Four of the First: Women Pioneers at the Royal Scottish Academy

Joyce W. Cairns (b.1947) was elected the first female President of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture on 28 November 2018. To mark the second anniversary of this historic occasion, I look at four of the ‘First Women’ of the Academy.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), Memories of the Sea, 1936, oil on board
Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow (c) Artist’s Estate

The Royal Scottish Academy

The mission of the Royal Scottish Academy is ‘to support and promote the creation, understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts in Scotland’. It was established in Edinburgh in 1826 and is the country’s longest-running artist-led institution. Many of its activities are based in the Royal Scottish Academy Building on The Mound in the centre of the capital.

The Founding Membership

The Academy’s founding membership consisted of eleven Academicians, or ‘Full Members’ (RSA), all of whom where men. The most common route to join thereafter was by election as an ‘Associate Member’ (ARSA). Prospective candidates had to be proposed and seconded by existing Academicians and Associates. If successful, some later went on to attain full RSA status.

The First Female Associate Member

In 1938, Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) became the first woman to be elected an ARSA. This was 112 years after the Academy was established. She was nominated by Alick Riddell Sturrock (1885-1953) and Ernest Stephen Lumsden (1883-1948), following an unsuccessful attempt in 1936.

Josephine Haswell Miller

Haswell Miller (née Cameron) was born in Glasgow. She studied at Glasgow School of Art, where she later taught. In 1916 she married Archibald Elliot Haswell Miller (1887-1979) and in 1930 they moved to Edinburgh on his appointment as Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Haswell Miller contributed regularly to group exhibitions held in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London and was elected to the Society of Scottish Artists in 1924. She exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy forty times between 1920 and 1975.

Memories of the Sea

Memories of the Sea of 1936 is, at first glance, an assured and attractive still-life painting. It features a map, model ship, standing male porcelain figurine and shells scattered over ruched material. The palette is subtle, with accents of blue and coral throughout. The technique is gentle realism, whilst the lighting is soft and even.

However, it is also a reflection on the disappearance of the French eighteenth-century naval officer and explorer Jean François de Gaulaup, Comte de Lapérouse (1741-1788?) and his ships L’Astrolabe and La Boussole. They vanished after leaving New South Wales in 1788. It was not until 1826 that the remains of their wreckage was found off Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.

William Lindsay Renwick

Haswell Miller exhibited Memories of the Sea in the Royal Scottish Academy’s Annual Exhibition of 1936. It was later acquired by William Lindsay Renwick (1889-1970). He studied at Glasgow University and eventually became Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He bequeathed the painting, along with the rest of his art collection, to the Hunterian Art Gallery in 1987.

Robert Sivell (1888-1958), Phyllis Mary Bone, RSA, oil on panel
Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries (c) Artist’s Estate

The First Female Full Member

The first female artist to become a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy was the sculptor Phyllis Mary Bone (1894-1972) in 1944. At the time, promotion from ARSA to RSA was only possible on the resignation or death of a full member in the same disciplinary category as the proposed candidate. The categories were then Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In this instance, Bone replaced James Pittendrigh Macgillivray (1856-1938) who had died six years earlier.

Phyllis Mary Bone

Bone was born in Hornby, Lancashire and grew up in Edinburgh. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art and in Paris under the animalier, or artist who specialises in the depiction of animals, Edouard Navellier (1865-1944). Amongst many prestigious commissions received during a long and prolific career, Bone modelled all but one of the animals which feature in the Scottish National War Memorial of 1923-27. Parallel to such large projects, Bone created smaller, stand-alone sculptures, many of which were featured in the Academy’s exhibitions between 1915 and 1972.

Phyllis Mary Bone (1894-1972), Shere Khan, the Tiger, 1930, bronze
Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture (c) Artist’s Estate

Shere Khan, the Tiger

On election to the rank of RSA, the artist is required to present one of their works to the Academy’s Diploma Collection. Bone chose Shere Khan, the Tiger of 1930. Based on the character in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, published in 1894, the name means ‘king tiger’. The otherwise powerful and athletic predator holds out its injured paw. This has been taken as a reference to Bone’s own disability with regard to walking. She modelled the animal first, inscribing the stripes of its fur, before having it cast in bronze.

Anne Redpath (1895-1965), Self-portrait in Venetian Mirror, 1956, oil on board
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (c) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

The First Female Painter Full Member

In 1952, Anne Redpath (1895-1965) became the first female painter to be elected to the rank of RSA. She filled a space created by the death of either William Somerville Shanks (1864-1951) or of John Guthrie Spence Smith (1880-1951). Redpath had been nominated for Associateship three times before being successful in 1947; one of her seconders was Haswell Miller in 1941, the first time a woman had been in a position to do so.

Anne Redpath

Redpath was born in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art and Moray House College of Education. A nascent exhibiting career turned into marriage to the architect James Beattie Michie (1891-1960) in 1920. This was followed by fourteen years spent in France, where their three sons were born. On returning to Scotland with her children, Redpath achieved widespread success and recognition after World War Two. She had numerous solo exhibitions and regularly contributed to group shows, such as those held at the Royal Glasgow Institute and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Redpath exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy thirty times between 1919 and 1964.

Anne Redpath (1895-1965), The Lace Cloth, c.1944, oil on board
Collection and (c) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

The Lace Cloth

Before Redpath became an ARSA, let alone an RSA, the Academy purchased The Lace Cloth of c.1944 from her in 1944. It is a fine example of the still-lifes set in domestic interiors for which she is celebrated.

A complex arrangement of objects, including multiple jugs, bottles and flowering plants, is presented on a table on which the titular cloth has been spread. The table top is tilted towards the viewer, taking up most of the picture plane and extending beyond it. At the same time, a multi-viewpoint perspective allows us to see the sides as well as tops of the items on display. The cherubs in the foreground of the cloth are an image within an image, one focus point of many.

The spatial setting is ambiguous, the background more suggestive than solid. It combines areas of painterly abstraction with flower-like shapes. Tones of white and grey are skilfully deployed to represent form, shadow and reflection. Points of high colour, such as the apples in the foreground and the blue and orange bowl at the upper right, provide structure and rhythm.

The Anne Redpath Archive

The Lace Cloth was purchased from the Artist with the assistance of the Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund. The fund was established in 1914 by Miss Jessie Smith Ross, in memory of her father Robert Thorburn Ross RSA (1816-76) and her brother Joseph Thorburn Ross ARSA (1849-1903). Redpath’s son, the artist David Michie RSA (1928-2015) donated the Anne Redpath Archive to the Academy, who also administer her copyright.

Joyce W. Cairns (b.1947), Bonjour Field Marshal, 2002, oil on board
Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

The First Female President

Joyce W. Cairns (b.1947) became the first female and twenty-second President of the Royal Scottish Academy on her election in 2018. Cairns began visiting Academy’s annual exhibitions as a schoolgirl and contributing to them in 1971. She was elected an ARSA in 1985 and became a full RSA thirteen years later. Before her election, Cairns had played a significant role in the running of the Academy, from serving on its Council, as an exhibition Convenor and as Deputy President under Arthur Watson (b.1951).

Joyce W. Cairns

Cairns was born in Edinburgh. Her extensive training encompasses Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, Hospitalfield College of Art, Arbroath, the Royal College of Art in London and Goldsmiths, University of London. Cairns taught at Gray’s for almost thirty years before taking early retirement in order to concentrate on her own practice. The 2006 solo exhibition War Tourist at Aberdeen Art Gallery represented the culmination of a major body of work. It is a meditation on modern warfare, rooted in the artist’s father’s service in World War Two. Her most recent exhibition was The Magic Gate and Other Stories at Kilmorack Gallery, Beauly in 2018.

Bonjour Field Marshal

Bonjour Field Marshal of 2002 is part of the War Tourist series. It centres on a self-portrait, with the artist wearing a bold red outfit with echoes of British military dress uniform.

As Cairns has explained:

‘The painting is a tribute to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976) for whom my father had tremendous respect and admiration…my ‘Monty’ Toby jug is on the table…and on one side of the mirrored family dressing table is an angel of death and opposite, a school girl clutching a hen, again the victim….I am offering an invitation to ‘Monty’ to celebrate his victories over a can of milk.’ (as quoted in the War Tourist exhibition catalogue p.96).

This monumental and searingly emotional painting measures 183 x 122cm. It was purchased from the artist by Robert Gordon University.

The Future of the Royal Scottish Academy

In a recent interview with the art historian Dr Tom Normand, Cairns explained:

‘I was hugely honoured to be elected as President and would like to believe I was elected on my ability to do the job and not just because I was a woman. Throughout my career as an artist I have never found that my gender has held me back or been a disadvantage. I firmly believe we should all be judged only on the quality of our work; not on age, gender or ethnicity.’

Cairns’ vision for the Academy is to be more inclusive amongst its membership, to expand its education programme and to prepare for its 200th anniversary celebrations in 2026. I am sure these ‘Four of the First’ women will be well represented!

This blog is based on my essay ‘The First Women of the Royal Scottish Academy’ which has just been published on the Academy’s website. An abridged version of the essay can be found as a ‘Story’ on Art UK.

You can read more about Redpath in this blog. For more about Cairns, please read this news item. My ‘Women at Work‘ blog may also interest you.


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