Mirror Mirror: Self-Portraits by Women Artists
National Portrait Gallery

Also in October (again at the NPG), I saw the exhibition Mirror Mirror: Self-Portraits by Women Artists. This was a chronological exhibition, which meandered through various media. In At Work (i. e. women with brushes in hand painting) some women play up their looks and some exaggerate their flaws. More interesting are the artists who adopt a character, for example: Joe Spence in a crone's mask and Maggi Hamabling's half-painted face (1977), which she attributed to her confused life - "My life was a muddle when I painted this", she recently remarked. Gwen John is an image of self-restraint with hands on hips and swathed in a russet blouse. Mary Beale, the foremost woman professional painter of the 17th Century England was both a reputable artist and respectable wife and mother. She displays an unfinished canvas bearing the portraits of her two sons. By the time this portrait was finished in 1665, her husband had lost is job in the Crown Patent Office and was managing his "dearest heart's" studio - so she was a formidable matriarch as well as the family breadwinner." It was a different world - those women had so much at stake, they had to think very carefully or they risked ruin." said contemporary artist Nicola Hicks.

Dame Laura Knight's bravura self-portrait of 1913 shows her standing fully clothed before a naked female figure thus celebrating the fact that women were at last allowed to work from the nude. Mary Newton's portrait (1863) shows her turning gently to look at herself in the mirror. She enjoyed some success before her marriage to the archaeologist Sir Charles Newton in 1861. She died in 1866, only 34, notable enough to warrant an obituary in The Times. Pretty as she was the paper's critic remarked, "She showed herself as an artist, not just a pretty face." None of the artists where just a pretty face!!!

The invention of the camera allowed women to be at the forefront of photography. Olive Edis set herself up as a portrait photographer in 1900 and in 1918 was commissioned by the Government to record the work of the British Women's Services in France. There is something very modern about her photographic self-portrait as she confidently leans forward wearing her specially designed uniform, softened by five strings of pearls and set off with a jaunty cap bearing the badge of the National War Museum. Edis sends out a firm message that feminine elegance and professional competence can go hand-in-hand.


Verinha Ottoni.


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