At Tate Britain we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women first getting the vote in Great Britain by looking at the rise of female artists. On February 6th 1918 a coalition government finally passed an act granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. About 8.4 million women gained the vote. It was still pretty restrictive and overly selective, some might say a feeble start. But it did change the face of the electorate dramatically. According to the electoral register of the time, the female proportion shot up to 43 per cent despite those limitations. Perhaps most significantly, it paved the way for the Equal Franchise Act a decade later in 1928: an extension of the Act from 1918, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote – property owners or not. Women did not fare so well in the art world! It was not until 1936 that Laura Knight became the first fully elected member of the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. Certainly in the 19th century the very idea that women could even BE artists was being hotly debated by John Ruskin and other critics. Women's place in society was very much as the Angel of the Home.
For the next few months Guides at Tate Britain will be conducting tours on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1.15pm exploring how British female artists from as early as the 17th century to present day have been trying to make their mark in the face of such exclusion. Here I am talking about the Swiss born artist Angelika Kauffman, one of my heroes. Kauffman was one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768, along with fellow artist Mary Moser. This honour was grudging and tokenistic at best. It's more likely that Kauffman was seen to add a continental cachet to the fledgling Academy. She had already achieved a position of some prominence within the expatriate artistic colonies of Italy, impressing British painters, architects and Grand Tourists with her cultured persona and innovative Neoclassicism. Both Kauffman and Moser possessed the requisite credentials in history painting too which, combined with a level of court favour (Kauffman was said to be the mistress of the R.A.s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds), and professional achievement, probably made them difficult to exclude. As women though, their access to artistic study was pretty limited. They were certainly not allowed to attend life drawing classes. This group portrait below of Royal Academicians from 1771 by Johann Zoffany says it all: 35 men and two naked models. Can you spot Angelika Kaufman and Mary Moser?
Join me and other guides at Tate Britain as we walk through British art celebrating women artists.