Liz Lochhead hits out over treatment of female artists

Liz Lochhead is venting her spleen to highlight a new showcase of fantastic women artists. Picture: Kirsty Anderson
Liz Lochhead is venting her spleen to highlight a new showcase of fantastic women artists. Picture: Kirsty Anderson
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Liz Lochhead, the leading Scottish poet and playwright, has hit out at the “gross injustice” suffered by 20th-century female artists and painters.

The former Makar has expressed dismay at the treatment of women she says were shunned by the art establishment, forced out of work and not given credit for their work long after they passed away.

The Glasgow School of Art graduate has criticised her alma mater for “downgrading” female artists and over-looking women for teaching jobs for decades. She said she only been “grudgingly” taught about Anne Redpath and Joan Eardley – now regarded as two of the best Scottish artists of the last century – when she studied painting and drawing.

Ms Lochhead, who taught fine art for eight years before becoming a professional writer, has spoken of her “outrage” at the marginalisation of female artists after visiting a landmark exhibition charting the struggles of women to be treated seriously as artists.

The Modern Scottish Women show, which covers the period from 1885-1965, is the first major exhibition in the history of the National Galleries of Scotland to be devoted entirely to work by female artists, some of whose work is being shown for the first time.

It reveals how many female artists had shortlived careers due to “domestic and financial responsibilities.” Women were excluded from the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish Arts Club until 1944 and 1982 respectively.

Writing on the Galleries website, Ms Lochhead questioned why so many female artists in the show had been virtually unheard of until now. She cited examples like Norah Neilson Gray, who left a teaching post at GSA to volunteer as a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in France and found time to paint soldiers, and Dorothy Johstone, whom she suggested had been rendered “invisible” when she was forced to give up teaching at Edinburgh College of Art by an “absurd” marriage bar law.

Ms Lochhead wrote: “If your feminism is flagging, you can, whilst revelling in delight, discovery and novelty, fire up anew your outrage over the gross injustice of the eternal marginalising of the female sex with a visit to the fabulous exhibition. Why have you never seen these powerful paintings before? Why have you never even heard of so many of these fantastic artists? Why were the only female painters I ever heard mentioned while studying in the department of drawing and painting in the late 1960s Anne Redpath and Joan Eardley? And then grudgingly?

“Why did I – for years, I’m ashamed to say – believe my (male) tutor when he allowed Eardley’s Catterline landscapes to be fine and strong pieces, whereas her Glasgow paintings of street kids were ‘sentimental’? Good God in Govan, did he have eyes in his head? Why did the wonderful Barbara Rae tell me, just last summer, that when she got the job teaching in at GSA in the Seventies (the lone woman – and too late for me unfortunately) that it was ‘because they thought she would be a pushover?’ That they were so wrong about that makes me glad for the succeeding generations of students, both male and female, of course – but can any of these questions be connected to each other? Is such prejudice purely 
historic?”