London

Nothing in the Papers: Writing Women Back Into the Archive

How do you respond to an archive when it lacks the exact information you’re looking for?

Students of Central Saint Martins MA CCC programme – including Rosa Abbott, and MOOP co-founder Lucy Malone – addressed this when they organised an exhibition in response to the archive of the Royal Female School of Art. Words by Rosa Abbott

Nothing in the Papers  – the finished exhibition at Central Saint Martins Window Galleries from 11-25 April 2019

Nothing in the Papers – the finished exhibition at Central Saint Martins Window Galleries from 11-25 April 2019


Nothing in the Papers is an exhibition responding to the archive of the Royal Female School of Art (RFSA), a female-only art school operating in London from 1842–1908 that now exists as a grant-giving organisation.

Eight students on CSM’s MA CCC programme (including MOOP co-founder Lucy Malone) contributed to the project. We chose to work with this archive out of a shared desire to uncover the kinds of narratives and stories traditionally ignored by museums – to find out about the women who studied at or taught at this progressive 19th-century art school, and the types of art they produced.

And yet, when we consulted the archive documents, we found none of these stories: we were presented instead with folders of financial papers, secretarial minutes and letters – almost all written by men.

A little further digging outside of the archive – reading journal articles, for instance, or exploring newspaper clippings at the British Library – shed a little more light on the women of the RFSA. We learned that life drawing was banned for female students in 19th-century London, but that one daring RFSA headmistress, Fanny McIan, attempted to circumvent the ban in the 1840s by teaching female students life drawing in her own home. (She was caught and forced to step down from her post shortly after.) This snippet of feminist educational history inspired us to pay homage to women like Fanny McIan who were absent from the school’s archival documents, and to write women artists back into art history. We decided to invoke the past by turning to the present. 

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To do this, our group sent out an open call to current female-identifying students of University of the Arts London, playing upon the historically-contentious topic of life drawing by asking students to submit studies of either the nude or draped figure.

From the responses, we curated a group exhibition of contemporary art by eight artists: Abigail Hammond, Afra Almajed, Catherine Smollett, Eden Sweeney, Indiana Lawrence, Meera Madhu, Sandra Poulson, and Simina Popescu. Encompassing sculpture, photography, drawing, collage, textiles and digital media, the artworks we chose explore a myriad of pertinent issues, including self-perception, modesty, menopause, hair, body image, societal expectation, and sex work. They depict a range of intersectional identities and attitudes, crossing race, ethnicity, religion and age.

Invoking female artists and educators neglected by art history, Nothing in the Papers aims to honour the women who came before us, and continue the legacy of the RFSA. We position this exhibition as an active piece of research – topical, practice-based and generative, centred around the vital action of taking back space for women. 

Nothing in the Papers is an exhibition in Central Saint Martins Window Galleries from 11–25 April 2019.

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