning women artists reveals the School’s international reach
  • As the first art school to admit women on the same terms as men 45% of works in the collection are by women!

To read more about the history of the Slade and the prize system explore Prize and Prejudice

A short story about Elinor Monsell the earliest prize-winner 1898

Elinor Monsell’s prize-winning drawing entered the collections in 1898 together with a drawing by William Orpen. Competing under the same conditions and drawing the same model, both artists shared the first prize that year. We know a lot about Orpen, but at the time of our Spotlight on the Slade research project no information about Elinor Monsell was available.  Research conducted as part of this project revealed that as well as the prize for this work, Monsell was awarded the Slade Scholarship in 1898 and the following year, 3rd prize equal for Figure Painting and another certificate for figure drawing. 

Monsell returned to Ireland after leaving the Slade.  She produced the first press mark for Dun Emer Press – the organisation founded by Elizabeth Yeats, and she produced a woodcut of Queen Maeve for the Abbey Theatre which was used on the programme cover in 1904 and, over a century later, still exists today as the theatre’s logo.  Monsell also made illustrations for children’s books written by her husband – amateur golfer, golf writer and Charles Darwin’s grandson Bernard Darwin, .

Significantly, Monsell taught wood engraving to her husband’s cousin Gwen Raverat, also a Slade student, who went on to become the only female founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers.

What does Monsell’s story tell us and how is it still relevant?

It demonstrates women’s access to the life model at the Slade and exemplifies the Slade teaching method – the use of the life room to explore form; emphasis on understanding the figure, rather than producing a finished drawing, evidenced by the corrections and sketches on the same sheet. Viewed alongside William Orpen's work, Monsell’s drawing tells us about the prize system. Only by seeing the two drawings together are we able to determine that the two artists drew the same model. An article by a female student in 1883 states that male and female students ‘compete under precisely the same conditions’ using the same casts and models for the competition subjects.

Questions that arise:

  • To what extent was Monsell’s career affected by her marriage to Bernard Darwin? 
  • To what extent has her name change from Monsell to Darwin challenged researchers in mapping her legacy?
  • To what extent did Monsell's interdisciplinarity contribute to or detract from opportunities to show her work and establish herself as an artist?
  • Where is her work today?  A number of drawings have been noted to have surfaced in recent sales however none of her work resides in other public collections

 

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