Tuesday 8 March 2022

International Women's Day: Hidden women at Manchester Art Gallery

Lately I've been spending one dinner break per week visiting Manchester Art Gallery. As someone who works in the city centre, I must say it is a tonic to step away from the traffic and hubbub and be able to stare some of my favourite art works in the face. I feel a thrill to see the brush strokes, signatures and dates that the artists inscribed sometimes centuries ago. It helps me to stay connected to the things that make me tick.

I find that having a limited amount of time per visit makes me look all the more intently at any art work that catches my attention and I have been pleasantly surprised to discover some interesting paintings by women artists that I'd never seen before. Here are some of my recent discoveries, well worth the visit if you wish to go searching for them, like an historic version of hide and seek!

Lady (Laura) Alma Tadema - Sweet Industry 1904

Snuggled in amongst the smaller paintings that line the stairwell of the the gallery's main entrance hall, this image jumped out at me. If I'm honest, a lot (but certainly not all) of the paintings on the stairwell are pretty ropey. Grandiose and poorly executed, many of these small paintings, I feel, are there to fill space rather than because they are of great artistic merit. Yet this unassuming piece really stands out. Bright and clear and perfect it has the tactile quality of a Faberge egg, jewel like and dainty.

This quiet painting draws the viewer into the intimate scene. It doesn't try to make a big statement but still impresses with it's technical ability and well thought out composition. I particularly like the slightly blurred cushion in the foreground and found myself staring intently at it and it's purpose in the composition. It's a very accomplished piece.

Lady Alma Tadema was the wife of her more famous and successful artist husband Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. His works also have that effortless crystal like sheen that made his lounging ladies of ancient Greece seem so near and appealing. (A side note, one of Tadema's contemporaries John William Godward whose work was very similar also lines the stairwell). Yet Lady Tadema, specialised in domestic scenes set in the 16th Century akin to the themes of Vemeer, who she admired.

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler - Balaclava 1876

This large canvas hangs near a door of one of the Victorian galleries in the original part of the building. I've walked past it so many times and never really looked at it until recently. War, has never held much fascination for me, but the film like quality of this painting caught my eye one lunch time. I spent a long time taking in each figure as the narrative unfolded. These men were the survivors of the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade, the famed attack against Russian Forces that, thanks to a miscommunication in command, sent them into head on fire and inevitable decimation.

All the figures were painted from models as Butler was never near the battle to witness it for herself, but she used the first hand accounts of soldiers who had survived to get across the action and emotion in the scene. The central figure staring with a shell shocked expression out at the viewer was posed by an actor who had actually fought at Balaclava. 

It's admirable that the artist chose to focus on the mental state of the men rather than a sense of misplaced glory. We see injured and dead soldiers and terrified horses, blood and distress. It only occurs to me now how on point this painting is regarding recent news. Although from another era and fought for another reason, it highlights how devastaing conflict is, and how wasteful.

Bulter concentrated on military paintings througout her career and became extremely successful in her field. She tapped into a sense of national patriotism but stated, '‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism’.

Annie Swynnerton - Illusions 1902

Lastly, this strange yet evocative painting stood out to me. Painted by Annie Swynnerton whose work I have seen before when Manchester Art Gallery held an exhibition showcasing her career back in 2018, I had yet to notice this piece hanging in a corner of the same gallery as Balaclava.

It's an odd image, a little girl with strikingly blue eyes wearing a suit of armour in a woods. What can it mean, especially with the title Illusions? Things become a little clearer when we delve into Swynnerton's life.

A staunch advocate of women's rights, the artist was a founding member of Manchester's Society of Women Painters  and aligned herself with the Suffragette movement. In 1922 she was the first elected female member of the Royal Academy of Arts (shockingly late in the scheme of things) and became known internationally for her inventive and bold painting style.

The armour worn by the little girl in 'Illusions' could well represent strength when put into the political framing of women's rights, but I can't help feeling it is also a symbol of protection too. For this little girl, the world was still going to be a difficult place for a woman to gain a sense of freedom or equality. Like many women today, she will have to face challenges while trying to acheive her ambitions in a male focused society. Perhaps the armour worn so comfortably here represents the beginning of a growing confidence brought on by the continuing efforts of women's movements and the small shifts in the right direction that have paved the way for future generations.