The art of seeing the world through a woman’s eyes

Emma Roodhouse, Claudia Bose, Jacqueline Utle,Hayley Field. Setting up the Obscure Secure exhibition

Emma Roodhouse, Claudia Bose, Jacqueline Utle,Hayley Field. Setting up the Obscure Secure exhibition at Christchurch Mansion's Wolsey Gallery - Credit: Archant

A new exhibition at Christchurch Mansion’s Wolsey Gallery has released work by female artists from the vault and put them on display for the first time. Arts editor Andrew Clarke met three contemporary artists who wanted to offer a woman’s view of the world

Self-portrait by Effie Spring-Smith

Self-portrait by Effie Spring-Smith - Credit: Archant

Juxtapose work by contemporary women artists alongside some of the most distinctive images created by female artists from the previous century and you have an exhibition which transports visitors to a place which may be recognisable but can, at times, seem to be a foreign country.

Christchurch Mansion’s Wolsey gallery is playing host to Obscure Secure, an exhibition which explores the work by women artists over the past 100 years.

It looks at the way that the viewpoint of female artists has changed over the past century and also at the way that it has remained the same – offering a different perspective on the world from male artists.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Claudia Bose, Hayley Field and Jacqueline Utley who have worked with Emma Roodhouse, curator with the Ipswich and Colchester Museum Service, to explore the Ipswich borough collection and put on show works by leading female artists which have remained hidden in storage for decades.

Trinkets by Anna Airy

Trinkets by Anna Airy - Credit: Archant

The presentation of the pictures echoes the Victorian Royal Academy exhibitions where disparate pictures were hung in close proximity to one another and yet somehow no one picture dominated the exhibition space.

“It’s all in the art of hanging,” said Claudia. “It’s rather like a jigsaw puzzle when you have lost the picture on the front of the box. We have spent ages moving reduced photographs of the pictures on a plan of the wall, to get the presentation just right – and even now we are changing things, moving pictures and fine tuning as we hang the exhibition.”

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The project was originally designed to explore and liberate the works by 20th Century female artists held in storage in the Ipswich borough collection. It has taken almost two years to research and then reach the exhibition stage.

“Hayley brought us together because she wanted to mount an exhibition about the nature of process – how things are made. It could be considered quite a wide, catch-all idea but it was quite serious for us because when we start work we don’t always know what we are going to do with it.

“Then we thought about the women’s collection in the council’s collection. We felt that women’s art had been neglected over the years and it gives a different perspective on the world. We met Emma (Roodhouse) and she was very interested in the idea of an exhibition and she offered us access to the borough’s collection.”

Jacqueline said that, at first, they felt slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of paintings that, potentially, they had at their disposal but when they decided to focus just on 20th Century artists that then served as a helpful way to whittle down the paintings to a manageable shortlist.

“Emma did a lot of the original work on the exhibition and she was the one who discovered that only 10% of the work in the collection is by women artists, so that strengthened our resolve to do a show which celebrated women artists and their view of the world.”

The trio then selected artists who “spoke to them” and inspired them to create work in response to pieces in the borough’s collection. The artists chosen to be a part of the exhibition all have strong Suffolk links and reinforce the county’s artistic heritage. They include: Peggy Somerville, Anna Airy, Connie Winn, Effie Spring-Smith, Kathleen Walne, Helen Kiddall, Prunella Clough, Beatrice Lithiby, Lucy Harwood and Miss E M Every. Although they all were either born or worked in Suffolk all these highly regarded artists had top flight art school training having attended either The Royal Academy, Slade, Camberwell or The Chelsea School of Art.

The Obscure Secure exhibition also includes a variety of evocative pastel and watercolour drawings by Blanche Vulliamy of night-time street scenes and searchlights over First World War London.

These delicate images committed to flimsy paper can be viewed by opening a series of display drawers in the gallery.

In all there are 11 rarely seen works by Suffolk women artists on display and mounted on the wall between them is a newly created work by Bose, Field and Utley created in response to the work that has gone before. The artists have four works each of varying sizes.

Looking at the exhibition it’s clear that the only link between the historic work has to be variety. The works selected have no common theme or feel but they are all distinctive works. They clearly represent the dynamic painting style and the distinctive outlook of their creators.

“The works we chose were all created by artists with a powerful vision. The theme is that we have no theme but these are all women artists we admire because they were in control of their art and they had a unique view of the world.”

Claudia said that the exhibition was exciting because it allowed contemporary work to be shown alongside work by artists of different generations. “I have never heard of such a venture before which is strange because our work today has to be informed by the work of our predecessors and this show has certainly done that.

“The work we are looking to create now is a result of the work they did in the past. The pieces we have put into this exhibition we made as a direct response to the works we selected for this exhibition.”

Claudia said that the intricate hanging pattern was designed to give the viewer a more intense viewing experience. “We didn’t want them spread out in a straight line. We didn’t want people to wander into the gallery, cast a look over them and leave, thinking they had seen the show. The way we have hung the exhibition, encourages the viewer to really look at the pictures. The more you look, the more you see. There is such a wide range of different styles and different subjects that we wanted to get people to really engage with the exhibition space, to really lose themselves in the pictures and perhaps, even come back and look at them again. There is a lot to take in.”

She said they felt that, as women, they have designed the exhibition very differently to the way that a man would have done. “Our minds work differently and the way that they view relationships and the way they relate to things. The way that we have hung this show there is more communication going on. We are suggesting links. The work blends together.”

Claudia said that they were thrilled that the exhibition full of strong women artists was firmly rooted in Suffolk. “We have Anna Airy, Prunella Clough, Peggy Somerville and Effie Spring-Smith – all brilliant artists. In fact during our research Hayley discovered that her parents live in the house where Effie was born. She was born in Woodbridge and went to the Ipswich Art School before going to the Slade School of Art. So that was a very good omen.”

In addition to the Blanche Vulliamy war pictures, the trio of contemporary women painters are thrilled at Anna Airy, who remains a hugely respected local figure and was one of the very first female war artists. “We are not showing a picture from her war work but it is important that she was recognised as one of the nation’s leading figures at that time and it is something we are very proud of.”

She said that by reading about these artists and researching their lives, they felt a bond with them. “I felt it as reading about my life as well. It is all our stories. They got married, they had a kid, they had to look after elderly parents but they carried on painting. They found a way to express themselves and communicate their view of the world.

“But, you can’t help but wonder that if they had a chance to paint full-time. If they had the opportunity to develop like Lucien Freud, what work would they have produced? Many of the best pieces come from the first part of their career and they are superb and it begs the question what would they have done, had they the opportunity to work full-time?”

In addition to the exhibition there are a number of special events and lectures exploring the nature of process and women as artists. The first event, Art in Focus: Women as Artists, will be held on November 2 at 2pm. Art curator Emma Roodhouse presents an introduction to the female artists represented in the Ipswich Museum collections. Tickets are £6 or £5 for Friends of Ipswich Museum.

On November 15 at 2pm art historian, critic and biographer Frances Spalding discusses her work and reflections with psychoanalyst and poet Valerie Sinason. Entrance is free. The third event will be held on November 29 at 2pm and is entitled Does Process Matter? It will take the form of a panel discussion facilitated by artist and art therapist Emma Cameron with artists: Molly Thomson, Jane Frederick, Claudia Bose, Hayley Field and Jacqueline Utley. Entrance is free.

You need to book for all events by calling 01473 433691. Obscure Secure is at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich until January 15