Women at Work

Let’s celebrate the working lives of modern Scottish women artists, in images they painted of their professional and personal worlds.

Dorothy Carleton Smyth (1880-1931), Self- portrait, 1921, oil on canvas
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Life

Dorothy Carleton Smyth: The Artist

In Self-portrait of 1921 by Dorothy Carleton Smyth (1880-1931), the artist presents herself in the act of her profession. Glasgow-born, Smyth studied at Manchester and Glasgow Schools of Art. After graduating she spent several years working in theatre set and costume design in Europe and contributed to international group exhibitions. She went on to become Head of the Commercial Art Department at Glasgow School of Art.

In this painting, Smyth depicts herself with palette and loaded paintbrush in hand. A framed and presumably completed painting is seen from the side, beside which stands a jug full of brushes, a figurine, gramophone and books. Behind them all is a vividly patterned red screen. Smyth looks directly and warmly at the viewer, a mid-career artist secure in her achievements and identity.

Smyth was appointed the first female Director of Glasgow School of Art in 1933. However, she died of a brain haemorrhage before she was able to take up the post. Her sister and fellow artist Olive Carleton Smyth (1882-1949) presented Self-portrait to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow in 1948.

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Rest Time in the Life Class, 1923, oil on canvas
City Art Centre, Museum & Galleries, Edinburgh (c) Artist’s Estate

Dorothy Johnstone: The Teacher

Rest Time in the Life Class of 1923 by Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980) is partly a self-portrait of the artist as a teacher and partly a celebration of the improvement in training available for female art students. Johnstone was born in Edinburgh and enrolled at the newly opened Edinburgh College of Art in 1908, aged sixteen years old. She joined the college staff in 1914, due to the mobilisation of male colleagues to serve in World War One.

Johnstone can be seen at the upper right of the painting, standing between two easels and demonstrating to a couple of her pupils. The setting is a Life Class, in which models of both genders posed – often in the nude – in order for students to learn how to draw human anatomy. This skill was considered fundamental to becoming a professional artist. However, given the nudity involved, this part of the curriculum was unconsidered unsuitable for female students. It became available to them at Edinburgh College of Art until 1910 under segregation. In Rest Time in the Life Class Johnstone revels in her all-female companions, either hard at work or resting, in a convivial atmosphere.

Johnstone married her colleague D. M. Sutherland (1883-1973) in 1924. As a result, she had to resign from her post as the ‘Marriage Bar’ prevented married women from holding full-time teaching positions. This legislation was repealed in Scotland in 1945. Johnstone sold this painting to the City Art Centre, Edinburgh in 1980, shortly before her death.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson (1871-1918), Family Group, c.1911, oil on canvas, Tate

Mabel Pryde Nicholson: The Mother

In Family Group of c.1911, Mabel Pryde Nicholson (1871-1918) contemplated her domestic life in a depiction of three of her four children with their nanny. Pryde Nicholson was born in Edinburgh. She trained at The Herkomer School in Bushey, Hertfordshire where she met the artist William Nicholson (1872-1949). Following their marriage in 1893, their children Ben, Tony, Nancy and Kit were born between 1894 and 1904; the latter three can be seen, left to right, in Family Group. Pryde Nicholson often painted her children and was scrupulous about paying them a modelling fee.

In this painting, a circular composition begins with Tony – who was to become a soldier – at the far left, looking out at the viewer. He is linked to the nursemaid by the hand placed on her chair. She and Nancy – sitting at her feet and a future designer – are seen in profile, with the colour blocks of white, coral and blue of their dresses and sewing work a key element of the image. A table draped in a toning cloth of coral leads the eye up to Kit, an architect-to-be. He examines part of the outsize model ship which dominates the tableau and which completes the visual circuit back to Tony. The use of black as a constructive element as well as a blank feature contrasts with the detailing of the toy and the strong lighting and resultant shadows of this masterful work.

Family Group was presented to the Tate by the artist’s grandson and Kit’s son, Tim Nicholson, in 1991.

Anne Redpath (1895-1965), Self-portrait in Venetian Mirror, 1956, oil on board
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) (c) Artist’s Estate

Anne Redpath: The Subject

Finally, in Self-portrait in Venetian Mirror of 1956, Anne Redpath (1895-1965) uses herself as the subject matter of her work. She was born in Galashiels and studied concurrently at Edinburgh College of Art and Moray House College of Education. After marrying the architect James Beattie Michie (1891-1960) in 1920, the couple lived in France for fourteen years, where their three sons were born. In 1934, Redpath returned to Scotland with the boys and settled in Edinburgh in 1949. She established a successful career as one of the best known modern Scottish woman artists, exhibiting often and throughout Britain. Her achievements were widely recognised, for example, being the first female painter elected a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy, in 1952.

Self-portrait in a Venetian Mirror is on the reverse of a board on which Redpath painted a French landscape some twenty-years earlier. The elaborate titular mirror provides a frame within a frame, a device which gives the work an unusual, ambiguous black border. Reflected in its circular face is a predominantly white scene. The artist peeks round into the mirror, which presumably hangs on a wall in her home. The loose, gentle technique and palette combine with a soft light to create an image of domestic intimacy.

Redpath is seen front on, but her gazed is averted and her face is in shadow. More assertive is the assortment of ceramics lined up on the mantelpiece behind her. They are the tools of the trade for her still-life paintings. Indeed, the table tipped up at the lower right offers the viewer a still-life passage in it is own right. Redpath plays with layers of spatial depth, both visual and conceptual as she presents a reflected image of herself. As a result, the charm of this apparently modest painting is underpinned with the sophistication of a mature and successful artist.

Self-portrait in Venetian Mirror was acquired with the assistance of the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund of 1976/77 by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA).

If you are interested in Dorothy Johnstone, she will be discussed as part of a lecture I am giving in the Spring. You can listen to a short talk I gave about modern Scottish women artists, including Anne Redpath, on youtube.

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