The media these days is full of articles and comments about the lack of equality suffered by women in all walks of life. One hopes that it is not just a fad that the media believe its audience want to be informed about but will die away like so many “hot topics” in the past. Women have had to struggle for too long and nowhere so much as in the male-dominated world of art. In the next few blogs I want to feature a female artist who railed against such inequalities. My featured artist today is the English painter Annie Louise Swynnerton (née Robinson).
Annie Louise Robinson was born at 3 Vine Grove, Hulme, an inner-city working-class area south of the city centre of Manchester. She was one of seven daughters of Ann Sanderson and Francis Robinson. Her father came from a humble background, his father plying his trade as a carpenter. After he had completed his schooling, Francis Robinson embarked on a career in law as an attorney’s clerk. He married Anne Sanderson, the daughter of a York innkeeper, in 1840. Francis Robinson’s legal career progressed and in 1843 he attained the position of managing clerk in the Higsons law firm, later the firm became Higsons and Robinson. The couple had seven children, all daughters, the first born being Annie Louisa Robinson who entered the world on February 26th 1844. She was followed by Emily, Julia, Sarah, Adela, Mary and Frances. Annie was baptised at St Wilfrid’s Catholic Church later that year. The family changed their place of residence many times when Annie was growing up, living in various Manchester suburbs, such as Kersal, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Greenhays and in 1861 the seventeen-year-old was living at 227 Prestwich Park, Salford. This was a prestigious area of Manchester and the Robinson’s home was an eight-bedroomed house and was large enough to accommodate the parents, their seven children, Mary Robinson, Francis’ unmarried sister and two young Irish servant girls. The next-door neighbours were both prosperous families, one being a hat manufacturer who employed over two hundred workers and on the other side the neighbour was a silk merchant.
Around the end of the 1860’s there was a change in the family fortunes. Francis Robinson’s financial situation deteriorated when his firm was declared bankrupt. In 1869, Francis Robinson lost his home and most of its contents were sold off over a three-day period to pay off his debts. From census records of 1871 it is apparent that Annie, along with her two oldest sisters, Emily and Julia, and her two youngest sisters, Mary and Francis had moved to a small rented property at 28 Upper Brook Street in Chorlton-on-Medlock, an inner city area of Manchester but strangely there is no record of their father and mother living at this premises but they could have been out of the country during the census. Her aunt, Mary, and her step-grandmother lived in another small terraced house in the same street and were recorded as visitors to this property at the time of the census as were Annie’s other two sisters, Sarah and Adela. Maybe they lived somewhere else. Maybe they lived with their parents.
In the autumn of 1868, Annie, Emily and Julia attended, on a part time basis, the nearby Manchester School of Art on Mosely Street, which is now the Manchester Art Gallery. One cannot be sure whether Annie had planned to become a professional fine artist or simply develop the skills which would count if she ever applied for a post as a governess. The three sisters all did well and, during the period they were there and won a number of prizes. In 1873, Annie won the respected national award, the Princess of Wales Scholarship, for the drawing of the head of a boy and a further award for one of her oil paintings. She received a gold medal and the princely sum of £11. It is apparent that the reason the three young ladies attended the School was to hone their artistic skills to such an extent that they would be able to sell their work and make some much needed money to support themselves, but it would also make them independent and maybe even self-sufficient and avoid relying on a man to support them. At this time, there was a vibrant market for contemporary art from the well-off merchants of Manchester who tended to steer clear of the art of the “old masters” as their knowledge of such work often led to deception and they preferred to commission their own paintings from up-and-coming painters.
Annie Swynnerton’s struggle against prejudice and her eventual success at becoming a professional artist was an amazing achievement. People, who have studied the paths taken by females in the art world, soon realised that those few who succeeded had family artistic connections and no doubt family support for their venture into the male-dominated art world. However, Annie had no such parental backing, no artistic or social connections, which could have smoothed her path towards an artistic career, no early artistic training for remember she was twenty-four years of age when she attended the Manchester School of Art, also she had the responsibility of bringing up her younger siblings in cramped living conditions which did not favour the work of an artist. She was simply the daughter of a provincial attorney who turned to art as a way of earning money to support her family. She entered the art school with little going for her except her great determination to succeed.
For artists to make money they must be able to exhibit and sell their work and at that time in Manchester the main route for this was to become a member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts and be allowed to show their work at the annual Spring exhibition. However, the Academy which had been founded in 1859, would not accept female artists into its fold. Annie was a fighter and would not accept things without a fight and so in 1874, along with some other female artists petitioned the Academy council to be allowed to become members. They had also made sure that their request was well reported in the local newspapers. In 1875, the Academy fearing bad publicity agreed on a compromise by which a new class of Academy membership was created and was to be known as Lady Exhibitioners, but the Academy would still neither let females hold office within the Academy nor would they let them attend the life drawing classes which was such an important aspect in artistic training. In 1875 Annie, her sisters Emily and Julia, her friend Isabel Dacre and five other female artists were elected as Lady Exhibitioners at the Manchester Academy but by this time and because of Annie’s lack of access to life drawing classes at the Academy which she found unacceptable, she had already left the country.
Often in life it is a chance meeting with another person which will shape and influence your future. For Annie it was the meeting and the enduring friendship with her fellow Manchester School of Art student Susan Isabel Dacre. Warwickshire-born, convent-educated in Salford, where her mother kept a number of small hotels, Dacre was the same age as Swynnerton and like Annie had not had the benefit of an advantaged background. However, the early life of Isabel and Annie could not be more different for whereas Annie Swynnerton had led a quiet life in Manchester Isabel Dacre was an experienced traveller. At the age of fourteen Isabel was living in Paris and after completing her schooling there worked as a governess in the French capital and studied art at the Louvre. In 1869 she spent the winter in Italy before returning to Paris. However, following the war between France and Prussia which saw the French capital besieged by the Prussian troops in 1870, Isabel Dacre and her brother hastily left France and returned to Manchester. They returned to Paris at the cessation of the Franco-Prussian War but were then caught up in the bloody and very dangerous Paris Commune uprisings in 1871 and had to once again quickly exit the country. On her return to Manchester Isabel Dacre became a student at the Manchester School of Art.
There can be no doubt that Isabel Dacre had a great influence on Annie Swynnerton and managed to persuade her to join her in a trip to Paris and the opportunity to further their artistic career once they had concluded their art course in Manchester in the autumn of 1874. First port of call for the pair was Rome where the two women studied for two years and became part of the Anglo-American artistic and literary circle which had become well established in the city. Here they mixed with female writers, singers, actresses and artists. Swynnerton loved the Italian lifestyle and later lived there for lengthy periods between 1883 and 1910. Italy and the Italian way of life was to influence Swynnerton and this can be seen in the vibrant colours used in her portrayals of women.
One such work which she completed in 1874 was an exquisite oil portrait entitled Roma Lady ‘Jebsa’. It is a Victorian portrait of an elegant Roma woman in traditional dress. The name Jebsa has no historical or literary connotation and so it is presumed that Annie and the sitter could have been on first-name terms. This was Annie Swynnerton’s earliest known oil painting which she completed during her first visit to Italy. In this work, she has used the technique known as chiaroscuro, which is the use of strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms which had been used by Italian artists such as Caravaggio during the High Renaissance period and Annie would have seen many of his works whilst in Rome.
Another portrait of note emanating from her time in Italy was her 1886 painting entitled An Italian Mother and Child. It was one of a series of Italian women and child paintings that Annie produced during the 1880’s. The woman and child are posed in an arch of the wall of the Campo Verano cemetery that overlooks the Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (Basilica of St Lawrence outside the Walls). In this portrait we see a young woman bedecked in a simple peasant dress with its white blouse with puff sleeves and a white head dress. She is sitting on a wall below an ivy-covered archway. On her lap stands her young pudgy-thighed child. The child is dressed in a blue dress with a white undergarment and a gold medallion necklace around her neck. The mother supports her child with her left hand, holding the child’s right hand with her right. Look at how the artist has used white highlights to depict how the bright natural sunlight has fallen on the woman’s headdress, arms and knees. The painting has a look of Renaissance art which Swynnerton would have studied during her days in Italy.
Another mother and child painting was completed by Swynnerton in the 1880’s entitled Mother and Child but often referred to as Through the Orchard. The setting for this painting was Clovelly in Devon. Similar to the previous work we can see how Annie has registered area where the natural light has touched various surfaces. The inclusion of the apple tree as a background element harks back to pre-Raphaelite concept of truth to nature. Annie has used a palette of earthy colours in this portrayal of a working-class woman and is a reminder of the Rural Naturalist paintings done by the likes of Bastien-Lepage and George Clausen. The woman carries her young child as well as carrying a pitcher of water and symbolises the roles of motherhood, and worker.
Around the end of 1876, Annie and Isabel left Italy and returned to Manchester.
…………………………………………to be continued.
Most of the information for this and following blogs about Annie Swynnerton was found in some excellent books which I bought at the Painting Light and Hope exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery.
Annie Swynnerton, Painting Light and Hope by Kate JT Herrington and Rebecca Milner
The Life and Works of Annie Louise Swynnerton by Susan Thomson
Annie Swynnerton, Painter and Pioneer by Christine Allen and Penny Morris.