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Uncovering the life and work of forgotten women sculptors

a composite photo showing two women working in studios and two sculptures

(L to R) Rose Gwynneth Holt; Christine Gregory’s Child of Africa; Lady Feodora Gleichen and Barbara Tribe’s Organic Form.

Rosamund Lily West, Research Curator at the Royal Society of Sculptors, on the ‘Pioneering Women’ research project uncovering the lives, careers and legacies of women sculptors in the early to mid-twentieth century

Sculptor Rose Gwyneth Holt, one of the Royal Society of Sculptors’ earliest female members, expressed her frustration at the male-dominated profession of sculpture: “Women are just as intelligent as men, and their contribution to art is just as valuable. They are not given a chance to take art up seriously. What with looking after the house, there is not much time left for concentrating on art”.

a black and white photo of a woman working on a sculpture of figure flying forward with outstretched arms

Rose Gwynneth Holt FRBS (1909-1995) working on West Wind in her studio, date unknown.

The Royal Society of Sculptors has begun a Paul Mellon Centre funded project to research the lives, careers and legacies of our ‘Pioneering Women’: women who were members of the Society and were practising in the early to mid-twentieth century. Our archive has over a thousand membership files relating to individual members.

These include correspondence, photographs, newspaper articles, and exhibition catalogues. The Society’s archive also contains records of its meetings and day to day running, revealing its inner workings from its inception in 1905.

The archive shows how these women completed a variety of both public and private commissions, and their work can still be found in churches, schools, on our streets, and in private collections; not just in Britain, but across the world. The archive also reveals how these women took an active role within the Society: sitting on the council, nominating and supporting other sculptors, and participating in exhibitions. The women in the project are fascinating, forging careers in a male-dominated profession and receiving recognition for their work as a professional by their – mainly male – peers.

The formal correspondence between the Society and its members show a gender bias: the assumption being that a sculptor will be a man. Here, a form produced by the Society in response to the number of enquiries it is receiving from post-war architects, refers to the sculptor filling in works against ‘his name’, this particular one was filled in by Rosamund Mary Beatrice Fletcher FRBS (1914 – 1993).

a photo of a typed docket

(section of) Royal Society of Sculptors, Commissions, 18th June 1951, filled in by Rosamund Mary Beatrice Fletcher FRBS.

As happened so often in this period, many of the women in the project were defined in their lifetime by their husband; Lady Kathleen Scott FRBS (1878-1947) was famous as the grieving widow of Scott of the Antarctic, but had a long and successful career as a sculptor.

a photo of a seated woman in her studio

Lady Feodora Gleichen MRBS at work in her studio, date unknown

The first female members of the Society were Lady Feodora Gleichen MRBS (1861-1922), elected posthumously, and Christine Gregory FRBS (1879-1963) in 1922. An award was set up in Gleichen’s memory, awarding £100 to “a woman sculptor who has completed her training and is commencing her professional career and is deserving of assistance”. Christine Gregory won the award in 1945 for her coloured plaster sculpture, Child of Africa.

a sculpted head of a young African girl

Christine Gregory FRBS, Child of Africa, coloured plaster. Awarded the Lady Feodora Gleichen Memorial Fund, 1945

Sydney-born Barbara Tribe FRBS (1913-2000) settled in Penzance, was a long standing member of the St Ives Society of Artists, and lectured at Penzance School of Art. Tribe enjoyed a long and successful career, proclaiming “an artist never retires”. She exhibited widely, including entering her sculpture Embryo into the Unknown Political Prisoner exhibition in 1953.

Common to many of the other women in the project, others defined her work by her gender. Our archive contains a newspaper feature on Tribe and her work in the Evening Sentinel, from 1979, under the section, ‘Women’s World’.

an abstract sculpture resembling an upside down torso with phallic protuberance emanating from its buttocks

Barbara Tribe FRBS, Organic Form, date unknown.

Josephina de Vasconcellos FRBS (1904-2005) achieved recognition with her work Reconciliation, which was first given to Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies in 1973. It was later cast in bronze for Coventry Cathedral in 1995. Other versions of Reconciliation have been placed in the Peace Park at Hiroshima, the Berlin Wall memorial, and at Stormont Castle, Northern Ireland.

a sculpture of a figure embedded in a hand making a peace gesture

Josephina de Vasconcellos FRBS, Hand of God, war memorial, St. Bees school, Cumbria, 1955

The archive of the Royal Society of Sculptors shows how these women formed networks that intertwined with each other, and how they took part not only in the Society, but other artistic groups and societies including the Royal Academy, the Society of Portrait Sculptors and the Society of Women Artists. Their work and careers span the major events of the twentieth century, such as the flood of memorials commissioned after the two World Wars.

These women participated in prominent exhibitions such as the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions and the 1951 Festival of Britain. They taught in art schools up and down the country, playing a key role in the education of sculptors, the continued professionalisation of the work of the sculptor, and post-war developments in art education and training.

Through researching these Pioneering Women, this project shall reassert these women’s histories, reintroducing them to the Royal Society of Sculptors, the academic community, and the general public, allowing them the attention they earned during their lives and careers.

For more on the Pioneering Women project visit the Royal Society of Sculptors blog. 

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Royal Society of Sculptors

London, Greater London

Independent arts organisation for the promotion of contemporary sculpture. The society has around 600 professional sculptor members and hosts a varied programme of exhibitions, talks and events.

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