Discover the Trailblazing Women Who Changed the World of Art

“Issues of gender equality will have a particular resonance for audiences at a time where challenges… caused by the pandemic are disproportionally affecting UK women.”

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 12.05.2021

Before the 20th century, the entire canon of western art was dominated by male artists. True, there had been celebrated female painters – Artemisia Gentileschi, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Rosa Bonheur among them – but it wasn’t until the 20th century that women really began to enjoy comparable success with their male counterparts.

The roots of this lay in the Victorian era, when those born, raised and educated in the latter decades of the 1800s were able to seize upon the huge changes in society that were occurring during a time of burgeoning modernism, transformation and increasing emancipation.

Here in Britain, four female artists exemplified this time of flux against that backdrop of radical change – their lives and work reflecting the almost-constant struggle to challenge the conventions imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.

Image Credit: A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943 (oil on canvas), Laura Knight (1877-1970)

Who were they artistic trailblazers, we hear you ask? Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Laura Knight (1877-1970), Gwen John (1876-1939) and Dod Procter (1890-1972). And now the Laing Art Gallery’s major new exhibition, Challenging Convention, will chart exactly how they made such a significant impact on the profile of women artists, within traditional institutions and in the public eye.

Opening on 17th May and continuing until 21st August, Challenging Convention features more than 60 works by these four artists and offers us an immersive introduction to their art – spanning their careers, their subjects and their most celebrated creations.

Image credit: The Ballet Shoe – Laura Knight

Through their compelling works, we’ll be able to see stylistic changes, their impressions of the people and places around them and get a glimpse into their emotional and intellectual landscape.

Born within 15 years of one other and each from a vastly different background, the quartet is united by the pioneering changes they helped enforce within the world of art and, indeed, the world itself. The work of Vanessa – a member of the famous Bloomsbury Group and sister of writer Virginia Woolf – rubs shoulders with that of Cornwall native Dod; the art of Laura, who went on to establish an artistic colony in Staithes in Yorkshire, sits alongside that of Gwen, who found fame while living and working in Paris.

Image credit: Helen Dudley – Vanessa Bell

The story of each of these women’s lives is just as inspiring as the art they created. Now we can we have exclusive access to it all, right here in the North East.

Bringing together significant works from over 40 public collections to Newcastle, the Laing’s latest exhibition is presented with support from the Golsoncott Foundation and will be accompanied by a Laing Art Gallery publication.

Image credit: The Golden Girl – Dod Procter

Challenging Convention celebrates four extraordinary women who pursued artistic careers with determination and imagination,’ says Lizzie Jacklin, Keeper of Art at the Laing Art Gallery. ‘From quietly expressive interior scenes to bold experiments with colour and form, the paintings on display highlight the remarkable achievements of four of Britain’s most important early 20th century artists.

Image credit: Young Woman in a Red Shawl (1917 – 1923) by Gwen John

‘This is one of a series of exhibitions which take up the important task of addressing the varying kinds of erasures and omissions that are inherent in the canon of British art, and indeed public art collections like the Laing,’ adds Julie Milne, Chief Curator of the Laing, Hatton and Shipley Art Galleries. ‘Issues of gender equality will have a particular resonance for audiences at a time where challenges of economic hardship, unstable work and childcare caused by the pandemic are disproportionally affecting UK women.’

Running alongside Challenging Convention, the Laing is also exhibiting WOW: Women Only Works on Paper from 17th May until 4th December. A display of over 50 watercolours and pastels complemented by etchings and screenprints, artists Vanessa Bell, Winifred Knights, Ithell Colquhoun, Annie French, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Thérèse Lessore, Hilda Carline and Paule Vézelay are all represented, as well as other accomplished – but lesser-known – female artists working in the first part of the 20th century.

Image credit: Girl in Blue, 1925, Dod Procter

Challenging Convention will run at the Laing Art Gallery from 17th May – 21st August

WOW: Women Only Works on Paper will run at at the Laing Art Gallery from 17th May – 4th December

To find out more about these pioneering female artists and details of both exhibitions, visit the Laing Art Gallery’s website, Facebook page or Instagram

Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle NE1 8AG

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