To use our talents and improve them: women's careers in the London art world, 1820-1860

Johanna Holmes

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

665 Downloads (Pure)


This study investigates women’s access to work opportunities, and management of their subsequent working careers, in the London art world between 1820 and 1860. As markets became more buoyant, in the 1820s, giving way to a tide of consumerism and mass production from the 1830s onward, the workplace associated with art diversified and grew, yielding new opportunities for training and work in illustration and reproduction, design of commodities, art-teaching and art-historical study to both men and women who, in many cases, also pursued careers as practising artists. Nevertheless, when Emily Mary Osborn’s painting ‘Nameless and Friendless’ was exhibited in 1857, it followed a tradition established in the early 1840s of presenting a demure young woman, clearly vulnerable and insecure in the commercial world, attempting unsuccessfully to earn some much-needed income from her paintings. The narrative of her ‘plight’ in seeking an income from an inadequate education has persisted to the present day, but it is argued here that this did not literally reflect the experience, either of the painting’s female creator, or of other women working in this and associated occupations at the time.

Research into women’s working lives in four aspects of the London art business in this period - water-colour painting, wood-engraving, art-teaching and art-writing – provides the opportunity to examine the construction of workplace institutions which stabilised and conferred status on practitioners. The role and impact of bodies which offered occupational status, qualifications and intellectual stimulus are considered through the examination of both cohorts of women and individual case studies. Conclusions are drawn concerning women’s exclusion, not from participation, but from the benefits of these bodies, and the continuation of their precarious tenure in the workplace. To Emily Mary Osborn’s generation of feminists, existing female professionals presented no acceptable model of career success.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Windscheffel, Alex, Supervisor
  • Hamlett, Jane, Advisor
Award date1 Sept 2020
Publication statusUnpublished - 2020


  • Female School of Art
  • South Kensington
  • wood-engraving
  • art teacher
  • Anna Jameson
  • Louisa Twining
  • Louisa Gann
  • Eliza Sharpe
  • Painters in Water-colour

Cite this