In 1922 (a mere 154 years after the institution was established), the RA’s all-male members elected the first woman to their ranks – sort of. Manchester-born painter Annie Swynnerton was initially nominated for membership in 1914, but it would take eight more years and two more votes before the majority of RAs were in her favour. By then, she was over 75 – the age limit for members allowed to take part in the running of the Academy – so she was made a “retired Associate”.
Nonetheless, Swynnerton lived an extraordinary life as an artist: she was one of the leading painters of the late 19th century and a determined campaigner for women’s equality. She depicted female figures that were radically un-romanticised for the time – though she had to travel to Paris and Rome to learn the techniques from nude life drawing.
When the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts wouldn’t allow her to become a member, Swynnerton and fellow artist Isabel Dacre established their own Manchester Society of Women Painters, which held exhibitions and art classes (including life drawing!).
By 1931, when this photograph was taken, her eyesight had started to deteriorate and though she continued to exhibit at the Academy, she would often show works she had painted years earlier. It’s possible that the work seen behind her in this photograph was also from an earlier period. Around the same time as this photo, she recalled: "I had to struggle so hard... You see, when I was young, women could not paint – or so it was said. The world believed that and did not want the work of women, however sincere, however good."