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International Women's Day 2022
Dr. Lydia Miller
[ Artist in Focus )
Assistant Curator Lydia Miller explores five women represented in the Gallery’s collection for International Women’s Day.
In celebration of International Women’s Day 2022 we asked our assistant curators, Lydia Miller and Miriam O’Connor Perks, to choose and explore some of their favourite women artists or artworks featuring women from our collection.
It is important to us as a gallery that we tell the stories of the women in our collection. As our Head of Collections, Sarah Norris, wrote last year, women artists are all too often talked about in relation to their male contemporaries, while their own artistic output is ignored. We are pushing to redress this through our exhibitions, acquisitions and through digital content, such as this blog.
In this first of two articles, Lydia Miller discusses the work of Eileen Agar, Mary Fedden, Frances Hodgkins and Khadija Saye and the work and representation of architect MJ Long.
Eileen Agar, Self-Portrait (1938)
What better way to kick off International Women’s Day than with this self-portrait by surrealist Eileen Agar, painted in 1938? In style and technique, it is very different to Agar’s earlier 1927 self-portrait which is in the National Portrait Gallery collection – a more realistic depiction of the young artist painted with short, impressionistic brushstrokes, and deemed by Agar to be her first successful work.
This later self-portrait at Pallant House demonstrates her significant development as an artist by the mid-1930s, and successfully reflects her ongoing interest in Surrealism and Cubism during the interwar period.
It might be tempting to write that this work displays an increased confidence in Agar’s work, when compared to her earlier self-portrait, but here Agar displays more than just ‘confidence’. This self-portrait has a tactility to its bold colouring, and its patterning is reminiscent of textile. It might feel like a liberating or empowering self-portrait by a woman artist, and it certainly depicts a freedom and modernity that is all the stronger for knowing that it was painted in 1938 – a year before everyday life became increasingly restricted by the Second World War, and Agar’s career was temporarily halted.
Two years before Agar embarked upon this self-portrait in 1938, she was selected to exhibit at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Roland Penrose visited Agar’s studio prior to the exhibition with Herbert Read and recalled that,
‘Both of us were at once enchanted by the rare quality of her talent, the product of a highly sensitive imagination and feminine clairvoyance.’
Agar was one of very few women artists to exhibit work in this exhibition and quickly became a celebrity, as well as a central figure working in Surrealism in Britain. Later that same year she was one of only two English artists chosen to be represented in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When Agar was interviewed for the National Life Story Collection: Artists’ Lives series in 1990, she was asked what Surrealism had meant to her:
It means the element of surprise in, in [sic] whatever you do. If you paint, or whatever, it must surprise you, otherwise it’s just quoted in, as they call it, it’s just ordinary. And to me, surrealism is somehow or other, the element of surprise.
The colours that Agar has used for this self-portrait, within the relatively small confines of the card, are vast. Several of the shapes have sharp, crisp edges as though they have been stencilled, and yet on closer inspection it has been largely painted by hand. Agar’s face is depicted in profile and can be seen rising out of an abstract sea of similar profiles. Her hair is thrown back, spiked at her forehead but then, possibly using the handle of her brush or another fine instrument, she has scratched into the black surface to create loose curls resembling twisting thread. This allows the pink, yellow and blue layers to radiate through from underneath.
Agar’s experimentation with profiles in this work recalls Lee Miller’s portrait of Eileen Agar’s shadow against a column at Brighton Pavilion, which was taken the year before in 1937. This photograph was reworked by Miller to create a collage of Agar which included a bas-relief by abstract artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The imaginative use of profiles by both artists demonstrates an exchange of ideas between women surrealists working at this period in Britain.
Mary Fedden, Still Life with Artichoke (1972)
Amongst Eileen Agar’s friends was the Modern British artist Mary Fedden. Like Agar, Fedden had studied for a period at the Slade School of Fine Art, although the two students did not overlap. Instead, Agar had met Fedden’s future husband Julian Trevelyan whilst they were exhibiting at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.
Trevelyan left the English Surrealist Group in 1938 and following his marriage to Fedden in 1951, the two women artists, Fedden and Agar, met for the first time and became lifelong friends. In an interview with Mary Fedden in 1991 she described Eileen Agar as ‘always a surrealist, all her life’ and Fedden’s husband Julian described Agar’s house as like stepping into one of her paintings, ‘because she had wonderful juxtaposition of objects around her house, and her pictures merged with her objects, and they merged with the furniture, and even her dining table looked like a surrealist painting!’
Mary Fedden was not a surrealist like Agar but had started her career as a set designer for Sadler’s Wells Theatre before returning to Bristol to teach. After the Second World War, during which she worked in the Land Army and Women’s Volunteer Service, she became the first woman tutor to teach in the Painting School at the Royal College of Art. Amongst the students at the Royal College of Art at this time were David Hockey, Patrick Caulfield, Allen Jones and RB Kitaj, who would go on to paint MJ Long in The Architects.
After the Second World War in 1946 Fedden returned to easel painting. She painted a number of landscapes, and was partial to including cats in her work, but she is best known for her still life compositions such as this work in our collection at Pallant House Gallery, Still Life with Artichoke. This has the simplicity of a set design. Fedden’s paintings have been compared to Matisse and Braque, but there are also similarities with the work of Paul Cézanne and his reimagined, post-Impressionist perspectives of still life.
Fedden told The Artist magazine in 1995 that,
‘I really float from influence to influence. Braque and Matisse were certainly important at first, but other painters have drifted into my art. I found the early Ben Nicholsons at his recent retrospective fascinating, as were the paintings of his wife Winifred … I also admire the Scottish artist Anne Redpath and the French painter Henri Hayden. But I don’t ever copy other painters; I hope I have enough of a personal handwriting not to be too influenced by anyone‘.
MJ Long in The Architects by RB Kitaj (1979)
Mary Fedden inspired a generation of students as the first woman tutor in painting at the Royal College of Art. Amongst her students was RB Kitaj who painted this family portrait of architects Colin St John Wilson and his wife MJ Long, and their two children Sal in the doorway and Harry to the far left.
Between 1975 and 2008, the architect MJ Long designed 13 studios for a number of leading artists working in Britain, including Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake, Gordon House, Paul Huxley and RB Kitaj. Several of these artists were close friends of Long and her husband Wilson. However, these studios have often been overlooked as pet projects that ran alongside the 30-year design and execution of the British Library – Long and Wilson’s most ambitious architectural achievement.
Long had a passionate belief that a studio should be in tune with an artist’s individual working method. The photographs and architectural plans created by Long and published in her book Artists’ Studios certainly highlight the individuality of each space she created, as well as her flexibility to change and adapt unique architecture into functional working spaces. As a thank you for her work, Long was often gifted works by the artists with whom she worked and was friends.
In 1979 Long was asked to sit for this group portrait by KItaj, following her work redesigning his studio in his terraced house in Chelsea. The studio was used as the setting for this portrait, and behind MJ Long the stepped bookcase that she designed for the space, and in response to Kitaj’s obsession with books, can be seen.
In 2010, MJ Long recalled sitting for Kitaj’s portrait. Although she had already been the architect of the artist’s studio and the pair had got along well, she described a change in their relationship when she became the subject of his work. He found the work frustrating, Long often felt intimidated by the sittings, and Kitaj would often become irritable. However, when this painting was finished, it was described by Kitaj as a transitional work; it was the start of a new era in his oeuvre.
MJ Long had an important and ongoing relationship with Pallant House Gallery. Her architectural firm Long & Kentish were responsible for the design of the contemporary wing of the gallery, in association with Colin St John Wilson, which opened in 2006. This wing provided space in which to house part of their substantial collection of Modern British art.
In 2021, the MJ Long Acquisition was allocated to Pallant House from the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, following Long’s death in 2018. The MJ Long Acquisition has added 175 works of art to the permanent collection at Pallant House. It is the Gallery’s most significant acquisition in 15 years, and in 2021 it won the Apollo Magazine Acquisition of the Year Award.
Frances Hodgkins, Spanish Peasants (1934)
In 2000, MJ Long and her architectural firm Long & Kentish had already produced plans for the new contemporary wing at Pallant House Gallery, and it was decided that this was the perfect opportunity to use the plans to create a new model art gallery for the Millennium, The 2000 Model Art Gallery.
This was not the first model art gallery to enter the collection. In 1997, 23 miniature artworks by leading contemporary artists of the 1930s, were discovered in a suitcase by Sydney Burney’s grandson, and have since been on long-term loan to Pallant House. Sydney Burney was the brainchild behind The Thirty Four Gallery, a miniature art gallery that aimed to capture Modern British art of the period. It comprised 34 miniature artworks, and was part of a larger exhibition held at Chesterfield House in 1934, in aid of the Greater London Fund for the Blind.
One of the artworks that had been exhibited in The Thirty Four Gallery, and is now on display at Pallant House, is this miniature oil painting by Frances Hodgkins titled Spanish Peasants. Hodgkins was a well-travelled artist. She was initially from New Zealand where she had been encouraged to paint by her father and then by Girolamo Nerli, an Italian artist who worked in both Australia and New Zealand, and who taught Hodgkins in Dunedin in 1893. In 1901, Hodgkins took a teaching post in London and subsequently travelled to Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Morocco for drawing excursions. She settled in Paris between 1908 and 1914, and, like Mary Fedden, who was the first woman tutor in panting at the Royal College of Art, Hodgkins became the first woman instructor at the Académie Colarossi in the French capital.
During the First World War she lived in St Ives in Cornwall, home to an extensive colony of artists since 1877, when the Great Western Railway was extended to west Cornwall. It was here that she began working with oils rather than watercolours. She later spoke of this period as her ‘experimental days.’ Through her friend, the artist Cedric Morris, Hodgkins became part of the London Group and then the Seven and Five Society in 1929.
1934, the year Spanish Peasants was painted, was an incredible year for British art. It marked the first and only exhibition of Unit One, a group founded by Paul Nash which included Frances Hodgkins for a short period. Several of the artists that Hodgkins exhibited alongside in The Thirty Four Gallery were her contemporaries in Unit One, including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, and Edward Wadsworth.
Travelling was important to Hodgkins and inspiration for her work often came from abroad. In 1933 she travelled to Ibiza in Spain and it is likely that it was there that she made detailed watercolour studies of Spanish workers undertaking everyday tasks. When she returned to England, she worked from these sketches to produce Spanish Shrine (1933-5) which is now in the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki collection.
This painting depicts two women, one carrying a crate of fruit on her head, and the other a water barrel. Between them is a statue, either depicting of a local saint or the Virgin Mary. By positioning these women alongside a revered religious figure, Hodgkins elevates their everyday work and their faith to biblical figures important to Christian teachings.
Interestingly, Hodgkins has chosen to use the same two female figures for her miniature painting in The Thirty Four Gallery. Again, these women can be seen carrying fruit and a water barrel, as well as wearing the same clothes as in Spanish Shrine, but Hodgkins has chosen to position them at a different angle and closer together. It is likely that, rather than reworking Spanish Shrine for Spanish Peasants, Hodgkins instead worked from a different sketch that was produced in Ibiza of these women for her miniature work.
Khadija Saye, Untitled from the series ‘Crowned’ (2013)
The third and most recent model art gallery at Pallant House, which sits alongside The Thirty Four Gallery and the 2000 Model Art Gallery, was commissioned in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was designed by Wright & Wright architects to house art by 39 different contemporary artists. All of these artists are still living and continue to produce art today, and each of them produced miniature works specifically for this space – all except one artist.
This work by Khadija Saye was produced as part of a series of photographs called Crowned. This series was Saye’s 2013 graduation project which concluded her BA degree in photography at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham. In this work Saye explores the theme of identity by photographing the intricate hairstyles of close friends and family.
On 5th March 2017, Saye referred to this series in a Twitter post, ‘This time 4 years ago, I was in the process of shooting my Crowned series with £0, just some black velvet with beautiful friends & family.’ The title Crowned communicates the subject of royalty, and demonstrates pride for black women’s hairstyles. The artist highlights each woman’s individuality without their faces being shown, and through this series Saye both confronts and expels the dominant historical pressures for black women to conform to European notions of beauty.
Saye’s interest in her Gambian heritage and her parents’ different faiths: Christianity and Islam were pivotal to her art, and continued across her series that were displayed at the Venice Biennale, Dwelling: in this space we breathe, and again in Home. Coming. Saye was the youngest exhibitor in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The month before she died, she proudly posted a photograph of the outside of the Diaspora Pavilion with the caption, ‘It’s been a real journey, but mama, I’m an artist exhibiting in Venice and the blessings are abundant!’ The Diaspora Pavilion brought together 19 British-based and ethnically diverse artists to challenge traditional views of nationality at the Venice Biennale. There have been calls for the Biennale to end its national pavilions which have been said to poorly represent the work of artists working across different countries and cultures.
Saye photographed Crowned in her mother’s flat on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower, where Saye also lived and worked. Khadija Saye died at the age of 24 along with her mother, Mary, when a fire broke out in the building on 14th June 2017 which killed 72 people. The life of Khadija Saye, and her potential as a young and talented artist, was tragically cut short. It is a real privilege to be able to include her work in the collection at Pallant House Gallery.
These are just five of the many fantastic women artists in the Pallant House Gallery collection. If you enjoyed your read, make sure to check out Part 2 by Assistant Curator, Miriam O’Connor Perks.
To read more from Dr. Lydia Miller you can pre-order her book Inspirational Women: Rediscovering Stories in Art, Science and Social Reform published on 24 March 2022.
 Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991).
 ‘National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives: Eileen Agar’, interviewed by Cathy Courtney, C466/01. https://sounds.bl.uk/related-content/TRANSCRIPTS/021T-C0466X0001XX-ZZZZA0.pdf date accessed: 02/03/22.
 ‘National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives: Mary Fedden’, interviewed by Mel Gooding, C466/05. https://sounds.bl.uk/related-content/TRANSCRIPTS/021T-C0466X0005XX-ZZZZA0.pdf date accessed: 02/03/22.
 Mary Fedden, quoted in The Artist, March 1995, 12.