Blazing a Trail: Bonhams Presents Work by Modern British Women Artists

Liz Catalano
Published on
Evelyn Dunbar, Opportunity, 1936. Image from Bonhams.
Evelyn Dunbar, Opportunity, 1936. Image from Bonhams.

Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin attended a graduation ceremony at Vassar College in 1970. Richard Feigen, a renowned art dealer, turned to her after the ceremony and said, “Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?” This gave Nochlin pause. She unleashed a biting retort in ARTnews the following year, noting the implied answer to Feigen’s question: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.” Nochlin proceeded to dismantle the assumption that women artists are somehow less skilled than the white, Western male artists who dominate history books.  

Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay is now 50 years old. The art world has changed over the decades, though gender parity remains a distant dream. Art by women is still underrepresented on the walls of museums and galleries, and it consistently sells at auction for less than art by men. In the summer of 2021, art by women represented just 8% of the USD 1.8 billion in sales that Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips brought in. Georgia O’Keeffe still holds the auction record for the most expensive work made by a woman artist, though her $44.4 million pales next to the high mark for male artists ($450.3 million). Others, including Joan Mitchell, Vija Celmins, and Lee Krasner, trail far behind similar male artists of the 20th century. 

These disparities have not gone unnoticed by auction houses. Sotheby’s launched its first dedicated auction of works by women artists in May of 2021, though it ran as a timed online auction instead of a glitzy live sale. Christie’s inaugural Women in Art auction closed with a total of $3.7 million a month later. In late September, Bonhams will also work on revising the artistic canon with a dedicated sale of modern art by British women artists. The upcoming Blazing a Trail auction will begin at 10:00 AM EDT on September 29th, 2021.

Dame Laura Knight, Sennen Cove, Cornwall, c. 1920s. Image from Bonhams.
Dame Laura Knight, Sennen Cove, Cornwall, c. 1920s. Image from Bonhams.

“One of our ambitions with Blazing a Trail has been to showcase the work of undervalued and overlooked British women artists and bring them back to public notice,” said Christopher Dawson, Bonhams’ Director of Modern British and Irish Art, about the event. “I expect the opportunity to acquire pieces by these… lesser-known names will create a great deal of interest among collectors.”

The 63-lot auction surveys the breadth of the 20th century, beginning with the landscape and entertainment paintings of Dame Laura Knight. An early advocate for British Impressionism, Knight became the first woman artist to be elected to the Royal Academy in 1936. She created landscape paintings and circus scenes, as well as the first known self-portrait of a woman artist with a female nude. The Bonhams auction will offer two examples of Knight’s work: a high view of Cornwall’s Sennen Cove (lot #16; estimate: $83,000 – $110,000) and a backstage ballet scene (lot #17; estimate: $41,000 – $55,000).

Knight and other British women artists of the early 20th century opened doors for the artistic movements that followed. Art education was increasingly available to women who could afford it, and artists such as Barbara Hepworth took full advantage of exhibition opportunities. However, inequality persisted for other women artists. Some movements almost entirely erased the contributions of women. The Surrealists formally booted painter Ithell Colquhoun from their ranks despite her extensive work with British decalcomania. She used the transfer technique to create Battle Fury of Cuchullin, offered in this sale with an estimate of $2,800 to $4,100 (lot #32).

Bridget Riley, Revision of January 10, 2003. Image from Bonhams.
Bridget Riley, Revision of January 10, 2003. Image from Bonhams.

Women artists who were active later in the 20th century enjoyed greater opportunities and exposure thanks to changing gender mores and the rise of second-wave feminism. More recent art movements have also better valued the contributions of women artists. Bridget Riley, for instance, drew upon Pointillist techniques to advance Op Art in the 1960s and 70s. She is still regarded as one of the movement’s key figures. This auction offers four of her paintings, including Revision of January 10 and Elapse

With the changing of the years came changing expectations of what “women’s art” can or should be. Women artists started to pursue abstraction, confessional self-portraits, erotic art, and everything in between. The latter half of the 20th century allowed these artists to display and sell their work even if controversy followed in their wake. Tracey Emin, Paula Rego, and Maggi Hambling created overtly feminist artworks that challenged stereotypes associating women with soft, simple, or childlike themes.

Hambling’s Miss Mace, Saturday Night from 1976 demonstrates the artist’s interest in pushing the boundaries (lot #28; estimate: $6,900 – $11,000). It shows Hambling’s local tobacconist resting after several glasses of barley wine. While her leisurely pose references Classical art, the subject’s torso is decidedly modern. She moves her arms around in a series of animated gestures that Hambling captures in a blaze of white.

Maggi Hambling, Miss Mace, Saturday Night, 1976. Image from Bonhams.
Maggi Hambling, Miss Mace, Saturday Night, 1976. Image from Bonhams.

This Bonhams sale indicates a step forward for the representation of British women artists in the art market. Yet like the generations before them, many of today’s women artists are not waiting for gender equity to arrive in the art world. Contemporary British artists like Jadé Fadojutimi are innovating and redefining the canon while the market catches up. In the meantime, they do not require comparison or confirmation to hold their own.

Bonhams’ Blazing a Trail auction featuring modern British women artists will start on September 29th, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT. Visit Bonhams’ website for more information and to place a bid. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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