Land of the forgotten sex

Kenneth Roy

Airbrushed from history, or objects of misogynism on the internet: either way, bright Scotswomen endure a raw deal

Kenneth Roy



An admirable contribution to the social as well as artistic history of Scotland is being made this summer in the gloomy setting of the town hall at Kirkcudbright. A group of local enthusiasts encouraged by their patron, the inexhaustible Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, has brought together ‘The Glasgow Girls’, an exhibition devoted to the work of a number of women artists, many of them former students of Glasgow School of Art, who lived and worked mainly in the west of Scotland in the closing years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries. It is, of course, intended as complementary to the bigger, more widely heralded, show at Kelvingrove, ‘The Glasgow Boys’.
     Judging by the number of people who flocked in and out of the town hall in the few days I was there, the girls are quite a hit in their own right. Unusually these days, the exhibition is free to view, although the excellent guidebook costs £10 and visitors are exhorted to pop an extra £2 into the box at the door. But ‘The Glasgow Girls’ is worth every penny. I left moved, not only by the works themselves but by the lives of the women who created them. Yet this inspiring exhibition also left me with an uncomfortable feeling about Scotland – and something that happened later confirmed it.
     I am ashamed to say that I had heard of only one of the artists. If you have ever been to Kirkcudbright, you will be familiar with Jessie M King (1875-1949). She is hard to miss. She and her husband, E A Taylor, were the leading members of a coterie of Galloway artists who operated from the little houses in Greengate Close, just off the High Street, where a beautiful plaque marks the entrance. Although Jessie King died more than 60 years ago, she is still remembered by the old people in ‘The Little White Town of Never Weary’ as she immortalised Kirkcudbright in one of her books.
     Jessie King was both prolific and versatile, turning out bookplates, posters, pageant costumes, interior designs, batik scarves, ties and fabric lengths (which she sold to the Liberty department store in London) as well as many drawings and paintings. Despite this extraordinary output, a range of which is shown in ‘The Glasgow Girls’ exhibition, and the professional regard in which she was held, she never did more than eke a fragile existence. ‘I remember her riding through the streets on her bicycle,’ one old lady told me. ‘We all thought she was a witch!’ Jessie overcame the suffocations of small town Scottish life and even satirised her reputation as a penniless eccentric, illustrating a book with a portrait of herself on a broomstick.

She is represented in ‘The Glasgow Girls’ by a portrait of the artist’s niece holding a cat, a wonderful evocation of childhood without the usual gluey sentimentality.

     But, although she is as generously represented as she should be, I don’t see Jessie M King as the star of the show. I would give that accolade, collectively, to five other outstanding women.
     Eleanor Allen Moore (1885-1955), the daughter of an Ayrshire minister, who travelled from the manse up to the School of Art every morning. An engaging self-portrait hits you as you enter the exhibition room.
     Bessie MacNicol (1869-1904), the daughter of a Glasgow headmaster, also talented in music. The exhibition curator, Liz Arthur, notes her vivacious personality and her ‘serious commitment to art’. She mixed with the younger Glasgow boys.
     Norah Neilson Gray (1882-1931), born in Helensburgh, one of seven children of a Glasgow ship owner, among the first generation of financially self-sufficient women artists; became a lecturer at Glasgow University and a friend of Jessie King. She is represented in ‘The Glasgow Girls’ by a portrait of the artist’s niece holding a cat, a wonderful evocation of childhood without the usual gluey sentimentality.
     Helen Paxton Brown (1876-1956), born in Hillhead, sat for Whistler, also a talented embroider, another friend of Jessie King, ‘noted for her witty wisecracks’. An untitled watercolour sketch of a young woman seated at a cafe table is one of the hits of the exhibition.
     Chris J Fergusson (1876-1957), born in Dumfries, daughter of a local solicitor, became a teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy. Her landscapes of her own area are brilliantly vibrant.
     How did life treat these women? There is a common thread: all found it hard to gain acceptance because of the intense hostility to women artists.
     Eleanor moved with her husband to Shanghai; they were evacuated to Hong Kong in 1937, her husband died there, she returned alone to this country and never painted again.
     Bessie died in childbirth a month before her 35th birthday.
     Norah had to endure the financial calamity which afflicted her family. She herself died at the age of 49. According to one critic of her day, ‘Whatever may have been the prejudice against women painters, Miss Neilson Gray has been able to overcome it’.
     Helen lived to a grand old age and did welfare work in Motherwell during the First World War.
     Chris was active in the Suffragette movement. Her son was killed in action a month before the end of the Second World War.
     Scottish heroines all; but not as well-known, and certainly not as celebrated, as they ought to have been – until that great Scot, Norman Macfarlane, came along with his practical vision to give the people of Scotland an opportunity to visit their work, most of us for the first time. But it happens all too rarely. In Scotland, the Boys get to go to Kelvingrove, while the Girls have to make do with Kirkcudbright. I am afraid that, in the world of creativity, that is how it is.
     A few days after visiting ‘The Glasgow Girls’, I had an unpleasant experience on the internet. I found myself studying the Wikipedia entry for a Scottish woman writer whom I once knew and admired. Her name was Joan Ure – not her real name; her family disapproved of what she did and so she took a pseudonym. She wrote short plays, short stories, poems. I published some of her plays. They made no money for either of us, but Joan Ure regarded their appearance as a miracle. At least that is what she told me. She had suffered from tuberculosis all her life and died in her late 50s.
     Like so many bright women in Scotland, she is forgotten. I think we may have managed to create a forgotten sex. But it seems not quite forgotten: for there in front of me, in this vile entry on Wikipedia, was a sort of biography of Joan Ure, of no more than a few hundred words, in which there was no serious reference to her neglected talent as a creative artist and in which she was represented almost wholly in the context of her relationships with men and in particular with the sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay. It is noted primly that ‘she never proposed leaving her husband for him’.
     The poisoned dart ends with the claim that she once threw a cup of tea at her fellow writer Alasdair Gray, ‘for her the height of melodrama…She resumed her dignity and died’. I don’t know if this story is true – when I knew the owner of the cup and the person at which it was allegedly thrown, at a time when both were struggling for recognition, Mr Gray had no more loyal and devoted supporter than Joan Ure. But, even if it is true, what is it meant to signify? In its deeply unpleasant way it may be trying to say no more than that, oh dear, women can be hysterical. It is the purest misogyny, but I imagine of a kind which which ‘The Glasgow Girls’ would have been only too familiar.      Nothing changes in the land of the forgotten sex.

The photograph is of Jessie M King

This article is reproduced with the kind permisison of Kenneth Roy.

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