Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 9, 2021
Pauline Rose Working against the Grain: Women Sculptors in Britain c.1885–1950 Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2020. 336 pp.; 20 color ills.; 101 b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (9781789621563)

Working against the Grain: Women Sculptors in Britain c.1885–1950 comes at a timely moment in British art and sculpture studies. In addition to Arts Council Collection’s forthcoming touring exhibition Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945, the Royal Society of Sculptors is exploring the histories and practices of its women members through the research project “Pioneering Women.” Pauline Rose’s monograph was itself prompted by the 2011 online sculpture database Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851–1951, the first in-depth study of sculptors and those in related trades active in Britain during the period. As Rose explains, it was at its launch event that she was “particularly struck by a comment that women practitioners represented about one-third of all sculptors active in this hundred-year period” (2). Rose soon identified 150 women sculptors active between 1885 and 1950, many of whom are included in this monograph.

Working against the Grain is designed as an “introduction to a field of study” (11) rather than as a comprehensive survey of women sculptors in Britain. It thus offers a useful companion to Shannon Hunter Hurtado’s Genteel Mavericks: Professional Women Sculptors in Victorian Britain (Peter Lang, 2012), which focuses on Mary Grant, Amelia Paton Hill, Susan Durant, and Mary Thornycroft. Rose’s text spans the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century and raises the profile of many hitherto underresearched sculptors, in addition to engaging with more familiar figures such as Barbara Hepworth. The introduction outlines the marginalized status of sculpture—and particularly of women sculptors—in the history of art before setting out the key obstacles to researching said sculptors. These include the general absence of personal archives and the selective accounts of modern sculpture, which prioritize particular aesthetics and practices through a decidedly “masculine” canon.

Part 2 focuses on artistic context, training, societies, and exhibiting. It explores the geographical, material, and conceptual expansion of sculpture in the period, with a particular emphasis on the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement on the alliance between sculpture and architecture and between sculpture and the applied arts. Rose argues that closer scrutiny of the period reveals “overlaps between the developing early modernist sculptures, the Arts and Crafts movement and the New Sculpture” (18), which in turn challenges both a linear trajectory toward modernism and the problematic polarization of traditional versus avant-garde, Victorian versus modern. This section also addresses a broad range of training schools, exhibition spaces, and societies, as well as opportunities in Paris. For instance, Rose identifies all-female exhibition societies, including the Women’s International Art Club and the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists. This extends the study beyond London but, as with the book overall, is somewhat brief in its focus and analysis, while nevertheless introducing useful springboards for further research. The quantitative analyses that punctuate the text are particularly arresting. Rose reminds us that “in the first quarter of the twentieth century women sculptors represented nearly 40 percent of new entrants to the profession, reflecting the marked increase in female students studying at art school in the 1880s and 1890s” (34).

The third section examines the presentation and reception of women’s sculpture, notably in the studio, and theories and contexts of display. It centers on the 1920s and onward, with Hepworth as a key focus, and examines the ways in which sculptors might be gendered through photography and film, interviews, and art writing. A number of lesser-known sculptors are introduced, but at times the analysis is a little reductive, seeming to reinforce rather than question or dispel gendered tropes. For example, Elizabeth Muntz, who rode on a donkey to a Dorset cliff top to carve a memorial in situ, is interpreted within the context of landscape, whereas the focus of the contemporary reviews could, according to Rose’s analysis, be interpreted as “masculine” (physically demanding, solitary, etc.). The chapter thus inadvertently captures the tricky, selective territory of analyzing artworks and artists through a gendered and binary lens, particularly when set against a perceived stable (male) “norm.”

Rose draws on a refreshing range of authors and sources. This includes less-referenced periodicals such as Academy Architecture and Architectural Review, which published a more extensive coverage of women sculptors than its more-cited counterparts, such as the Studio magazine. In fact, the book is peppered throughout with tantalizing references to magazines and journals rarely cited in relation to either nineteenth- or twentieth-century sculpture, such as The Lady and Queen. Somewhat disappointingly, the extensive discussion of theoretical writings on sculpture focuses almost exclusively on texts by male writers. Furthermore, Rose argues that these indicate a growing preference for carved over modeled sculpture, while it has been argued that modeling continued to be practiced alongside direct carving. (See, for example, Penelope Curtis, “How Direct Carving Stole the Idea of Modern British Sculpture,” in David J. Getsy, ed., Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain, c. 18801930 [Ashgate, 2004], 291–318).

In part 4, Rose considers sculpture “On the Domestic Scale” through the statuette, applied art as sculpture, and sculpture in the home. While the statuette has received a degree of scholarly attention, particularly through the important contributions of Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, and David J. Getsy, this is the first study to focus on women sculptors involved in these practices. The scholarship has also tended to concentrate on bronze and the New Sculpture, whereas Rose’s study engages with a wider range of mediums, subjects, and styles. Each section moves through a series of sculptors, each introduced by brief details on their training and career, followed by a list of relevant works and some interpretative analyses. While these texts bring together a range of artists and works that are largely unknown, they can feel somewhat brief and fragmented. References to materials in the image captions would have been particularly useful here. The section also moves beyond the domestic interior to explore sculptural items for the domestic exterior and garden.

Part 5, “The Sculpted Body,” examines portrait busts, statues and individual memorials, and the body. There is some overlap with the previous part and a similar structure of moving from sculptor to sculptor. Kathleen Scott’s figure of Edwin Montagu for Assembly House, Calcutta, for example, prompts consideration of how women sculptors operating in Britain and beyond supplied work across the empire.

The final part, “A Public Practice,” focuses on architectural sculpture, collective monuments and memorials, and ecclesiastical sculpture. Of particular interest here is Rose’s suggestion that Pre-Raphaelitism continued to influence late nineteenth-century sculpture as “a particular type of realistic sculptural language which could be adapted to fit individual commissions” (215). This expands our understanding of realism in the period. The section on collective monuments and memorials offers a helpful overview of the different organizations established to develop standards in interwar monuments.

The book’s final section, on ecclesiastical sculpture, is especially interesting. Here, I felt that Rose really got into her stride, and I look forward to her next book, on West Country ecclesiastical woodcarvers. Rose argues that the current definition between monuments and furnishings was less demarcated by contemporaries, and that “this overlap is important in drawing together a broad range of practices, and in rehabilitating ‘the decorative’ into the narrative of public and, in this case, ecclesiastical sculpture” (248). Rose highlights the difficulties of including such sculptures in exhibitions and the general impetus to associate public sculpture with outside sculpture, which leaves important ecclesiastical works unconsidered and, crucially, separated from surveys of public sculpture. In this way they remain largely beyond critical attention, “and so ecclesiastical and decorative sculpture are further marginalised” (250). The same could be argued for some sites of interior public sculpture, from town halls to the houses of Parliament, or to private buildings such as Two Temple Place that are encrusted externally and internally with sculpture.

Working against the Grain brings together previous scholarship and contemporary sources to set out a thematized study of women sculptors working in Britain from 1885 to 1950. A large amount of ground is covered, and at times the book’s indebtedness to previous scholars could have been more generously articulated. The text often moves swiftly across a wide range of sculptors and sculpture practices, and this can make the text feel somewhat unanchored. Yet this is also its strength—it brings together artists and works that are usually confined to online databases and digitized sources. The book also moves beyond fine art sculpture to embrace the decorative, from door furniture exhibited at the Royal Academy to commissions for churches. This breadth is complemented by an unusually high number of illustrations—101 black and white and 20 color plates—supported by the generosity of the Henry Moore Foundation. As Rose affirms, this is not a comprehensive study but a prompt for further research.

Claire Jones
University of Birmingham, UK