19th-Century Women Writers on the Old Masters

Knowing ‘as much art as the cat’: 19th-Century Women Writers on the Old Masters

The Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies will host a major conference examining the role of English-speaking women as disseminators of knowledge about Old Master paintings and historic painting techniques during the Victorian era on Friday, 10 November at 10am in the Sainsbury Wing Lecture Theatre, National Gallery.

Aims and Scope:
John Ruskin infamously dismissed the art historian Anna Jameson as knowing ‘as much of art as the cat’. However, in recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in women like Jameson as influential interpreters of the visual arts and as writers of art history during the formative years of the discipline. This conference, which capitalises and expands upon this interest, will look afresh at the role of English-speaking women as disseminators of knowledge about Old Master paintings and historic painting techniques during the Victorian era.
While the National Gallery’s first Director, Charles Eastlake, and his male colleagues produced scholarly publications, including museum catalogues, aimed at professionals and connoisseurs, women in his circle and in the following generations typically had a wider reach. They could – and did – speak to specialists, but many chose to disseminate information in more creative and demotic ways. Mary Merrifield, for instance, wrote on historic painting techniques and also published articles about women’s fashion, in which she used the Old Masters as a sartorial guide, illustrating her points with pictures from the National Gallery’s collection.
Among the research questions the conference speakers will engage with are: What was the contribution of British women writers to the emerging discipline of art history, including canon formation, formal criticism and history of techniques and other genres such as exhibition guides and translations? Is there anything distinctive about women’s approach to these fields? A second set of issues we will address concerns women’s networks and relationships – between sexes, between generations, and with professional counterparts abroad  – as well as exploring women writers’ institutional affiliations. Finally, we hope to see new insights emerging at the conference about the reception of women writers’ published work in art history, not least in relation to its reach and audiences and its critical fortune.
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