Women artists at the RBSA: how they shaped British art history

The RBSA’s Permanent Collection and Archive is an important resource for tracing the history of women artists in Birmingham.

Not only did the female members of our Society achieve impact locally, they also went on to influence key art movements at national and international level.

Despite facing prejudice among their peers and battling the entrenched sexism of the times, sheer determination saw many women artists make their mark.

We look at some early figures who were the trailblazers of their day…

Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1858 – 1927): Painter 

Photo©Birmingham Museums Trust

Kate Elizabeth Bunce, ‘Melody (Musica)’ Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Kate Bunce showed an early interest in painting, exhibiting at the RBSA for the first time at the age of sixteen in 1874.

She was the daughter of John Thackray Bunce, editor of the Birmingham Daily Post, who was closely involved in the Municipal School of Art.

Kate trained at the School of Art under Edward Taylor and was deeply influenced by Arts & Crafts philosophy.  She was part of the remarkable flowering of talent in Birmingham at the time: Joseph Southall, Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, Mary Newill and Charles March Gere were all contemporaries.

Elected ARBSA in 1881, Bunce was also a founder member of the Society of Painters in Tempera in 1901.

The painting and poetry of Rossetti were a major source of inspiration for Bunce, and the composition, textures and musical subject matter of  Melody (Musica) show his influence. The model may have been Kate’s sister Mary who designed the frames for some of Bunce’s paintings.

Georgie Gaskin (1866 – 1934): Leading Arts & Crafts jeweller and book illustrator

Photo©Birmingham Museums Trust

Georgie Gaskin, Jeweller – Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Georgina France, known as Georgie, made jewellery with her husband Arthur Gaskin, who was also a leading figure in the Birmingham Arts & Crafts community.

Both took to jewellery making in their later years, partly to supplement Arthur Gaskin’s income as a painter. Georgie Gaskin was behind most of the designs, and her husband undertook most of the enamelling.

It is unclear who received the most credit for their work, but according to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, when they exhibited at the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition, Georgie was reviewed as the jeweller of the two.

Kate Eadie (1878 – 1945): Arts & Crafts enameller and manuscript illuminator

Photo©Birmingham Museums Trust

Kate Eadie, Enameller and Illuminator – Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Kate Eadie was born in Harborne and is most famous today for her Arts & Crafts enamel plaques and jewellery.

She trained at Birmingham School of Art, where she met the Pre-Raphaelite painter and influential teacher Sidney Harold Meteyard.

They married after two decades of working together as artists.

Kate posed as a model for many of his most famous paintings, including Jasmine (Rupert Maas Collection) and St Cecilia.

It is believed that Kate learned her craft under the Gaskins.

Kate Muriel Mason Eadie, The Defence of Guinevere

Kate Eadie, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’

Eadie’s The Defence of Guenevere won the Harry Lucas Award for the finest example of decorative artwork in the RBSA’s Spring Exhibition of 1916.

The gouache on vellum scene depicts a passage from William Morris’s poem of the same name, where Queen Guinevere recounts an encounter with Sir Launcelot in the walled garden at Camelot, admitting she yearned for the experience of true love.

Keep reading ART BLOG for an exciting update soon on the discovery of new archive material relating to Kate Eadie and Sidney Meteyard…

Teresa Clarke (1886-1987) Painter

Betsy, Oil paint on canvas 59cmx50cm

Teresa Clarke, ‘Portrait of Betsy’

The Society’s first female Member, Teresa Clarke was exhibited in A Place For Art: The Story of The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.

As the first woman to be admitted to the RBSA, Teresa and her art played an important role in the Society. She first exhibited in 1926 after becoming a subscriber, and was elected as a Member in 1952, the same year that Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne.

Several other women artists were waiting to achieve acceptance as Members at the time, and Teresa was the first to make it through.

Portrait of Betsy shows bold brushwork and a bright palette, with the influence of Dod Proctor and Fleetwood-Walker clear to see.

Hilda Mary Harvey (1890 – 1982) Painter and etcher

Hilda Mary Harvey, 'The Coloured Scarf'

Hilda Mary Harvey, ‘The Coloured Scarf’

Hilda Mary Harvey studied at Birmingham School of Art from the age of fifteen before working at the silversmiths Zimmermans in Birmingham.

When the war shut the firm down, she became a graphic artist at London couture house, Mechinka.

She studied under Henry Tonks at the Slade, exhibiting at The New English Art Club and the Royal Academy, but caught paratyphoid fever on a trip to Paris and the resulting convalescence slowed her career.

She married Charles Meeke on her return to England, and by 1924 was living in Birmingham again, working as a painter, printmaker and miniaturist. She later divorced and exhibited again at the RA, moving to St Ives where she joined the St Ives Society of Artists, painting until 1950.

Emmy Bridgwater (1906-1999)

 Stark Encounter, Pen and ink drawing on white paper 17cmx25cm

Emmy Bridgwater, ‘Stark Encounter’

One of the most important artists of the British Surrealist group, Emmy Bridgwater was chosen by André Breton to exhibit at a major international surrealist exhibition, Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme in Paris in 1947.

Artist and writer Toni del Renzio wrote of Emmy’s works, ‘We do not see these pictures. We hear their cries and are moved by them.’

She was based in Birmingham and London, and attended the Birmingham School of Art for three years from 1922.

Bridgwater was greatly influenced by the Surrealist movement after attending the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 and her career was transformed.

She studied in London at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art during 1936 and 1937, and Bridgwater’s work was exhibited as a member of the Birmingham Surrealist group throughout the late 1930s.

In the early 1940s, she joined the British Surrealist Group, and contributed to international surrealist publications.

She then cared for her mother and disabled sister, effectively suspending her artistic career. Bridgwater returned to the scene in the 1970s, producing collages and seeing her work feature in many surrealist retrospectives.

She is held in similar regard to Dali, in terms of her significance to UK surrealism.

Irene Amy Welburn (1908 – 2001)

Photo©Birmingham Museums Trust

Irene Amy Welburn, ‘Victoria in her Square’ Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Irene Welburn trained at Moseley Road School of Art and later attended Bernard Fleetwood-Walker’s classes at Birmingham School of Art in Margaret Street.

Idyllic landscapes, picnic scenes and figures set in sunlit gardens and interiors were her favourite themes and for this reason her works were, and remain, popular with collectors and dealers.

She also painted urban scenes in the UK and abroad in a bright, Impressionistic style.

Welburn was elected to the ROI in 1964 and exhibited at the Society of Women Artists and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

Rose Gwynneth Cobden Holt  (1909 – 1995) Sculptor

Gwynneth Holt studied at Wolverhampton School of Art where she met Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones. They were both awarded places at the Royal College of Art but Gwynneth was unable to go due to her family’s financial circumstances.

Holt created Annunciation, her most famous work, in the 1930s while the couple, by this time married, was based in Aberdeen. She went on to produce numerous ecclesiastical commissions and exhibited widely at the RA, the RBSA, the RSA, the Paris Salon and Wolverhampton Art Circle. She worked in wood, copper, terracotta and ivory.

Her work Blitz held strong resonances for the people of the Midlands who had endured bombing raids during the Second World War.

Holt won awards, but wasn’t afraid to express her frustrations at the male-dominated art scene…

“Women are just as intelligent as men, and their contribution to art is just as valuable. They are not given a chance to take art up seriously. What with looking after the house, there is not much time left for concentrating on art.”

Katherine M. Fryer (1910-2017) Engraver and Painter

Katherine Fryer, 'Morning of the Beach, Scarborough' 1994

Katherine Fryer, ‘Morning of the Beach, Scarborough’ 1994

Known for her wood engravings, Katherine Fryer was a prominent member of the RBSA and an active artist.

She became a teacher at Bath Academy of Art and a member of the Bath Society of Artists, working in Leicester Museum and Art Gallery before moving to Birmingham in the 1940s and becoming a member of staff at the Margaret St College of Art, in the School of Painting.

Fryer became a member of the RBSA in 1966.

At the age of 90, the RBSA held a solo exhibition of 72 of her works, and featured her again in the exhibition Ten Years at St Paul’s Square.

Joan E. Woollard, (1916-2008) Painter

Joan Woollard, 'The Races'

Joan Woollard, ‘The Races’

Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, Joan E. Woollard was elected as the first female president of the RBSA in 1961. She studied at the School of Painting, Birmingham School of Art between 1946 and 1955. Woollard worked across many fields of art including painting, sculpture, ceramics, and embroidery.<