IT IS exactly 50 years since the Labour Party election manifesto proposed a charter of rights including “the right to equal pay for equal work”. Whether this has been achieved in the workplace over the past half century is still a matter for debate, but in the art world the price of work by female artists still tends to lag behind that of men.
Whilst paintings by Scottish Colourists continue to break records – the recent sale of Still Life With Oranges by my grandfather, SJ Peploe, went for almost twice the £200,000 estimate – and other modern and contemporary male artists are fêted both north and south of the Border, there are so many incredibly talented women whose work is appreciated but fails to achieve either the price or public acclaim of their male counterparts. The paintings of Joan Eardley, Anne Redpath and Prunella Clough are well loved by many, but fall well behind the prices achieved for Ivon Hitchens, Patrick Caulfield or William Scott in the first rank of modern British painters.
Of course, this is not a particularly recent situation. When Vasari published his Lives Of The Artists in 1550, recognised as the first work of art history, women were left unnoticed. In the modern period we have new measures of visibility: inclusions collections and exhibitions and measures of popularity in an era when we consume art like any other commodity.
A German art critic called Willi Bongard created artist league tables from the 1980s with points given for exhibitions in qualifying museum and gallery venues, mentions in certain magazines and newspapers and values achieved at auction.
In the past 100 years, as impediments to a career as an artist were removed, many social pressures persisted and we have to congratulate many of the great women artists of the last century on their dedication as well as their genius. Today the statistics of who has sold what for what are readily available to any surfer, and what emerges is how poorly women continue to have been served by the marketplace long after the doors to the Salon and Art School were opened up.
In the current art market the ten highest grossing artists by value sold at auction are all male, all deceased (except the astonishing Gerhard Richter at No 3) and all, excepting Monet at No 8, belonging to the 20th century.
It is perhaps pointless to rail against the facts, but equally, it is dangerous to make assumptions about the relative talents of the sexes from dry statistics.
However, there are at least trends that emerge from the contemporary art market which indicate change: several prominent contemporary artists, such as Jeff Coons and Damian Hirst, have struggled to reach pre-crash prices or volumes, while woman artists, like Yayoi Kusama have recovered quickly.
There might be an impression that some contemporary art was overpriced while the work of many women artists has been undervalued. The American photographer Cindy Sherman was ranked 24th amongst all contemporary artists in 2012 and outsold Andreas Gursky, the world’s top-rated photographer.
As the director of Scotland’s most established private art gallery I am also aware that I sometimes stand guilty as charged of failing to meet a quota of female exhibitors. However, we do host many solo shows by women artists. Indeed, throughout August our solo show is new work by the immensely talented Victoria Crowe. Alongside will run Modern British Heroines – with pieces included from Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Prunella Clough, Joan Eardley, Elisabeth Frink and Winifred Nicholson.
None of these is defined by her gender and their contributions to the period are such that there is no need for contemporary critical “positive discrimination”. That the market has some way to catch up, perhaps presents opportunities. «
Guy Peploe is managing director of The Scottish Gallery