I went to London (for work) and while there visited the Brilliant Women exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, plugged by Philobiblon a few weeks ago. The ‘Brilliant Women’ alluded to were the circle of eighteenth century blue-stockings, including Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Montagu, Mary Wollstonecraft, Hestor Chapone, Hannah More and others. As an eighteenth century historian, although not one that focuses on the blue-stockings, it was quite exciting to see an exhibition devoted to these women.
There were a number of things I thought the exhibition did well, and others that I thought could be better. There had been a concerted effort not to discuss these women in reference to the men in their lives. In many respects, I thought this was a good decision, as elite women are almost always discussed in reference to their fathers and husbands. Yet, I had a sense that the curators didn’t really know how to talk about these women in the absence of men. There was very little sense of these women’s achievements, or for that matter their social class (I think it was presumed that you knew women with the leisure and resources to be salon hostesses were well-connected- but is this obvious to the non-historian?). They were described as painters, writers and salon hostesses, but so what? To the non-informed visitor, why would this be important? There was little sense of their historical significance- why were the bluestockings exciting and revolutionary? They also didn’t really explain what it was they painted, wrote or composed- there was no sense of how their achievements fitted into a historical context and their import. Some of these women, after-all, wrote books of significance. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (which to be fair was mentioned) was of huge significance to the feminist movement. Hestor Chapone’s work was a best-seller and Hannah More was a cultural icon.
Speaking of Hannah More, the exhibition wrote her off as anti-feminist, explicitly saying she was against women’s rights. I found this a really problematic interpretation of her writing. Her conversion to evangelical Christianity, of course, meant that she believed that women were to be subordinate to their husbands. But beyond this, she argued for women’s education at all social levels; for women to be trained for work if they didn’t marry; she argued that the marriage system treated women like property and needed to be revised; she made her living from her writing and teaching. She may not have taken her arguments to their logical conclusions, and there is considerable tension in her work in that regard, but she was actively promoting women’s rights in particular areas, during a period where women’s rights were considerably constrained.
I enjoyed the split of the rooms into the blue-stockings as painted by men and as painted by each other. It was fascinating that when these women were painted by the likes of Alan Ramsay, they were dressed in the top fashions of the day in uber-femininity, but when painted by each other, they dressed as feminised versions of their male equivalents, perhaps, holding a history book to represent their occupation or, even dressed, in armoury to represent their association with the muses. The relationship with the Muses and the blue-stockings was also mentioned, although not really explained. I thought that even a brief mention that the Muses were the only female representations of women in art and literature that eighteenth century culture had to draw on would have both explained the relevance of the paintings and the social significance of the blue-stockings.
Over-all though, it was an interesting event to see and it is good to see women receiving recognition for their achievements, in exhibitions devoted exclusively to them. It is also interesting that this exhibition is on at the same time as the Vanity Fair portraits, representing career women of a different sort.