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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Conference Report: Women & the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century

Women & the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century

Friday 8 March 2019, University of Sheffield

By Hannah Moss, PhD Researcher in the School of English

Scheduled to coincide with International Women’s Day, Women & the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century took place on Friday 8 March at the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute. I organised this one-day conference, kindly sponsored by BARS, to reappraise the role women played in the arts during the period. As a PhD candidate specialising in the representation of women’s art in the Romantic-era novel, my aim was to bring together fellow researchers working on connected topics in the hope of fostering interdisciplinary thought.

With 2019 marking the 250thanniversary of the inaugural Royal Academy exhibition, I felt that it was both important and timely for an event to bring female creativity in the period to the forefront of discussion. Women & the Arts brought together those specialising in Art History, Literature, Theatre, and Music to share their research, with the event particularly targeted at those working on the intersection between literature and the arts in order to explore the ways in which writers represent artistic endeavour. The international reach of the call for papers saw delegates travelling to Sheffield from as far afield as France and Canada, with the conference hosting 14 speakers across 4 panels, plus a keynote address from Dr Claudine Van Hensbergen (Northumbria University).

Postgraduate researchers, early career scholars, lecturers and curators all came together to share their research on a diverse range of topics including colour theory, country house collections, collage and copies. I opened the first panel on Characterising the Female Artist with a paper arguing for creativity in the copy, using the artist heroines in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to show how Radcliffe and Shelley raise the status of the copy in a way that self-reflexively promotes the woman writer. Kim Rondeau (Concordia University) followed with a fascinating insight into her research on Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun as a politically and ideologically undesirable subject for feminist Art History, noting how Simone de Beauvoir criticised her insipid ‘smiling maternity’. Next, Rosie Razzall (Royal Collection Trust) presented on the sacred tokens found pasted to numerous examples of Rosalba Carriera’s pastels, commenting upon how this performative practice contributes to her self-image. Miriam Al Jamil (Birkbeck) rounded-off the panel by discussing Eleanor Coade’s commercial success producing artificial stone, and examining the trade cards in which she characterises herself as an emblematic neo-classical figure, ‘Fiery Force’.

A break for coffee and a selection of vegan and gluten free cakes allowed us to refuel ahead of the next round of presentations. With two parallel panels to choose from, Poetry, Performance & Patronage opened with Eva Lippold (Independent Researcher) discussing the representation of intellectual women on stage, with particular reference to Frances Burney’s The Witlings (1779)Jemima Hubberstey (University of Oxford/English Heritage) followed with her paper exploring the critical voices of Jemima Marchioness Grey and Catherine Talbot in the Wrest coterie, noting how both women had a keen critical eye for literature as well as an avid love for reading, before Léa Renucci (EHESS-University of Verona) spoke on poetry and sociability in relation to the pastorelle of the Accademia degli Arcadi in the Eighteenth Century.

The parallel panel on Women Patrons & Collectors saw Amy Lim (University of Oxford/Tate) question the concept of gendered spheres through her case study of the art patronage of Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Lizzie Rogers (University of Hull) maintained our focus on the Seymour family, following with a paper on the social and creative worlds of Frances Seymour, Countess of Hertford, and Elizabeth Seymour Percy, First Duchess of Northumberland, noting Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for sharing her collection even though the likes of Horace Walpole mercilessly mocked her as a collector. Elizabeth Ford (IASH University of Edinburgh) presented on the influence of Susanna, Lady Eglinton – a 6ft tall beauty whose eyebrows, and flute-playing, inspired sonnets. This paper included a musical interlude so we could listen to extracts of the songs discussed.

After a break for lunch, and an opportunity to discuss the morning’s papers, we gathered together for our final panel of the day on Material Culture, Art & Society. Susan Bennett (William Shipley Group for RSA History) opened by promoting the Society of Arts as a valuable resource for researchers, charting the Society’s long association of supporting women artists, rewarding many examples of experimental artistic practice with prizes. Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh) gave us an insight into her fascinating project on collage before Modernism, covering issues of periodization and the divide between art and craft, whilst Serena Dyer (University of Hertfordshire) used Ann Frankland Lewis’ beautiful ‘Dress of the Year’ watercolours as a means of engaging with women’s material lives, noting the social, political, familial and emotional implications behind the choice of dresses depicted. Finally, Alexandra Loske (University of Sussex/Royal Pavilion) introduced us to Mary Gartside: flower painter, teacher, colour theorist (c.1860s-c.1808). Loske’s research has found that Gartside was probably the first woman to publish on colour theory, and as a special treat for attendees, she brought along her own copy Gartside’s Essay on Light and Shade(1805) so we could view her experimental colour blots at close hand.

A link between many of the papers highlighted during the time allocated for questions was the issue of women’s commercial involvement in the arts, and this was a theme which continued to be explored in our keynote address: ‘Female Wits and Muses: Professional Women and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century’. Claudine van Hensbergen (Northumbria University) challenged the problematic definition of the term ‘professional’ in relation to money rather than skill when we still live with a gender pay gap. One example cited was Mary Beale who is often credited as the first professional woman artist, but it was a move to a fashionable address rather than a notible improvement in skill which marked her transition.

Live Tweeting was encouraged throughout the day in order to engage with a wider audience who were not able to attend in person. In this spirit, Madeleine Pelling (University of York) submitted a wonderfully detailed poster presentation on the Duchess of Portland’s vase and was on hand to answer any questions online even thought she wasn’t able to join us in Sheffield. You can look back at what was being discussed on the day by reading the feed from @WomensArt2019 or by following the hashtag #WomensArt2019.

Positive feedback received on the day via comment cards and Twitter focused on the cultural relevance of the event, the range of papers presented, and the inclusive atmosphere – not to mention the conference cake printed with Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (1785, The Met: New York). Well, it wouldn’t have been a conference on eighteenth-century art without a portrait cake!

It just remains for me to say thank you to everyone who attended for making Women & the Arts such a friendly and intellectually stimulating environment, as well as to BARS whose generous funding not only helped with running costs, but meant that postgraduate travel bursaries could be offered. I hope that the conversations initiated during the course of the day will continue, and aim to publish a special edition from the conference proceedings to disseminate the research further. I envisage that this will be just the first event of this kind, and would very much like to run another Women & the Arts conference in the near future.

– Hannah Moss  (PhD Researcher at the University of Sheffield & organiser of Women & the Arts)

Read more about BARS conference funding here.