“Striving after excellence”: Victorian women and the fight for arts training

International Women’s Day series

Published 4 March 2015

Amy Bluett discovers how 19th-century women aspiring to be artists had an uphill struggle to get equal access to training at the Royal Academy Schools.

  • This Sunday, for the first time in its history, the Royal Academy will celebrate International Women’s Day with a variety of events that explore inter-generational perspectives of women in the arts. In the lead-up to this we’re publishing a series of blogs exploring the historic role of women at the RA.

    While the founders of the Academy had accepted two women into their fold, the issue of women’s exclusion from arts education was not addressed at the Royal Academy until 1860, when Laura Herford was admitted by accident to the RA Schools after submitting drawings with only her initials, L.H.

    Whether or not this was a strategic move as part of a larger feminist campaign against the Academy is unclear. However, before this, her involvement in art classes outside of the Academy organised by artist Eliza Fox (which also formed as meeting places for feminists from the late 1840s onwards) suggests she was linked with the public petition appearing in Athenaeum magazine in 1859, requesting the Academy to open its doors to women.

    Laura Herford’s admission was later referred to as “The invasion” in G. D. Leslie’s The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (1914), but in the following ten years after her admittance in 1860, an additional 34 female students were admitted into the RA Schools. Once in place, female students had to fight for the right to have the same training and facilities as their male counterparts, who by this time were benefitting from the pioneering integration of life drawing into arts education, as modelled by the European academies during the 17th century.

    The very idea that women could even be artists was being hotly debated by John Ruskin and other critics in a number of journals at that time. Women’s place in society was still perceived as passive and their behaviour governed by emotion. They had been excluded from the practice of drawing from the nude figure since the time of the founding Academicians, as we can see in Johann Zoffany’s The Royal Academy of Arts, 1771–2, where Moser and Kauffman are depicted as paintings on the wall rather than physically attending the life class.

  • After Johann Zoffany RA, The Royal Academy of Arts

    After Johann Zoffany RA, The Royal Academy of Arts, 1773.

    Engraved by Richard Earlom, Published by Robert Sayer, 2nd August 1773.

    Mezzotint. 508 x 718 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

  • The RA Archive offers a rich and compelling insight into the students’ fight for equality through a series of petitions written to the President requesting the right “to study from the figure”. Beginning in 1878, a petition was written and signed by 35 signatories.

    “We the undersigned lady students of your Academy fully recognise and appreciate the very great advantages and opportunity of study afforded us. At the same we cannot but feel conscious that at the present time one material want remains and that without the knowledge which the supply of that want can alone give we cannot hope to rise above mediocrity at any rate in the highest branch of our art. We venture therefore knowing that you have ever been our true friend very respectfully to ask you to take into consideration the practicability of making some arrangement for which we might be enabled to study from the figure [semi draped].

    If you can make such an arrangement we assure you that we shall be very grateful for the favour conferred upon us, that we shall diligently and consciously avail ourselves of the help thus given to our striving after excellence.”

    Tracing back the committee meeting minutes from the same year, I discovered that on March 26 1878, the petition was read to the Council (the governing body of the RA, entirely made up of artists) and that its consideration was postponed. A week later on 3 April, the notes from the meeting state that the “petition of the female students read at the meeting of March 26 was considered, when it was resolved that the council are not prepared to comply with the request of the petition”. It was the first of many rejections throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s when female students petitioned in vain for their own life classes.

    Later in 1883, another petition demonstrates their growing strength. This one included a total of 90 signatories, 64 from female students and 26 letters of support. In it, they make an economic case for the right to study from the partially draped figure, considering, as the Academy promoted, that the study of the figure was integral to an artist’s professional success and livelihood.

    • A petition by female RA Schools students in 19883

      “To the president and the council, we the undersigned students of the Royal Academy do hereby respectfully and earnestly petition that rearranging the schools of this institution you will reconsider the question of granting us a life class for the study of the partially draped figure. We beg to lay it before your notice that almost all of us rely on the profession we have chosen as our future means of livelihood. Therefore a class which is considered so essential to the training success of male students must be equally so to us. We venture to hope that the separation of male and female students in the upper schools of the Academy may have removed an important objection against the granting of our request.”

  • In response, the Council meeting minutes from 11 December 1883 report that after “considerable discussion", it was resolved by eight votes to two that the RA Schools would provide a life class “for the study of the partially draped figure” for the female students.

    But unfortunately this wasn’t the final decision on the matter, and in the following meeting on 31 December 1883, after a new Council had been formed, the minutes report that the decision had been reached by the casting vote of the President and was required now to be submitted to the General Assembly – the whole body of artists and architects elected to be Royal Academicians – which in 1883 featured no women in its membership. In addition to the students’ requests, the Council recommended that not only should the figure be partially draped, but clothed with “a pair of bathing draws and a loin cloth”.

    So in January 1884, the matter went before the General Assembly. The minutes report that “The petition having been read and discussion having ensued, the resolution was put to the vote and not carried nine against 24”. This was to be the start of a further nine year battle, until the provision was made for women to study the partially draped model in 1893, 20 years after their first petition.

    By now, life classes for women were becoming more widely available across the country, and the Academy’s resistance to sexual equality was beginning to be perceived as old-fashioned and deeply ingrained in the values of what was by now a declining Victorian society.

  • RA Students painting an Italian Subject in the Women’s Life Room at Burlington House, 30.5.1925. Published in 'The Sphere', 1925 © Royal Academy of Arts

    RA Students painting an Italian Subject in the Women’s Life Room at Burlington House, 30.5.1925. Published in 'The Sphere', 1925 © Royal Academy of Arts

    Image: Royal Academy of Arts

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