WSG 30th Anniversary Bursary

Richard Samuel, Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, oil on canvas, 1779. NPG 4905. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons License.

Richard Samuel, Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, oil on canvas, 1779. NPG 4905. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons License.

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 has always been an interdisciplinary collective of scholars, interested in collaboration, and in promoting research that might not otherwise have found a champion in usual university depts, museums, libraries, or other cultural institutions.  And since WSG’s founding (or at least its first event) at the BSECS conference in January 1987, this format has proved surprisingly durable.  Today the WSG is going from strength to strength, with an expanded annual seminars programme, new connections made through facebook and twitter, and we’re working on a special project… more of which in the new year.

In addition to these activities, WSG is hugely excited to announce that to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the group is offering a £500 bursary to an early career researcher, independent scholar or PhD student who is a member of the Group to support research in any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837. The grant may be awarded for a new or continuing interdisciplinary or single-discipline project.  For further information about the bursary, and to apply, please download the application form. For further information on membership, see here.

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Reminder: WSG September seminar 2016

The first WSG seminar of the academic year will shortly take place at the Foundling Museum.  Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  Doors open after 12.30pm with the session starting promptly at 1, and tea, coffee and biscuits at about 2.30pm.  Seminars are free and non-members who wish to attend are very welcome but will be asked to make a donation of £2 for refreshments.  Attendees are also welcome to visit the Foundling before or after the seminar and there is currently a very interesting exhibition on Handel’s singers.

For the September session organiser Carolyn Williams has put together a programme on song, play, and translation… we hope to see you there.

Saturday 17th September, 2016. Chair: TBC
Brianna Elyse Robertson-KirklandVenanzio Rauzzini (1746 – 1810) and his female operatic students.
Judith PageAusten and Shakespeare: Mansfield Park, Shylock, and the ‘exquisite acting’ of Edmund Kean.
Lucy Gent: What is becoming in Mansfield Park? Jane Austen and Cicero’s De Officiis.

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Helen Draper: Mary Beale’s self-portraits

During the WSG’s recent trip to the Geffrye Museum, member Helen Draper gave a talk about the seventeenth-century artist Mary Beale.  She writes more below.

As already described so beautifully by Miriam Al Jamil, members of the WSG met for this year’s annual outing at East London’s Geffrye Museum, an institution devoted mainly to the study and representation of England’s middle classes from 1600 the present day. A particularly interesting example of a middling family of the mid- to late-seventeenth century, that of artist Mary Beale, is represented in the collection by a very novel object. Beale’s Self-portrait with her husband and son (c.1660, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm) is the earliest of her firmly attributed works, and in it she put a daring new slant on a well established male genre – that of the artist’s self-portrait with his family. At first glance this slightly sombre yet affecting portrait appears too small and unassuming to be of revolutionary importance in the canon of British art history, yet in it Mary very purposefully placed herself, a virtuous Christian wife and mother, in the role of creator, the author of her own and her family’s painted biography.

Mary Cradock (1633-99), born the daughter of a clergyman in the hamlet of Barrow in Suffolk, married Charles Beale (1632-1705) in 1652 just days before her father’s untimely death left her an orphan. By 1654 the couple and their newborn son, Bartholomew ‘Batt’ Beale, were living in Covent Garden, the centre of metropolitan art production and patronage during the Interregnum. Mary’s near neighbours included fellow artists Peter Lely (d.1680), who prospered and went on to become Court Painter to Charles II, and the innovative Joan Carlile (d.1679) who was engaged in what proved to be an abortive strategy to earn a ‘fortune’ as a society portraitist. In 1658, when Charles Beale was appointed Deputy Patents Clerk, the family moved eastwards to occupy the Patents Office house in Hind Court, a narrow alley off Fleet St and just ‘Without’ the London Wall. It was in that house – full of family, lodgers and servants – that Mary made her way upstairs to her top floor studio to paint the triple, perhaps quadruple, portrait now at the Geffrye Museum. I have suggested elsewhere that it is entirely possible that the artist was pregnant with her son Charles at the time, and that the space in the portrait between her, her husband and young Batt alludes to the other member of the family who was at once absent and present.

When, in 1665, plague spread through the city the Beales swapped their cramped little street for five years on a smallholding in Allbrook, Hampshire. Although we know little of Mary’s painterly activities in the countryside, brief references confirm that she continued to work, while Charles prepared her canvases. During their sojourn Mary Beale painted her second surviving Self-portrait (c.1666, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 87.6 cm, NPG), this time openly in the guise of an artist with her palette hanging on the wall nearby, and as mother to two young children who appear as the subjects of a small double portrait held at her side. Here Beale is again gently subversive, playing with the concept of likeness and asserting her power to create progeny in paint as well as flesh – an undeniable advantage over her male colleagues, and one shared by many women artists through the centuries.

In 1670/1 the family left their rural idyll and returned to London, this time as householders in a newly built terrace of well-to-do middling homes on the north side of Pall Mall. It was there, a stone’s throw from the mansions of St James’s Square and Charles II’s palace, that Mary Beale established the fully professional portrait studio in which she created fashionable likenesses of patrons who were stalwarts of Court, County and the City. Mary also found time to paint several other self-portraits, and dozens of gradually ageing studies of her husband Charles. Her last known ‘selfie’ (c.1681, oil on bed ticking, 121.9 x 104.1 cm, private collection) painted when she was almost fifty, shows a self-possessed woman, well, but not opulently dressed, a pet spaniel by her side. Echoing the still, interrogative gaze of the earlier images, her expression in this portrait is again characteristic of the inner three-way visual conversation being conducted between Beale the creator, subject and viewer of her own likeness.

Helen is a conservator and is currently completing a PhD thesis on Mary Beale part-time at the Courtauld Institute and IHR. You can read more about her work on her very elegant website, www.draperconservation.com.

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Off topic: teaching Paradise Lost

Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 members aren’t just scholars of women’s and gender history during the early modern period and long eighteenth century, they’re also museum curators, music librarians, software managers… and teachers, especially at university level. As academics, research is only a portion of what they do, and like all other academics, almost all will spend time teaching texts, images, and materials that do not have much connection to their research specialism, which could be one singer, one artist, or a particular genre of plays, or a theme such as history of medicine.  But this is compounded when it comes to teaching gender. “Where are the women?” (as with, “where are any black and ethnic minority figures?”) is a perennial problem with university curricula, and that is one reason why women’s and gender history continues to thrive in the margins, in more flexible structures like the WSG.

But a knowledge of this history-from-below or from-the-margins, can inform some of the most canonical texts.  Take English for example, where no student will graduate without having read at least a part of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Milton’s attitudes to divorce and freedom of the press are important contexts for his composition of the poem.  As part of her regular teaching load recently WSG member Sara Read, based at Loughborough University, was asked to make a video on Book IX of the poem where Eve infamously speaks with Satan in the form of a serpent, and is persuaded (… but she’s also exercising her own free will…) to taste the forbidden fruit.  Here’s the video, I hope you enjoy it.

Have any other readers based in universities made similar videos for use online and in social media? Meanwhile, which poets would you have in your seventeenth-century curriculum?  I’d at least have Margaret Cavendish and Lucy Hutchinson, no question.

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Women’s Writing special issue on Janet Todd launch

In June at Mansfield College, Oxford, Ros Ballaster and Ruth Perry held the launch for their special issue of Women’s Writing, a festschrift in honour of Professor Janet Todd.  WSG member Angela Escott was there to hear Janet reflect on a life in scholarship.

Front cover of Women's Writing

Front cover of Women’s Writing

WSG has had a close association with the journal Women’s Writing since its early days. The Editor, Marie Mulvey-Roberts, was a member of WSG, and she encouraged other members to contribute papers given at our Saturday sessions or annual one-day workshop. In 2010 some of us co-edited a special issue in honour of Mary Waldron, an active committee member. Now current and former WSG members are contributors to a special issue in honour of Professor Janet Todd, the pioneering scholar of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, and a Founding (now Consultant) Editor of WW. The celebration took the form of an interview by Marie of her distinguished colleague in an imposing hall at Mansfield College, Oxford. Ros Ballaster, co-editor of the issue and fellow WSG member, hosted the event which included a reception and a banquet dinner.

Marie questioned Janet about her life and her extensive travelling both as a child and during her academic career. Janet spoke of the patronising attitudes towards women when she was a student at Cambridge University, and women were confined to three female undergraduate colleges. She told of the impossibility of choosing Mary Wollstonecraft as a PhD subject, so she wrote instead on John Clare. The only feminist theory being studied when she began her career was that of the French feminists, Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous. Todd bravely defended Anglo-American “socio-historical” feminist criticism and also challenged the jargon of New Historicism. A pioneer in the study of women writers, Todd founded a journal Women and Literature which can be considered a forerunner to Women’s Writing.

She described the pressure under which she published her Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, the immense and significant project she conceived and researched extensively by herself, and she spoke self-effacingly of the number of times she had read ‘erroneously mentioned by Janet Todd’ in references to the women covered in her Dictionary. In a question about role-models she described sharing a platform with Germaine Greer who towered above her in height and whose confidence she admired. Although female networks were an important part of her own research, and Marilyn Butler was a close friend, no network of women academics existed to provide support for Janet early in her career, particularly as she was working in the USA, Ghana, Bermuda and Puerto Rica. Finally, she spoke of her recent first venture at writing fiction, and of the lack of pressure to publish at the beginning of her career. Marie ended by reminding us of the impressive publication list of this inspiring academic, including the multi-volume editions of the works of Behn, Wollstonecraft and Austen.

Want to read more? The special issue of Women’s Writing is available here, with a subscription.  Ros Ballaster tweets as @BallasterRos.

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