Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What to do about the nudes? Women Artists & the Slade School of Art, Victorian London

By Karen Odden

The Slade School of Fine Art in London is currently ranked as the top art and design school in the UK—but like so many of my favorite elements of England(!), it has its origins in the Victorian period. In 1868, a forward-thinking lawyer and philanthropist named Felix Slade (1788-1868) donated funds to create three Chairs in fine art, based at Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London. Students would only be taught in London—and, in an unprecedented condition set by the founder, women and men at this new school would study art together.

This directive was met with consternation and resistance—for what should be done about the anatomical drawing classes, with live nudes present? The accommodation made was to place the men and women in separate classrooms for the live models, draping the loins when desired. The drawing of nude marble statues, however, was done together.

 Requiring that women be admitted on equal footing with men was a significant swerve away from norms and set a new path for the University College London. Significantly, the Annual General Meeting Report of 1872 recorded that women were permitted to compete for scholarships, and during the first four years, four women and four men were awarded scholarships; the first two recipients in 1872 were women.

The first Chair hired was Edward Poynter, an esteemed artist who painted in the popular “Aesthetic” style which valued “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake).

Poynter - Portrait by Legros

The son of an architect, Poynter was born in Paris. His early education was in England, but he returned to Paris for his training in art, attending the studio of Charles Glevre, where James McNeill Whistler and George du Maurier were also students. Well known for his large historical paintings, he served as professor at the Slade from 1871, when it opened, until 1875, when Alphonse Legros, a friend of Whistler, was given the Chair and Poynter took a position as principal of the National Art Training School.

One of the earliest students at the Slade was Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), the daughter of a working-class engraver who had once been commissioned to create the wood-cut illustrations for Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. So from childhood, Kate—an avid reader—was acquainted with the relationship between books and art. When she was twelve, she enrolled in the Finsbury School, in night classes, which were open to women. The curriculum leaned toward the training of artisans in the design of geometric materials such as wallpaper and tile, rather than the more imaginative, creative arts of painting and sculpture.

Subsequently she moved to the Royal Female School of Art, where she became friends with Elizabeth Thompson, with whom she shared a studio. Together they honed their craft, and Kate was able to draw figures from plaster casts and costumed figures but was frustrated that she was unable to practice anatomical drawing from nudes—which was finally permitted when she moved to the Slade. Even before she arrived there, however, Kate had exhibited and sold her work. She received commissions for illustrations for children’s books, exhibited her watercolors, and had been hired by the successful greeting card company Marcus Ward & Co. where she was praised for her “special talent … in the direction of costume figures and dainty colours.” Kate continued her education, studying painters and illuminated manuscripts at the National Gallery and British Museum, and made her living illustrating books, designing bookplates, and exhibiting her work both in England and America. In 1955, the annual Kate Greenaway Medal was established to honor an illustrator of children’s books.

Greenaway illustrated "Diamonds and Toads" for Frederick Warne & Co in 1871.

Another early Slade student is one of my favorite Victorian artists—Evelyn de Morgan, born Mary Evelyn Pickering (1855-1919) to upper-class parents, descended from landowners, politicians, artists, and nobility. Educated at home, she was tutored in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, classical mythology, literature, and science, like her brother. As a child, she poured her creativity into poetry, which reflects the spiritual and feminist themes she would explore later in her painting. She found daily tasks expected of women tedious and reportedly told her father that if she were forced to attend the Drawing Room to be presented to society, she would “kick the Queen.” Struggling to be taken seriously as an artist, she entered the Slade in 1873 and won one of the prestigious Slade scholarships. Around this time, she began to use her middle name, Evelyn (think Evelyn Waugh), which was used for both men and women, so that her work would be judged on its merits rather than her gender. She made meticulous studies of the human form, paying particular attention to hands and feet, which many artists find challenging. After graduating from the Slade, she sold her works to prominent members of society, and she became friendly with painters in the pre-Raphaelite movement including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. In 1887, she married William De Morgan, a ceramicist whom she helped to support; later he became a novelist and freed Evelyn from the need to sell her work. Although her artistic style changed over her fifty-year career, her paintings are generally figural, often allegorical, and gorgeous, and many were displayed in various galleries and museums throughout England during her lifetime.

“The Love Potion,” 1903 

Since the 1870s, women have been included in every class. The Slade School currently offers degrees from the BA/BFA through the PhD, and according to its site, the Slade approaches “the practice of contemporary art and the history and theories that inform it in an experimental, research-oriented and imaginative way.” You can find the Slade in Gower Street, with its easily identifiable façade (illustration); and the University College London Art Museum nearby houses reserve collections, available for viewing by appointment, that include prize-winning work from the Slade students as well as works by Old Master artists and sculptural masterpieces. The closest tube station is Euston Square.


Karen Odden earned her PhD in English literature from New York University, where she wrote her dissertation on representations of railway disasters in Victorian medical, legal, and popular literature, tracing our current ideas about “trauma” back to a time before the shell-shock of WWI to the railway disasters of the 1850s-1880s. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; her critical essays on Victorian literature have appeared in numerous books and journals; and for nearly a decade, she served as an assistant editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture. Her first Victorian mystery, A LADY IN THE SMOKE, was a USA Today bestseller, and her second novel, A DANGEROUS DUET, won for best Historical Fiction at the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. Her third, A TRACE OF DECEIT, was published in December 2019 by William Morrow. She lives in Arizona with her family and her beagle-muse, Rosy.

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