Women Art Workers constitutes the first comprehensive history of the network of women who worked at the heart of the English Arts and Crafts movement from the 1870s to the 1930s. Challenging the long-standing assumption that the Arts and Crafts simply revolved around celebrated male designers like William Morris, this book instead offers a new social and cultural account of the movement, which simultaneously reveals the breadth of the imprint of women art workers upon the making of modern society. Thomas provides unprecedented insight into how women – working in fields such as woodwork, textiles, sculpture, painting, and metalwork – navigated new authoritative roles as ‘art workers’ by asserting expertise across a range of interconnected cultures so often considered in isolation: from the artistic to the professional, intellectual, entrepreneurial, and domestic. Through examination of newly discovered institutional archives and private papers, and a wide range of unstudied advertisements, letters, manuals, photographs, and calling cards, Women Art Workers elucidates the critical importance of the spaces around which women conceptualised alternative creative and professional lifestyles: guild halls, exhibitions, homes, studios, workshops, and the cityscape. Shattering the traditional periodisation of the movement as ‘Victorian’, this research reveals that the early twentieth century was a critical juncture at which women art workers became ever more confident in promoting their own vision of the Arts and Crafts. Shaped by their precarious gendered positions, they opened up the movement to a wider range of social backgrounds and interests, and redirected the movement’s radical potential into contemporary women-centred causes.
The introduction argues that it is critical to consider the network of women working at the heart of the Arts and Crafts and to trace the movement into the early twentieth century. Such an approach unveils the centrality of women art workers in formulating a new vision of the movement which focused less on an idealistic rhetoric of dismantling class hierarchies and more on a pragmatic cultivation of the public obsession with obtaining Arts and Crafts objects for the home. Subsequently, the introduction argues that women art workers provide critical new insights into the porous nature of skilled work cultures across this era, as they constructed working lives by moving between fields so often considered in isolation: artistic, intellectual, professional, entrepreneurial, and domestic. Their lives illuminate how many professional women rejected prevalent Victorian ideas about the innate creative differences between women and men, and instead positioned themselves as equally capable of participating in artistic culture. The introduction concludes with a justification of the structure of the book – organised around the buildings and spaces women art workers repeatedly argued were central to the construction of their new working lives – and details the range of sources that are to be used.
Chapter 1 begins by exploring how the male-only Art Workers’ Guild claimed cultural authority from the Guild’s 1884 foundation; understanding their strategies is crucial in unpacking the relational dynamics between women and men in the movement. The chapter then offers the first comprehensive account of the Arts and Crafts networks that were formed at women’s art groups such as the ’91 Art Club, the Arts and Crafts Board at the Lyceum Club, and the Women’s Guild of Arts. These groups complicate the master narrative of the steady feminisation of public life as the central goal for women during this era. For those identifying as ‘serious’ art workers, it was increasingly not simply the ‘public sphere’ they specifically aspired to gain access to but was, in fact, the ‘private sphere’ of the secretive, higher echelons of the male-oriented art world, represented and sustained by intellectually driven meetings at Clifford’s Inn, and from 1914 at 6 Queen Square, Bloomsbury. In particular, the chapter explores the Women’s Guild of Arts’ infiltration of the same Hall for its own meetings from 1907, arguing this constituted a key strategy of self-actualisation in women art workers’ quest for formal recognition in the Arts and Crafts movement.
Chapter 2 explores how women in the Arts and Crafts movement reshaped England’s exhibition culture for their own creative and professional needs. There is a tendency to portray the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society as the exclusive, sole site where Arts and Crafts practitioners displayed and sold work, and spread the ethos of the movement, but this is untenable: during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was an explosion in the number and diversity of public sites where the Arts and Crafts were exhibited. The particular focus of this chapter is to unpack the constraining term ‘women’s exhibitions’, to unveil the wealth of events, including several national and international exhibitions, alongside women-led suffrage and Arts and Crafts exhibitions, which are largely ignored by the historiography but were, in their day, highly influential and popular occasions. Ultimately, exhibitions enabled women art workers to play a central role in the public expansion of the movement, through the dual process of connecting them with people more receptive to their assertions of expertise, and by facilitating the engagement of different audiences with Arts and Crafts objects across an ever-widening range of public spaces.
This chapter provides the first comprehensive history of the homes and studios belonging to Arts and Crafts women and the relationships that played out in these spaces. Together these homes, which ranged from rented rooms in purpose-built urban housing for working women through to grand country houses, constituted key sites of resistance and self-expression. In the quest to find ‘a room of one’s own’, women art workers increasingly sought their own studios, which functioned as the central space in their lives. Following the life course of women art workers, the chapter begins in the unmarried home. Firstly, exploring the experiences of young women in the family home, and then their adult lives, often in all-women households, or remaining in the houses they had grown up in. The final section explores how art workers, married and unmarried, together used their homes and studios to create an expansive network spread across the capital, and across the country. By reformulating traditional practices of domestic socialisation such as ‘At Homes’, to organise meetings focused around art, work, education, and political reform, these women remained respectably situated amidst an expansive domestic milieu, whilst engaging in the very process of pursuing modern working lives.
This chapter provides the first account of the network of Arts and Crafts women who established independent ‘artistic’ businesses where they designed, made, and sold work. Firstly, the chapter unveils that central to the making of ‘authentic’ artistic masculinities during this era was the idea of the ‘medieval’ workshop. The range of workshops and businesses women established, and the breadth of interest, is delineated in the second part. The most important negotiation which permitted the establishment of such businesses concerned the creation of a respectable identity in the face of competing demands, and this topic is addressed in the final section. Women had tripartite existences: as well as continually legitimising their positions as business owners and art workers, they had to maintain positions as middle-class women. Throughout the chapter engrained narratives which position male cultural production as the nexus around which interest in the Arts and Crafts, design, urban modernity, medievalism, and England’s artistic reputation coalesced, are challenged. These businesses became critical sites where ideas about gender, art, expertise, and commerce were reworked, enabling a network of women to play an influential part in disseminating the ethos of the Arts and Crafts across new local, national, and international spheres of influence.
This final chapter considers how women art workers’ engagement in the Arts and Crafts was influenced by the changing context of modern society: of suffrage, a world at war, and the build-up of frustrations at the lack of opportunities at the Guild Hall. Disagreements about how artistic women should perform their professional roles had raged across society since the late nineteenth century, but debates reached a head in the early twentieth century. There was a rupture in opinions between women art workers about the best strategies for public and private representation, the meaning of artistic equality, and the implications of suffrage militancy on gender relations. The chapter then discusses the effect of the First World War in further reshaping the priorities of women art workers. The war brought about a surprising range of professional, commercial, medical, and philanthropic opportunities, but also ushered in a more nationalistic framing to the Arts and Crafts. Ultimately, the combined effects of suffrage and war led to an irrevocable shift in the mind-sets of many women art workers, which took them further away from the Hall and into the city, to the exhibitions, events, and spaces more receptive to their social, political, and cultural agendas.
The epilogue uses the moment women became eligible to join the Art Workers’ Guild in 1964 as a heuristic device to probe simplistic narratives of women’s steady ‘progress’ in the twentieth century. Although, on one level, this book has provided an account of the increase in creative, paid opportunities for artistic women from the late nineteenth century onwards, and of the substantial changes they made to their lives, and the lives of those around them, the epilogue emphasises the persistent, ongoing, structural gendered hierarchies in the art world and in modern society in the decades that followed. In the 1960s and 1970s there continued to be considerable sexism about the expertise and quality of women’s designs and creativity, anxieties about women’s separatist strategies, and women still continually had to battle for recognition and equal pay, and face issues such as tokenism. The epilogue finishes by reflecting on the ideological struggles women have persistently faced when seeking to reconcile their professional, creative, and political aspirations, what we can learn from the strategies implemented by women art workers, and the ongoing issues in how the Arts and Crafts movement is portrayed to modern audiences.