Portraits with Panache

Daily Mail (London), December 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Portraits with Panache


Byline: MAGGIE MALLON

THEY were from an era when women were, like children, generally supposed to be seen and not heard.

But these ladies refused to let society's rigid norms hold back their talents in fields as diverse as mathematics, the arts, sciences and in ground-breaking campaigns.

Now the achievements of a group of formidable 19th century Scotswomen are being celebrated for the first time in a major exhibition.

Out of the Shadows: Women of 19th Century Scotland will be on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh when it reopens today after a two-year [pounds sterling]17.6million renovation.

The gallery's chief curator, Julie Lawson, says: 'These women were extraordinary in their achievements at a time when most women enjoyed few freedoms and had limited expectations beyond the domestic sphere.

'They had to go against the grain to achieve their ambitions. Some were regarded as eccentric and had to make sacrifices, such as giving up the chance to marry and have children.

'Others made their name when they were determined to support their children after they were left widowed and penniless.' 1 JANE CARLYLE (1801-1866) Jane Baillie Welsh was married to the historian Thomas Carlyle. 'Carlyle was such a dominating figure that the distinction of his wife Jane tended to be eclipsed,' says Mrs Lawson. 'Two hundred years after her birth, however, she emerges as a literary figure in her own right.

'Her writings in her letters to her husband are those of an acute observer who cast a satirical eye on the social scene, and the elegance of whose wit makes her comparable with such members of her circle as Dickens and Thackeray.' Overshadowed by her husband during her lifetime, the publication of Jane Carlyle's letters finally brought her out of the shadow.

2 QUEEN VICTORIA (1819-1901) 'The monarch takes centre stage in the exhibition because she embodies the paradoxical attitudes towards the Woman Question that beset the period of her reign,' says Mrs Lawson.

While progressive in some ways - her use of chloroform for her eighth confinement silenced the opposition on theological grounds of pain relief in childbirth - in other matters she was more conservative, believing, for example, that women should not have the right to vote and was careful to be portrayed as a mother and obedient wife to her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

Mrs Lawson says: 'This was a monarch who exerted a strong influence on government policies during a reign which saw Great Britain rise to a position of unrivalled world power and prestige.' 3 CHARLOTTE NASMYTH (1804-1884) A member of a large and gifted family, Charlotte was the sixth daughter of Alexander Nasmyth, the foremost Scottish landscape painter of his day, who also painted a famous portrait of Robert Burns.

A man of pronounced Liberal opinions, he was unusual in insisting his daughters received the same education as his sons.

The art classes he held at his home in Edinburgh - attended by John Ruskin's father - included classes for ladies taught by his daughters, whom he trained to draw and paint so they could teach pupils in the city and earn a living. 'While painting in watercolours was considered an accomplishment to be attained by young middle-class women, it was very unusual for a woman to become a professional artist,' says Mrs Lawson. …

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