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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MOOP HISTORIES: Fanny Eaton, a hidden figure in plain sight

MOOP volunteer Layemi Ikomi reveals the story behind this mixed-race muse whose face was immortalised in masterpieces, yet her name was written out of history

Sketch of Fanny Eaton, Walter Fryer Stocks, 1859

Sketch of Fanny Eaton, Walter Fryer Stocks, 1859

As a mixed-race individual I am constantly seeking representation in British history. In recent times, the acknowledgment of minorities in European history has become widely accepted in popular culture with films such as Belle, the colour-blind casting of BBC’s Les Miserables and in exhibitions such as Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 that took place in 2005. This is why I was immediately drawn to the story of Fanny Eaton and eager to discover more about her.

There is little documentation on the life of Eaton. Yet she appears so frequently in the art that we adore, in the museums we frequent, and in the histories of Victorian England. It was in these arenas that I first came across this overlooked individual.

Fanny Eaton, born in 1835 as Fanny Antwistle, was a Jamaican immigrant who came to Britain in 1843 at the age of eight. In the letters and descriptions discussing her, she was referred to as “mulatto”, indicating her mixed-race heritage. Throughout her younger life she lived in London and worked as a charwoman, which we would now understand as a house cleaner. By the time she was 22, she had married James Eaton and would go on to have ten children with him before his death at the age of 43. It was just after she had given birth to her second child that she began modelling for the Pre-Raphaelite artists. This is how she exists in our minds today, stuck in time through the paintings by Dante Rossetti, Joanna Mary Boyce Wells and Simeon Solomon. 

I first discovered Fanny Eaton in The Mother of Moses by Solomon - a popular Pre-Raphaelite artist. Eaton stands in the scene as the mother of Moses, looking down on her son in an archaic setting. Eaton was popular among the Pre-Raphaelite circle due to her racial ambiguity, meaning she could blend in to an array of identities when being painted. The irony being that her mixed-race heritage was both the reason we can identify her today and the reason she was forgotten in history.

The Mother of Moses,  Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Mother of Moses, Simeon Solomon, 1860

The reality is that the black presence in British history is overlooked because history does not focus on the lives of ordinary people

When we look at the Pre-Raphaelite artists depictions of Eaton, we don’t actually see her. We see the characters she blended in to so well through her “racial ambiguity”. My favourite images of Eaton, therefore, are the sketches that aim to capture her likeness without the guise of a character forced onto her. This is where I see Eaton, not through decadence or a character but as herself (see the sketch of her at the very top).

The power of this ordinary person’s biography is significant as through Eaton we are confronted with the black presence in British history. Her existence defies conventional historical teachings, and makes us re-consider whose stories are being told. The reality is that the black presence in British history is overlooked because history does not focus on the lives of ordinary people. We are lucky that there were individuals that wanted her legacy to survive, or she would have been forgotten with the many other people of colour who worked as sitters in Victorian Britain.

I was so happy to find this figure hidden in plain sight. Her existence is a reminder that ordinary people exist in the highest establishments. Her presence is a time-portal stretching minority history in Britain beyond what I was made to believe true. Black history in Britain pre-dates the Windrush generation and is larger than token heroes such as Mary Seacole. Eaton shows us that for centuries there have been ordinary black people in Britain and it is our task now to find them and tell their stories.

Do you know of an ordinary person’s story we should we be telling?

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