This article has been kindly adapted for Art UK by Midlands Art Papers. Midlands Art Papers is a collaborative online journal, working between the University of Birmingham and 11 partner institutions to research and explore the world-class works of art and design in public collections across the Midlands. You can follow the project on Twitter: @MAP_UoB
In 1871, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool purchased Elaine, a painting by Sophie Anderson, and in doing so became one of the first public art collections to acquire an art work by a living female artist. This is a remarkable moment: as feminist art historians have noted, the idea that women could be significant creative artists ran contrary to prevailing gender norms in Victorian Britain. It was a considerable statement for a nineteenth-century public art gallery to purchase a work by a woman. These newly opened galleries were funded largely by local taxation, and were founded on a strong missionary sense of the power of art to morally improve its viewers. Every purchase was carefully considered; Liverpool’s Anderson was a public declaration that a woman could paint a picture worthy of acquisition by a civic institution.
Anderson’s paintings were avidly collected by private individuals and, to a lesser extent, public institutions in the nineteenth century, and eight of her works had found their way into British art galleries by the early twentieth century. The Children’s Story Book, donated in 1891, was the first oil painting by a female artist to enter Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, while Wolverhampton Art Gallery made the bold move of purchasing The Song in 1886 – also the first work by a female artist in this newly opened public gallery. She was a prolific painter, and between 1855 and 1899 sent works most years to exhibitions in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Paris, Glasgow, Liverpool and Dublin. The eight paintings listed on Art UK are just the tip of the iceberg, as a search for Anderson on many auction house websites reveals.
Like many other Victorian artists who were women, and who achieved some celebrity in their own time, Anderson is barely known today. If she’s recognised at all, it’s as a painter of sentimental childhood scenes, subject matter which is all too readily dismissed by art critics. Over the past few years, researchers in Victorian Studies have emphasised the importance of sentimentality as a means of engaging with seriously held past emotional responses. While I agree that it’s important to take Anderson’s sentimental visions of childhood seriously, I also want to emphasise the diversity of her work, which extended far beyond images of children.
In a recent article, I explored the significance of Anderson’s varied artistic output for our understanding of how Victorian female artists worked. I considered the power relations involved in a white woman using models from Capri to stand in for Middle Eastern and Indian women; her Scheherazade at The New Art Gallery Walsall is one example. I set out the ways in which Anderson engaged with the classical past and new art movements emerging in the late nineteenth century in paintings like The Song. And I undertook new research into the collection histories and meanings ascribed to her work, as it became part of public life in the new museum culture of late nineteenth-century Britain.
Anderson counters many twenty-first century expectations of Victorian femininity. She was a professional artist making money from her work, a cosmopolitan woman living and working between France, America, Britain and Capri, involved in a diverse network of artists and dealers, and art exhibitions. Her paintings offer us an insight into one woman’s contributions to and visions of nineteenth-century cultural and public life. Their locations in museums and art galleries across England provides a different perspective on the London-focussed, male-dominated accounts of the visual culture of the nineteenth century.
Dr Kate Nichols, Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham
Nicola Bown (ed.) ‘Rethinking Victorian Sentimentality’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 4, 2007
Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists, London, 1993
Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Victorian Women Artists, London, 1987
Kate Nichols, ‘A Cosmopolitan Victorian in the Midlands: regional collecting and the work of Sophie Anderson (1823–1903)’, Midlands Art Papers, 1, 2017/2018
Amy Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty. Art Museums in Industrial Britain, Stanford, 2012