In our everyday work it is all too often that we come across accomplished female artists of the past who, on further research, are found to be documented primarily for their association with a better-known man. The recent release of the film Suffragette is a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by women in the past to enact social reform and secure the extension of the franchise to women.
One such talented 19th-century woman was Lady Susan Vernon Harcourt (née Holroyd), wife of Edward William Vernon Harcourt, English naturalist and Conservative politician. It was through her husband that Susan travelled abroad and had rich opportunity to draw foreign sights.
Edward Vernon Harcourt was the author of Sporting in Algeria (1859). A watercolour portrait by Susan Vernon Harcourt in our collection shows an Arab at Algiers, presumably painted whilst accompanying her husband in North Africa. She would have mixed in the leading intellectual circles of the day; Edward corresponded with Charles Darwin, with Darwin citing Edward’s observations about the colour of horses in Algeria in his follow-up work to On the Origin of the Species.
Edward Harcourt also wrote Sketch of Madeira (1851), a handbook to the Portuguese island (Darwin corresponded with Harcourt about the species of bird present on the island). Susan Harcourt again created fine drawings of views on the island, which were published as a book of lithographs called Sketches in Madeira and were informative of the landscapes and customs of the island:
We find that it is not uncommon that historically a talented female artist is found to be wife to a male artist – the mutual artistic life of such couples a conducive and productive environment for both parties. Eva Walbourn (neé Knight), active 1888-1930, is one such artist – wife to the better-known Victorian landscape painter Ernest Charles Walbourn (1872-1927).
The Artist's Wife by Ernest Walbourn
Eva gained recognition in her own right as an accomplished painter of garden scenes. She is recorded as being a wood carver, carpenter and sculptor. Before marrying she lived in Cardiff, Wales, where she was a member of The South Wales Art Society. She married Ernest in 1906, and not only encouraged her husband’s art but also often assisted him in painting the backgrounds of his larger works.
After Ernest’s death, Eva lived near Bristol and regularly exhibited at the Annual Exhibition of the Royal West of England Academy. Our collection of oils on board showcases Eva Walbourn’s individual talent. She excelled at depicting the cultivated beauty of English gardens, with an impressionistic use of colour and brushstroke, and eye for surprising composition. Her paintings are a delight of summer light and floral bloom.
Historically, it is evident that close association with esteemed men could bring opportunities and recognition to these women artists that otherwise could have escaped them altogether. But now it is important to revisit and celebrate their work in its own right. With news in Britain this week of proposed legislation forcing employers to publish the amount awarded to men and women as bonuses - and expose the gender pay gap - the fight for equality goes on.
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