Women and the Royal Academy of Arts

Women have been fighting to have their art recognised by the Royal Academy since it was founded in 1768. Let's meet a few of those determined artists who changed history.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

When the RA was established in 1768, two of its 36 founding artists and architects were women. Like many organisations in the 18th century, women were largely prevented from taking part. As we’ll see, it would be more than a century before any more women were allowed to join the Academy.

Royal Academicians gathered in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy (2018)Royal Academy of Arts

In 2020 things are better and there are almost 40 female members. That number is steadily rising – 20 out of the 43 Royal Academicians elected in the last decade were female (that's 47%). In part, that’s because wider society has changed, but also because there were women throughout history who kept banging on the RA’s doors (or, as we’ll see, sneaking through the back door) until their art was recognised.

Here are a few we think you should know about...

Self-portrait (1770) by Angelica Kauffman RARoyal Academy of Arts

Angelica Kauffman
Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman was seen as a child prodigy, but couldn’t enter formal art education as a woman so was trained by her artist father. She studied in Italy for many years and became one of the most sought-after portraitists of the era. She arrived in London in 1766 and set to work establishing the Royal Academy of Arts along with 35 other artists and architects.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

Mary Moser
Kauffman was joined at the fledgling Royal Academy by just one other woman: British-born Mary Moser. Like Kauffman, she was taught by her father, but rose to prominence as Britain’s leading flower painter. Age 14, one of her flower works won a silver medal in the category of ‘Polite Arts’ at the well-renowned Society of the Arts, and by age 24 she was the youngest founding member of the RA.

The Royal Academy of Arts (Published 2 August 1773 by Robert Sayer) by Mezzotint by Richard Earlom after Johann Zoffany RARoyal Academy of Arts

Two women… Not too bad?
Historian Amanda Vickery describes the early RA’s policy of involving women as “grudging and tokenistic at best”. Life classes (where artists practiced drawing the human body from a live model) were a key part of education at the RA, but they were off-limits to Moser and Kauffman since it would have been considered improper for a woman to be in the same room as a naked person. They were also excluded from meetings and votes, so could play no role in the direction of the organisation.

The Antique School at Old Somerset House (1779) by Edward Francis BurneyRoyal Academy of Arts

Laura Herford
In 1860, young artist Laura Herford showed just how misguided the RA’s policies were. Applying for a place to study at the prestigious Royal Academy Schools, Herford submitted several drawings to the admissions tutors, each signed with just her initials – disguising her feminine forename. On the merit of those works, she was in!

Petition of female students to the President and Council (4th December 1883)Royal Academy of Arts

“The female invasion”
Laura Herford opened the doors for more female students: in the decade following her admittance, many more women were admitted to the RA Schools. They were still barred from life classes until the 1890s, and their admission was strictly controlled to ensure that they didn’t outnumber the men. Even in the early 1900s, some male staff and students regarded women as intruders – or “the female invasion”, as painter George Dunlop Leslie RA put it.

The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875 (1876) by Charles West Cope RARoyal Academy of Arts

Elizabeth Butler
Women may have broken into the RA Schools, but there were still none among the professional artists who ran the Academy – as you can see in this 1875 painting of Royal Academicians reviewing submissions to the RA's Annual Exhibition. One year earlier, Elizabeth Butler’s arresting oil painting, The Roll Call (take a look), was exhibited in pride of place at the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition. Depicting the aftermath of a battle in the Crimean War, the work was celebrated across the country, was bought by Queen Victoria, and got Butler nominated for Academician status in 1879.

She lost by just two votes, which perturbed some Academicians so much that a motion was put forward “That women be no longer eligible to be members of the Royal Academy”. The majority of Academicians voted against this suggestion, which was a hypothetical scenario anyway, since the previous – and only – female members (Kauffman and Moser) had been dead for more than sixty years.

You can learn more about Butler’s story on an episode of writer Malcolm Gladwell’s 'Revisionist History' podcast.

Annie Swynnerton A.R.A. (1931) by Unidentified photographerRoyal Academy of Arts

Annie Swynnerton
In 1922 (a mere 154 years after the RA was established), the 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”.

The Letter (?1900-20) by Annie Swynnerton ARARoyal Academy of Arts

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!). At age 87 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."

Students working from the life in the Ladys Painting School [sic] (From article published in The Lady’s Pictorial, 19 February 1916) by Unidentified photographerRoyal Academy of Arts

Laura Knight
Three years after Swynnerton died, in 1936 Laura Knight was elected the first fully fledged female Royal Academician. She wrote in her autobiography: “We women who have the good fortune to be born later than Mrs Swynnerton profit by her accomplishments. Any woman reaching the heights in the fine arts had been almost unknown until Mrs Swynnerton came and broke down the barriers of prejudice.”

In this video, Sarah Turner (Deputy Director of Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art) discusses Knight and her painting 1913 Lamorna Birch and his Daughters.

Students working from the life in the Ladys Painting School [sic] (From article published in The Lady’s Pictorial, 19 February 1916) by Unidentified photographerRoyal Academy of Arts

Fighting for a seat at the table
Gradually, the barriers to women’s involvement were being knocked down, but it took until 1967 for female Academicians (who then numbered four) to be allowed to join the RA’s Annual Dinner – a defining event in the British art scene. Another female member, Gertrude Hermes, had written to the RA the previous year to warn that “this splendid establishment cannot afford to lag behind in these matters”. By this time, Laura Knight was 84 years old and had been a member for more than 30 years.

Rebecca Salter, President of the Royal Academy of Arts (2019)Royal Academy of Arts

An Academy for everyone?
From four women out of 80 members in 1967, to eight in 1980, to 38 in 2020: the scales are slowly balancing out. In 2011, the Royal Academy Schools appointed its first female professors (Tracey Emin among them), and in 2019 the RA elected its first female President, Rebecca Salter.

Royal Academicians gathered in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy (2018)Royal Academy of Arts

The first women who petitioned, painted and proved their way into the Royal Academy certainly changed the institution, but it’s hard to ignore that they were all white (and wealthy). The RA is beginning to be more inclusive with women of colour represented in the more recent elections of Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Farshid Moussavi represent women within the institution. But there’s still a long way to go.

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