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Genteel Mavericks

Professional Women Sculptors in Victorian Britain


Shannon Hunter Hurtado

Sculpture was no occupation for a lady in Victorian Britain. Yet between 1837 and 1901 the number of professional female sculptors increased sixteen-fold. The four principal women sculptors of that era are the focus of this book. Once known for successful careers marked by commissions from the royal family, public bodies and private individuals, they are forgotten now. This book brings them back to light, addressing who they were, how they negotiated middle-class expectations and what kind of impact they had on changing gender roles.
Based on their unpublished letters, papers and diaries coupled with contemporary portrayals of female sculptors by novelists, critics, essayists and colleagues, this is an unprecedented picture of the women sculptors’ personal experience of preparing for and conducting careers as well as the public’s perception of them. The author examines each woman’s ability to use her position within the historical and cultural context as a platform from which to instigate change. The analytical emphasis throughout is on the art of negotiation and the result is an interdisciplinary work that delves deeply into the experience of an undervalued cohort of artists who had a disproportionate influence on Victorian social norms.


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Introduction 1


Introduction Sculpture, once described by Zola as the ‘manliest’ of the arts, became the chosen profession of an increasing number of women during the course of the nineteenth century.1 By the 1850s the major art exhibitions in Great Britain, Europe and North America regularly displayed statues, reliefs, and busts created by women. This development marked a considerable departure from the art activity of British women during the previous century when just one female sculptor was recorded at the exhibitions. The expanding number of women sculptors is indicative of a trend in the wider world of art; between 1841 and 1871 the number of women employed in the fine arts in Britain rose from 278 to 1,069 – a 284 per cent increase. Just how many of these women identified themselves as sculptors to the census takers is dif ficult to determine, although it is safe to say that the majority of the respondents were painters in oils or water colours.2 Nevertheless, a rudimentary tabulation of the numbers of female sculptors named in the Athenaeum reviews of the art exhibitions from 1840 to 1900 testifies to their burgeoning ranks. During the 1840s Mary Thornycroft alone gained the critics’ notice, whereas by the 1890s twenty- five women sculptors were acknowledged in the sculpture gallery reviews. This remarkable upsurge betokens a fundamental shift in attitudes toward women’s roles that developed as the century progressed. This book is concerned with the first wave of professional women sculptors who participated in this phenomenon. Susan Durant,...

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