When I was looking through the RA Archive, I unexpectedly discovered documents that not only show women regularly joining men in this profession, but also that they were being paid double compared to their male counterparts.
This housekeeper’s bill (shown above) from January 26, 1788, gives us a snapshot of daily life at the Academy. But beneath the listings of bread, beer and wood are two male names and an anonymous “woman”. This bill shows that the largest expense was the payment of the female model, not the men. It is not clear why, but perhaps their anonymity on this bill highlights the higher stakes involved for women and that their reputations, even as prostitutes, could have been compromised by performing the role of life model.
Social attitudes towards the use of nude models were complicated by the issue of morality during the latter part of the 19th century. The artist James Barry complained of prejudice towards the representation of the naked figure by those who regarded it as “indecent and tending to lewdness”. The Academy became a regulator of practice, but continued to use female nude models in their life drawing lessons, and the success of artists such as Joshua Reynolds, David Wilkie, John Constable and William Etty has been attributed to this.
Women in the Academy today
Women have always been a minority at the Academy, and even today represent just 25% of our Membership, with a total of 32 female Academicians out of a possible 126. Despite the fact that women have been nominated for Membership at a similar rate to men, their journey to full Academician status remains a sticking point.
However, the last two years have seen a dramatic change. In 2013, of the 10 new Academicians elected only 20% were women. In 2014, that percentage rose to 100% as every one of the six new Academicians elected was a woman. In the RA Schools, the ratio of male to female students is roughly 50-50, and we have the first ever female Keeper (Eileen Cooper RA).
Although women today make up over 60% of art and design students in the UK, just 31% of London galleries are exhibiting work made by women. So how far have we really come since 1768? Questions around positive discrimination and quotas continue across the Academy, with strong opinions from many generations of women, and so on Sunday 8 March, we invite you to take part and join the debate by participating in our workshop, or joining us for a panel discussion that explores the changing landscape of women artists today.
Amy Bluett is the RA’s Events and Lectures Co-ordinator. With special thanks to the RA’s Archivist, Mark Pomeroy.