This two-day conference adds to the growing body of feminist scholarship that is deconstructing the male-dominated history of commercial and industrial artistic production. The programme will bring together current interdisciplinary perspectives on women’s experiences of work and the gendered dynamics of commerce in the creative industries in Britain between 1750 and 1950.

EventBrite description of conference

What follows is not a thorough exposition of the papers delivered at the conference but merely a write up of the notes I made about aspects I found interesting or relevant to my own work.

Dr Jan Marsh (National Portrait Gallery) – Women, Men and Money

Marsh is preparing for an exhibition about women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Her paper focused on gendered behaviour in terms of money (cash). She drew attention to the loss of economic freedom of middle class women as their material needs were met, while working class women had more due to their need to earn an income. She pointed out that any creative ambitions (i.e. training, materials etc) held by women of higher social status could only be fulfilled by agreement of husbands, fathers or other male relatives/guardians. Marsh also highlighted the gendered cultural exceptions of ambition, being encouraged in men but discouraged in women, and as a consequence notions of shame among the higher classes around women accepting payment for their (creative) work. This made me consider a few points. Firstly, how did the situation differ in the period of my study and how do I go about finding out? Secondly, could this be a factor in the types of creative activity that were (and still are) considered feminine and could this be an influence on the value placed on those activities? Thirdly, are we still effected by the notion that women should be less ambitious? Is there still an expectation of ‘humility’ with regard to our work and career expectations?

Catlin Langford, Royal Collection Trust – Lost and found: Discovering and revealing the histories of women photographers, 1850-1950

This paper considered issues of the attribution of women’s photography in the archive and the problems of gender bias in historical records. It made me consider how I am going to attempt to trace the histories of my objects – I made a small scribbled note that I would start with the acquisition records and build “family trees” from there…

Isobel Cockburn, Independent Scholar – ‘Fingers as clever as can be yet’: Shetland Lace and Women’s Craft in Victorian Britain.

Cockburn’s paper on Shetland Lace threw up a couple of interesting parallels with my own research. Firstly, that the lace patterns were knitted from memory and passed down orally. This made me think about the geometric fills used in blackwork and if they were passed down in a similar way? Were they the creations of each embroiderer and, if so, were they drawn out first or tried out in samplers? Or were there pattern guides that have not survived? Secondly, Shetland Lace cannot be made mechanically – the materials are too fine and the technique too complex. While I am not yet sure if the same can be said about the threads and fabric used in blackwork (having only just begun my investigation into the materials), the process of hand embroidery is certainly impossible to replicate mechanically. What does this impossibility of industrialisation of process do to the value of the handmade?

Panel 3 — Design, entrepreneurship and professional identities

Zoe Hendon, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University. – “Widow of the Artist”: Grace Lovat Fraser as female entrepreneur and design expert in the 1920s

Rebecca Luffman, Victoria and Albert Museum – Marion Richardson: ‘a common tradition and style has grown up among the girls’

(My notes here become rather scrappy – I’m blaming too much coffee and ‘conference brain’!)

Points to consider:

  • The gendered nature of evidence
  • Designers and makers: The maker is often lost, although design choices are often made by the maker during the process in response to materials.
    *The value placed on ‘nurturing’ roles.
  • Collaborative models of creative labour and issues of attribution in those collaborations.

Panel 4 — Making materials: Industry and Trade

Michael Pritchard, Royal Photographic Society – The role of women within the photographic industry to 1914

Grace A. Williams, Independent Scholar – Nibs & Swallows: Women’s work in The Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham c.1880-1941

Katie Lloyd Thomas, Newcastle University. – ‘On the Artistic Side’: Women and the promotion of building products in the interwar period

  • Language used in ‘feminine’ activities (early information about electricity)
  • Women in industry – supportive roles or roles linked to domestic activities.
  • Shallow evidence bases.
  • Cultural ideas of “Feminine skills” – neatness, accuracy, cleanliness, ‘fiddly work’
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