Female Modern British artists are enjoying a surge of popularity. As well as sustained interest in the leading lights of the field – figures such as Barbara Hepworth, Mary Fedden, Laura Knight, Elizabeth Blackadder, Anne Redpath and Elisabeth Frink to name a few – there is also a growing list of lesser-known names represented by dealers.
Such works have a natural market appeal: these new ‘discoveries’ can come with affordable price tags, even when the calibre is high. When the quality is there, demand and value follow quickly.
“There is always interest out there for finding works that are new to the market and there’s definitely a thirst to find lesser-known artists – that’s across the board with men or women,” says dealer Jenna Burlingham. “Recently there has been a lot of talk in the contemporary market about female artists and that has filtered down to the 20th century market when many women were overlooked.”
Burlingham’s recent exhibitions, for example, include one showcasing the works of artist Wendy Pasmore (1915-2015) who married fellow British modernist Victor. Some of the works in the show had never been seen before, though Wendy was an art teacher and held exhibitions in London.
The drive to bring such artists back into the public eye is shared by many dealers.
Andrew Sim of Sim Fine Art hosts regular shows of wartime artists and recently sold the work of previously unknown Susan Palmer to the National Army Museum.
“Once a painting like this is brought to light it can absolutely fly. I’ve had half a dozen sell-out one-woman shows by artists who are almost completely unknown. Many works have ended up in museums and major collections,” he says.
Meanwhile, Liss Llewellyn has also sold to various institutions. These include Constance Armfield’s (1876-1941) embroidered lunette, Damsels in a Wood (1916) to the Art Institute of Chicago; Clare Winsten’s (1892-1984)Attack (c.1910) to the Ben Uri Gallery and Winifred Knights’ (1899-1947) series of studies for St Martin’s altarpiece in Canterbury Cathedral.
The dealership’s Sacha Llewellyn recently curated an exhibition on Knights at Dulwich Picture Gallery as well as Fifty works by fifty British women artists 1900-50 at The Ambulatory at The Mercers’ Company (until March 23), helping to raise the profile of some of the names in the field.
I’ve had half a dozen sell-out one-woman shows by artists who are almost completely unknown. Many works have ended up in museums and major collections Andrew Sim Sim Fine Art
Redress the imbalance
Increasing demand has come from institutional as well as private buyers, and Llewellyn predicts a change in the landscape.
“Museums and institutions are trying to redress the imbalance by favouring purchases of works by women artists,” she adds.
In the future, she says, “more research will be carried out on the important contribution of women artists with a result that books and monographs will be published. There will be a growth of dealers specialising wholly or partly in women. This is all largely positive. As a word of caution, we need to ask ourselves first and foremost when looking at women’s art – is it good art?”
Art historian Magdalen Evans has a similar message. “There has been a tangible increase in demand and there is much more curiosity about whether women have been recognised for the work they have done in the past,” she says.
However, in noting Tate Britain’s upcoming exhibition Sixty Years (opens April 22), which showcases only recent female artists, she adds: “I think some positive discrimination has gone too far. Works by artists need to be seen in context not just shown because the artist is female.
“There shouldn’t be a special case for women artists. It should be on quality alone. By doing what the Tate is doing, it can actually alienate people and backfire.”
Female Modern British artists are not united by a single style, subject or struggle. Many worked at different times and circumstances against the rapidly changing backdrop of the 20th century.
The majority of these works are far from leading the market – Burlingham notes that of her 15 top recent sales, only three works are by women.
But she adds: “As a woman dealer I have a specific interest in these works. And some of my female clients can be drawn to works by female artists – whether consciously or not.”