Women and the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century Conference Report

Last week I was lucky enough to attend and participate in the excellent Women and the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century conference, held at the University of Sheffield and organised by Hannah Moss. It was a stimulating interdisciplinary event, which brought together scholars working on a wide range of women involved with the arts during this period, and issues arising from their study.

The day opened with a fascinating series of papers looking at the figure of the female visual artist and her representations in literature, later historiography, and in terms of her own self-fashioning. The opening paper was from the conference’s organiser, Hannah Moss, and examined ideas of the copying and imitation in literary descriptions of women artists. Moss’s – and contemporaries’ – identification of copying as something that was inherently feminine, would find echoes throughout the day. Next up, Kim Rondeau gave a fascinating paper about why Elizabeth Vigée-LeBrun has never been quite the right kind of woman artist for feminist art histories, thanks to her complicity within the hegemonic regimes in which she lived. Miriam Al Jamil also gave a wonderful talk on Mrs. Coade’s self-fashioning through the promotional images and literature that advertised her business, providing a close reading of one of her business cards that foregrounded Coade’s creative agency. Finally, Rosie Razall provided a compelling analysis of Rosalba Carriera’s practice of leaving tiny pilgrim prints (pictured below), with the pastel drawings she sent out to patrons.

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This emphasis on the women artist was followed up in the second panel (one of two parallel sessions) on the woman collector. Amy Lim & Lizzie Rogers spoke about two generations of the same family, discussing Elizabeth Seymour and Elizabeth Seymour Percy, respectively. Lim unpicked the consumption enacted within Seymour’s home of Petworth, comprehensively demonstrating how traditionally gendered assumptions about collecting patterns (i.e. men commission paintings and women consume porcelain) are arbitrary.  Rogers’ discussion of Elizabeth Seymour Percy, focused much more tightly on an exchange of Grand tour letters written between Percy and her friend, exploring how models of polite conversation and cultural discourse enabled these women to construct social and creative worlds in which the material object and written word were equally central.

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The third panel of the day was characterised by an emphasis on materiality, making, and women’s craft practices. I spoke about eighteenth-century women’s collage in relation to issues of periodization and the gendered disentanglement of art from craft, whilst Susan Bennett gave a full account of women’s contributions to the Society of Arts. Serena Dyer’s paper was a wonderfully rich account of Ann Frankland Lewis’ Dress of the Year watercolours, a rich series of illustrations that she analysed in terms of issues of ‘material literacy’. Lastly, Alexandra Loske discussed the colour theory of Mary Gartside, one of the only female colour theorists of this period.

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The day ended with a keynote from Claudine Van Hensbergen, who gave a fascinating dual analysis of a late seventeenth century play on the idea of the female muses, whilst providing a broader mediation on the nature of the ‘professional’ woman from the eighteenth century to today.

A number of themes reoccured throughout the conference. First, the perceived dangers of being a woman working in the commercial sphere, how that might damage one’s reputation, and the mediating factors taken to negate any such accusations. This theme was also picked up by the keynote, which advocated for a reassessment of the (often monetarily-focused) ways in which women’s professional lives are accounted for. Second was the idea that an intermedial approach to the history of women and artistic practice is vital. Transcending traditional divisions between literary studies and art history, eighteenth century women were often skilled polymaths, and the tools we use to analyse their cultural pursuits should be equally broad. Finally, the idea we need to be reflexive about historiography: feminist histories have their own biases that need to be interrogated, challenged, and updated as appropriate. I’m excited to address these issues within my own research going forward.

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