Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret

Benjamin Levy’s book Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret (published by The History Press, with a foreword by Dita Von Teese) is out next week, and tells the tale of a unique institution in the history of British entertainment. Here the author explains why Murray’s was so special, and introduces the hundreds of costume designs that lie at the heart of the book, images that are now available for licensing through the Mary Evans Picture Library website, courtesy of the collection of poster dealer and expert, Charlie Jeffreys.

 

Cabaret Club Menu' - from Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date: 1950

“Working at Murray’s left you in an unreal world: at night-time you entered this fantasy place, where the rich and famous queued for your attention; the days were an endless series of dinner and party invitations, and the social life was truly amazing. It was only after I left Murray’s and returned to the real world that I realised the strange underground fantasy life I had been leading” – Christine Keeler

Night after night, Murray’s Cabaret Club set imaginations ablaze, forged fantasies for deadened aristocrats and Arab businessmen, and provided refuge for the hounded celebrity. In that intimate basement beneath the pavements of Soho’s Beak Street, sexy was never sordid, and nude never naked. That is until the Profumo Affair—a sex-and-spying scandal that involved a love triangle between Murray’s showgirl Christine Keeler, Britain’s Minister of War John Profumo, and a Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov—erupted in 1963. In the middle was Murray’s regular, Stephen Ward, an osteopath and socialite who had taken Keeler under his wing. The furore resulted in the eventual downfall of the British government, the advent of the permissive society, and the birth of the Swinging Sixties. London would never be the same again.

 

(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.
(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.

 

The club began life in 1913, making it one of London’s very first modern nightclubs. In the Roaring Twenties, it spearheaded the craze for the Folies Bergère and tango fever. London’s Soho district was then a hotspot for gambling dens and clip joints—anywhere to fuel the demand for out-of-hours drinking—but Percival Murray’s nightclub was never part of this druggy underworld. During World War Two, the nightlife aficionado entertained off-duty officers with ingeniously costumed and choreographed cabaret floorshows, and Murray’s was soon employing a 130-strong staff including classically-trained choreographers, inventive lyricists, celebrated bandleaders, and skilled seamstresses.

 

Programme for Murray's Cabaret Club

 

The racy and respectable numbered amongst its illustrious roster of members: royalty (Princess Margaret, King Hussein of Jordan), film stars (Jean Harlow), politicians (Winston Churchill), and all sorts of louche business tycoons and shady sales executives. Racketeers like Peter Rachman, who dated showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, rubbed shoulders with diplomats such as Henry Kissinger. Many showgirls, including Kay Kendall and Gertrude Lawrence, became household names. Not all for the right reasons; Ruth Ellis danced at Murray’s before shooting her lover, and becoming the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The tragic glamour model Vicki Martin, the peroxide blonde bombshell Carole Lesley, and even the founder of a satanic cult, Mary Ann MacLean, were all once in Mr Murray’s employ. The long-time companion of the actor John Hurt was a showgirl at Murray’s. Her death at a young age was the reason for Hurt’s decision to portray Stephen Ward in the 1989 film Scandal. Similarly, the mother of singer Sarah Brightman was a dancer at the club; this brought it to the attention of Sarah’s husband Andrew Lloyd Webber who, years later, staged the musical Stephen Ward.

 

The exterior and interior of Murray's Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)
The exterior and interior of Murray’s Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)

Though the enduring fascination of Murray’s Cabaret Club is borne out by the attention it has received in the press, in exhibitions, and on stage and screen, all physical remnants of the club apparently disappeared without trace – the whiff of exotica extinguished. “There’s nothing much left of [Murray’s] except the legend and memories,” wrote Keeler, years after the Profumo Affair. She was wrong. In 2014, two albums containing hundreds of costume designs were unearthed at an obscure auction in Surrey. After research, it became clear that this treasure trove, hidden away for decades, was of great value, capable of illuminating the untold history of post-War cabaret in London.

 

Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

Soon, hours of film footage documenting the floorshow routines in glittering technicolour, as well as hundreds of photographs showing life amongst the showgirls off-premises, were discovered sitting in the archives of major public collections, such as London’s V&A Museum. Scores of surviving dancers were tracked down and interviewed and their stories have been preserved in the book: of late-night adventures with businessman Paul Getty; and spy meetings held in the club itself by movie producer Harry Alan Towers. Film footage was found that captured Percival Murray and his wardrobe mistress Elsie Burchmore sifting through those very same portfolios of designs that were revealed sixty years later.

First and foremost, Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret celebrates the ingenuity and inventive wit of the costume designers who chose Murray’s as their stage. Ronald Cobb’s costumes celebrate the Latin craze that was rife through London’s dance clubs of the Fifties, and played out through the sambas of Carmen Miranda and mambos of Perez Prado. Visions inspired by the aesthetics of space exploration and sci-fi movies of the period mingle with costumes that predate the style of Cecil Beaton’s idiosyncratic attire for My Fair Lady and that reflect the glamour of Horst P Horst’s Vogue models. Naughty nurses, stern-stockinged policewomen, racy Bo Peeps, and women wearing nothing but chandeliers don G-strings that incorporate all sorts of sexual puns from fans to violins. Many of these designs are still covered in glitter and gold foil. Michael Bronze’s lithe vamps complement Cobb’s Deco pin-ups. They reflect the costumier’s dual profession of theatre designer and chic dress designer for London’s high society. Hilda Wetton’s ‘fan dancers’ extended a form of entertainment seen at the popular Windmill Theatre to the nightclub scene; historically, the dancers dodged censorship laws that forbade nudes to move on stage by skilfully manipulating a set of ostrich feathers so as to titillate though never reveal all.

 

'Little Bo' - Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

The overheads were enormous; at half a million pounds in today’s money for each show, the club’s performers were some of the most expensively-clothed showgirls ever to grace the West End stage. Each costume took around 300 hours to construct, and were made by a team of six seamstresses who worked all year round in permanent employment from a workshop on Percival Murray’s country estate. The extremely elaborate jewelling and ornamentation was intricately stitched by hand. The headdresses were often comprised of thousands of tiny beads or sparkling sequins, and the expense of the fabrics matched the level of craftmanship; for example, only real furs were used. It all made Percival Murray a very rich man indeed. Yet the fleet of Rolls Royces, sumptuous flats in Whitehall and Mayfair, and the country house in Surrey weren’t to last. The Playboy Club arrived in London in 1966 and was sexier and edgier, though—to Mr Murray—unacceptably artless. The writing was on the wall; the club closed, and the dream ended.

Today, 16-18 Beak Street is a burger bar. Step downstairs to the basement and the waitresses, most of whom were born long after the club’s closure in 1975, flit between the tables serving the tourists of Carnaby Street. The wood panelling has been whitewashed, resembling the muddy grey of ‘Bombsite Britain’ in the Fifties. Post-war, the West End may have been blighted by austerity, but underground, the oak walls of Murray’s once shimmered as they reflected the sparkle of costumed showgirls dancing.

 

Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date:
Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray’s Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London. Date:

 

Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret preserves the wonderful visuals and is an invaluable resource for fashion students; retro enthusiasts; cabaret and burlesque fans; and professional designers looking for fresh source material.

 

 

 

 

How High The Moon

APOLLO 11 CREW, NEIL ARMSTRONG, MICHAEL COLLINS, EDWIN (BUZZ) ALDRIN, prior to their mission to the moon, July 1969.
Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, prior to their mission to the moon, July 1969.

 

 “Do not swear by the moon, for she changes constantly. Then your love would also change.” ― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Throughout history, the moon has held a particular place of importance throughout societies, sometimes as a God, sometimes a protector, sometimes the harbinger of change, sometimes a fantastic land of opportunity. As the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing approaches, it seems an ideal opportunity to take a haphazard low-gravity leap into the varied and fascinating references to “La Lune” to be discovered amongst the picture collections here at the Mary Evans Picture Library and see how perceptions of our closest astronomical body have evolved over time.

Two young sixteenth century astronomers contemplate the sun, moon and stars while their elderly colleague contemplates the consolations of philosophy Date: 1537
Two young sixteenth century astronomers contemplate the sun, moon and stars while their elderly colleague contemplates the consolations of philosophy Date: 1537

As a very young child, I was apparently rather taken by the Nursery rhyme ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, a delightful panoply of surprising events, none more so than the cow, who suddenly decides the only way to react to seeing a cat strike up a tune on a fiddle was to take a leap right over the moon. This rhyme, and many other illustrative references in children’s literature, cast the moon as a benevolent and friendly character and one always close to hand or certainly not too far away to jump over. Baron Munchausen, a fictional German nobleman created by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785 was able to climb up to the moon on a rope and in nursery and fairy tales the moon often takes on the fully anthropomorphic identity as the ‘Man in the Moon’. The origin of this representation is embedded in longstanding European traditions that the ‘man’ was banished to the Moon for some crime. Some Germanic cultures thought he was a man caught stealing from a neighbour’s hedgerow to repair his own and a Roman legend alludes to a sheep-thief banished into the heavens. One further medieval Christian tradition claims him to be Cain, the Wanderer, forever doomed to circle the Earth.

(left) The artist has got cow, cat, fiddle, dish, spoon and dog into his picture, but the connection between them remains obscure. (centre) Baron Munchhausen climbs to the Moon. Date: First published: 1785 (right) 'So here in the misty moon I pine As long as the fairy wills.'
(left) The artist has got cow, cat, fiddle, dish, spoon and dog into his picture, but the connection between them remains obscure. (centre) Baron Munchhausen climbs to the Moon. Date: First published: 1785 (right) ‘So here in the misty moon I pine As long as the fairy wills.’

A popular Biblical illustration shows Joshua beseeching God to command the moon to stand still to extend daylight as he defended the city of Gibeon against the five kings of the Amorites. Other traditional cultures placed the moon as a key facet of their mythologies and beliefs, with representations of the moon’s ‘face’ appearing in varied material culture, from totemic carvings to masks and paintings. A superb Inuit mask, used in shamanistic rites, bears the (sad) face of the Moon set in a white sky with attached feathers representing stars. Norse myths went further than visual representations, touching on the transit of the heavenly bodies – as wolves Skoll (repulsion) and Hati (hate) pursue Sol (sun) and Mani (moon) across the skies; if they should catch them, the world will be plunged again into darkness. In Greek legends, the savage monster the Nemean Lion fell from the moon to the Peloponnese (Greece) as the offspring of Zeus and Selene and in the later Roman pantheon, the Goddess Luna provides a divine embodiment of the Moon, riding across the sky in a two-yoke chariot.

(left) Luna crossing the night sky in her deer-drawn chariot. (right) The wolves Skoll (repulsion) and Hati (hate) pursue Sol (sun) and Mani (moon) across the skies; if they should catch them, the world will be plunged again into darkness.
(left) Luna crossing the night sky in her deer-drawn chariot. (right) The wolves Skoll (repulsion) and Hati (hate) pursue Sol (sun) and Mani (moon) across the skies; if they should catch them, the world will be plunged again into darkness.

On August 25, 1835, The Sun, a New York newspaper, published the first of six articles about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon, falsely attributed to Astronomer Sir John Herschel. These articles became known as the “Great Moon Hoax” and described fantastic creatures living on the Moon surface alongside bat-like winged humanoids (“Vespertilio-homo”) who had built temples. The articles seem to have been conceived both to create a sensational story to increase sales of The Sun, whilst also ridiculing and satirising some of the more extravagant astronomical theories that had recently been published, such as the outlandish Universe ‘population studies’ of “The Christian Philosopher” Rev. Thomas Dick.

THE GREAT MOON HOAX A scene of life on the Moon, alleged to have been observed by Herschel through his telescope ; it was a journalist's fabrication Date: 25 August 1835
The Great Moon Hoax – A scene of life on the Moon, alleged to have been observed by Herschel through his telescope ; it was a journalist’s fabrication Date: 25 August 1835

David Bowie’s recommendation we “Freak out in a Moonage Daydream” in 1972 was not a novel suggestion. Many references to the moon concern what one could broadly term ‘Luna Influence’ – the direct physical, geographical and social changes wrought by the passage of the moon across the sky, or the light reflected from its surface. The most well-known and oft-depicted examples of this influence are shape-shifting werewolves – savage, half-man half-wolf monsters, which appear when exposed to the light of the full moon. From early 16th century woodcuts to modern film stills, this bogeyman has gained mass recognition throughout global folklore and the Gothic horror genre. At the positive end of the spectrum in regard to luna influence is the moon’s close association with love and romance. This is best shown within our archive in a series of sheet music covers, as lovers are reflected in the moon’s surface, couples stand bathed in a loving lunar glow and ‘Mister Moon’ has the envious (or confusing) privilege of having a ‘Million Sweethearts’!

(left) 15th century werewolf (centre) Full Moon has a sensuous influence Date: 1954 (right) 'Mister Moon you've got a Million Sweethearts'. Date: 1946
(left) 15th century werewolf (centre) Full Moon has a sensuous influence Date: 1954 (right) ‘Mister Moon you’ve got a Million Sweethearts’. Date: 1946

The Moon is the 18th trump or ‘Major Arcana card’ in most traditional Tarot decks, used in game playing as well as in divination. The card itself shows a night scene with a frowning (sometimes annoyed) moon gazing downward between two large pillars. A wolf and a dog look upward howling as a crayfish appears out of a pool. This assemblage is today almost indistinguishable from the centuries-old Tarot de Marseille pattern, showing a clear purpose in the representation of the card by occultists. The card’s interpretations deal with a fear and anxiety of the moon as well as feelings of inspiration and enchantment which it radiates – all aspects which are mirrored in traditional interpretations of luna influence.

Tarot Card 18 - La Lune (The Moon).
Tarot Card 18 – La Lune (The Moon).

Different means to achieve the “giant leap for mankind” by reaching the lunar surface have been suggested in literature, mythology, folklore and on the big screen in myriad different ways. These include travelling by Zeppelin, sailing boat or rudimentary rocket craft. The 17th century traveller Domingo Gonzalez allegedly reached the Moon by accident, towed there by trained swans (their place of hibernation). Jules Verne in his 1865 novel ‘De la Terre a la Lune’ (‘From the Earth to the Moon’) proposed a giant gun to fire a moon rocket from the earth. Although his means of atmospheric departure may have been a little off-course, his suggestion that man would travel in a small capsule which would ultimately return to earth by splashing down in the ocean was remarkably prescient.

(left) Count Zeppelin's next destination - the Moon! Date: 1908 (right) 17th century space traveller Domingo Gonsales, who has trained wild swans to tow a burden through the air, is carried by them to the Moon, where they are accustomed to hibernate. Date: 1638
(left) Count Zeppelin’s next destination – the Moon! Date: 1908 (right) 17th century space traveller Domingo Gonsales, who has trained wild swans to tow a burden through the air, is carried by them to the Moon, where they are accustomed to hibernate. Date: 1638

It was of course not until July 20, 1969 at 20:17 UTC that finally the dreams, stories and legends finally became reality as Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon’s surface, bringing our fascination with our permanent natural satellite full circle.

© Tom Gillmor

(left) One Small Step for Man, One Giant Step for Mankind. Neil Armstrong exits the Lunar Module Eagle to the surface of the Moon. Armstrong was the first human to ever stand on the lunar surface. July 20, 1969. (right) Apollo 11 Astronaut Edwin Aldrin on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and the Lunar Module are reflected in Aldrin's gold visor.
(left) One Small Step for Man, One Giant Step for Mankind. Neil Armstrong exits the Lunar Module Eagle to the surface of the Moon. Armstrong was the first human to ever stand on the lunar surface. July 20, 1969. (right) Apollo 11 Astronaut Edwin Aldrin on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and the Lunar Module are reflected in Aldrin’s gold visor.

Painting the Picture – Art of Feminism

 

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Just over a week ago, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at one of the Tate Britain’s ‘Tate Lates’ evenings.  Tate Publishing have recently brought out in the UK a new title surveying feminist art called, ‘Art of Feminism’ of which I had been one of the contributing writers, putting together the first section covering women’s art broadly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.  About a third of the images for the section came from our archives here at the library.  The discussion at this particular Friday late, focused on women artists, past, present and future, and I spoke alongside Sofia Karamani, curator of the Tate Britain’s ‘Sixty Years’ annual exhibition which this year focused on work by women artists in the Tate’s collection.  Also involved were researcher and curator, Helena Reckitt who teaches at Goldsmith’s.  Helena had been consultant editor on the book and chaired the panel, which also included artists, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Tamara Al-Mashouk.  It proved a thought-provoking discussion on the past challenges and present issues still facing women artists in the 21st century.  My job, as the writer of the first part of ‘Art of Feminism’ was to look at the past, set the scene, and map out the obstacles facing women artists a century before a defined feminist movement emerged.  Packing a century of art into 25,000 words and around 75 pages proved difficult, and inevitably it was impossible to include everything I wanted to, but I hope my section presents a balanced and thoughtful overview on the female experience of the art world during this time.

A life class at the Slade Date: 1881
A life class at the Slade Date: 1881

Over four chapters, I cover women artists and photographers during world conflicts, who overcame marginalisation and prejudice to record their, often unique, view of war.  I wrote about the inter-war period with its explosion of experimental art movements and the rise of the modern woman, some of whom achieved economic agency and independence through their art.  And of course, there is a chapter devoted to the art of the suffrage campaign, a political movement which harnessed art and design – mainly by women – to create a distinctive brand and visual identity, still exuding a powerful pull a century since it was conceived.  Forming the foundations of the section, I try to convey the struggle women artists faced in the nineteenth century, and the obstacles they had to overcome to achieve parity with men.  It is not only about WHAT they painted, but also how they managed to become artists at all.

Engraving after the painting by Emily Mary Osborn, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and subsequently at the 1862 International Exhibition. A young woman, recently bereaved, visits an art dealer in order to sell a painting. The picture conveyed the isolation felt by women artists at the time in the male-dominated world of art. Date: 1862
Engraving after the painting by Emily Mary Osborn, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and subsequently at the 1862 International Exhibition. A young woman, recently bereaved, visits an art dealer in order to sell a painting. The picture conveyed the isolation felt by women artists at the time in the male-dominated world of art. Date: 1862

As part of the discussion, I chose to show, ‘Nameless & Friendless’ by Emily Mary Osborn, a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, and on display at the Tate Britain (in the 1840 room if you’d like to go and see it  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/emily-mary-osborn-12441), which speaks very eloquently about the isolation of women artists in a male-dominated world.  Our version shows  an engraving of the painting which appeared in The Illustrated London News in July 1862, at the time the picture was on display at the International Exhibition.  In many ways, the painting follows a traditional Victorian narrative tradition, and mines the rather bleak but popular themes of poverty and destitution.  The central figure of the painting is a young woman who brings in a painting to sell to an art dealer.  Her black dress suggests she has been recently bereaved, and the little boy at her side is most likely a younger brother, for whom she is now responsible.  Consequently, the painting she brings to be assessed, is a device that seems to embody her future, making for a nerve-wracking scene.  What Emily Mary Osborn is very good at is making us, the viewer, feel as uncomfortable as the subject herself.  Here she is, entering a male domain, one in which she, inexperienced, nervous, grieving, has to attempt an economic transaction.  As well as the disdainful look of the art dealer, who isn’t going to give her nearly as much as she’d hope for the picture, there is the pity of his assistant looking down on them from the vantage point of a ladder.  Worse still, a couple of wolfish city swells, lounge around looking at prints of dancers with their shapely legs; they appraise the modest looking young women and we can imagine what they are thinking.  Her only potential ally, another woman, accompanied by her son, is already bustling out of the shop, making her isolated position seem even more acute.   It shows us that the art world is not a kind or encouraging place for a woman to be.  It’s somewhere where she must find her own way.

A still life class at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London Date: 1881
A still life class at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London Date: 1881

In the nineteenth century, there was a dichotomy when it came to women and art.  It’s not that women didn’t paint.  In fact, middle and upper class women were positively encouraged to do so.  Art was an accomplishment that a young lady should take pains to develop.  Godey’s Lady’s Book, with a circulation of 150,000 in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, featured “A Course of Lessons on Drawing,” though more pages focused on needlework and decorative art for the household.  British writer, Sarah Stickney Ellis addressed the subject of art and its benefits to young women in Daughters of England, (a copy of which we have in the library alongside Godey’s), one of four popular advice manuals she authored. “Amongst these advantages” she wrote of drawing “I will begin with the least – it is quiet.  It disturbs no one; for however defective the performance may be, it does not necessarily, like music, jar upon the sense.  It is true, it may when seen offend the practised eye; but we can always draw in private, and keep our productions to ourselves.”  Stickney’s suggestion that art could be carried out by women quietly, and without disturbing anyone, speaks volumes about the idea that any learning or cultivation of talents should be exercised purely within the framework of family obligations.  But, to turn a benign hobby into a successful career?  To exhibit and sell pictures?  To BE a professional artist?  That’s where the encouragement stopped and the barriers went up.  There was an implicit & collective belief that woman’s designated role was to be the ‘angel of the home’.  An unmarried woman’s ambition was to marry, and then, once married, her prime focus was to raise a family in a good & Christian way.

A life class for female art students, Paris. Date: 1894
A life class for female art students, Paris. Date: 1894

If women wanted an art education in the 1800s, they had to fight for it.  Some were lucky, like Emily Mary Osborn, who had a progressive family who encouraged her to become an artist. She had a strong support network, not only familial, but she was a central figure in female networks including the Society for Women Artists, which formed in 1857.  She was also involved in the early suffrage movement (it is notable, though perhaps unsurprising, that a number of women artists were also suffrage supporters), but other women would not have the same advantages.

The Art Class. Sullivan, Edmund Joseph 1869 - 1933. Date:
The Art Class. Sullivan, Edmund Joseph 1869 – 1933. Date:

Two art schools opened for women in London in the 1840s – the Female School of Art, and the National Art Training School.  Both emphasised training in the applied arts for manufacturing and industry.  While this suited many women, for those who wished to become ‘fine’ artists, opportunities were scarce.  Central to an art education was the study of the human form in life classes.  And in most cases, women were denied access to a life class with a nude model in the interests of propriety.  The Royal Academy, the hub of the art establishment, would not admit women to their school, despite two women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann being among its founding members in the eighteenth century.  In 1860, artist Laura Herford submitted a picture signed only with her initials, which was judged of sufficient standard to gain admittance for its artist.  When her identity was revealed, the Academy could find no rules to prevent her entering the school.  To say Herford opened the floodgates for women at the Royal Academy would be to exaggerate.  The RA remained reluctant for several decades and did little to encourage women students, some years putting a stop to their entry altogether.  Not until 1922, did they admit a female associate member (Laura Swynnerton) and finally, in 1936, Laura Knight became its first woman Academician since the institution’s founding.  The opening of the Slade School of art in 1871 was to mark a watershed moment, in that men and women both attended. It offered a serious alternative to the Royal Academy school as part of a liberal arts university, and could count Kate Greenaway, Evelyn de Morgan, Gwen John and Winifred Knights among its female alumni.  Life classes however, remained segregated and for women attending the nude model was not actually nude but draped.  Some women art students, in both Paris and London, felt so frustrated at the obstructions to this, they paid for their own anatomy classes, or life classes where the model was undraped.  It goes without saying that privilege also played a part in women gaining access to an art education.  In the latter part of the 19th century, hoards of American women art students travelled to Paris to seek training in artists’ ateliers, or at the Academie Julian, or Academie Colorossi, both of which opened up their studios to female students.  Clearly an art education was impossible for any woman without the means to fund it.

Art Studio - Queen's College, Harley Street. Ladies sketching a model, with the teacher alongside. Various classical busts surround the studio as inspiration and examples of the finest classical form and structure... Some of the women have chosen these to draw instead! Date: circa 1910s
Art Studio – Queen’s College, Harley Street. Ladies sketching a model, with the teacher alongside. Various classical busts surround the studio as inspiration and examples of the finest classical form and structure… Some of the women have chosen these to draw instead! Date: circa 1910s

As I picked my way through this century of women artists, what became very clear is that, in many ways, there was no such defining feature of ‘women’s art’.  The images I chose had to be as much about the experience of being a woman in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the feminist signals within their work.  On one of the first pages, an impressionist portrait of two sisters by Berthe Morisot, sits alongside the muscular dynamism of The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur.  Two women working at a similar time but with vastly differing styles.  After all, why should women artists be lumped together into a homogeonous mass, and produce only one ‘type’ or style of painting? Their work was as individual (and as good or bad) as male artists.    But if women wanted the freedom to paint what they wished but be taken seriously and perhaps forge a career, they had to have that training.

Six girls in art a high school art class drawing plaster casts of classical sculpture. 19th century art training immersed students in classical aesthetics. 1899.
Six girls in art a high school art class drawing plaster casts of classical sculpture. 19th century art training immersed students in classical aesthetics. 1899.

By the turn of the century, schools such as the Slade, and, in Paris, Academie Julian had far more female students than men, and the idea of the art student as female had become much more accepted.  Magazines in our archive such as The Sketch and Lady’s Realm (with a largely female readership) ran regular in-depth articles on various art schools and their specialities.   Women continued to fight to gain equality in the art world.  For instance, women students were charged 30 per cent more in fees than their male counterparts in some schools.  One of the reasons for this argued the Academie Colorossi was because women insisted the place was clean and the floors were swept!  At the Academie Julian however, the weekly art competition, where paintings were submitted anonymously, were frequently won by woman.  Interviewed in The Sketch in 1893, Rodolphe Julian, founder of the school, praised his female students as hard working and diligent.  He added, in a comment that would have been considered radical a few decades earlier, “People often say that, with only one or two exceptions, no woman has made a great name in art; but they were given none of the opportunities which each artist claimed as his right.”

The women's class in an art school in Schwabing while Nude drawing, probably in the women's academy in Barer Street 21.
The women’s class in an art school in Schwabing while Nude drawing, probably in the women’s academy in Barer Street 21.

By the Second World War, a quarter of artists commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee were women.  This was some sort of progress, but nowhere near equality, especially as most were paid less and given fewer commissions.  Only one woman – Evelyn Dunbar – was salaried.

A class of female students at the London County School of Sculpture modelling clay busts based on live models. Date: 1930s
A class of female students at the London County School of Sculpture modelling clay busts based on live models. Date: 1930s

So where are we now?  The evening’s discussion was rounded off listening to the experiences of Tamara and Michelle, both of whom still encountered issues when creating their work, whether related to funding, or finding that, as women artists of colour, they were often limited by perceptions of identity, and offered fewer opportunities to exhibit.  Afterwards, I wondered what the women artists of a century and a half ago would have thought about those of today.  Would they view them as lucky with opportunities and freedoms they could only have dreamt of?  Would they be in awe that in the last decade, women Turner Prize winners have outnumbered men.  Or would they still feel frustration that male artists still vastly outnumber female artists in almost every gallery around the world?  The women who broke convention to seek an art education, and who painted pictures that proved they were the equal of male artists, were an integral part of the history of the women’s rights movement, and laid strong foundations for future generations of female artists.  It was a fascinating and illuminating experience to be able to tell their story.

A sculpture student works on a clay model on a tripod, while a nude model poses for her, at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design), London. Date: 1957
A sculpture student works on a clay model on a tripod, while a nude model poses for her, at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design), London. Date: 1957

© Lucinda Gosling

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‘The Art of Feminism’ is published by Tate Publishing, edited by Helen Reckitt, and written by Lucinda Gosling, Amy Tobin and Hilary Robinson.

Students at the Painting School, Pelham Street, nr. South Kensington Station, London. Principals: A. S. Cope, A.R.A and J. Watson Nicol. Date: 1910
Students at the Painting School, Pelham Street, nr. South Kensington Station, London. Principals: A. S. Cope, A.R.A and J. Watson Nicol. Date: 1910