Tuesday 12 February 2019

Review: The Women Who Inspired London Art

Over Christmas I was sent some lovely books to review.  The first is The Women Who Inspired London Art, an exploration of models of the early 20th century, most notably the Avico Sisters.  As I always want to know more about artists models, I was delighted to get down to some reading...

At first glance, the title implies that we will concentrate on the Avico sisters (Gilda, Leopoldine and Marietta) a trio of models who sat for some of the most impactful art of the early twentieth century.  Marietta's lovely face can be seen in John William Godward's Contemplation (1922) on the cover of the book, Gilda sat for C. R. W. Nevinson, whilst Leopoldine (brilliant name) can be seen atop of Selfridges as 'The Queen of Time'...

Gilbert Bayes' sculpture outside Selfridges (1930)
All three sisters seem to have carved out remarkable careers, inspiring diverse artists to use their faces in very different ways.  I was reminded superficially of the Pettigrew sisters from a generation or two before, however any family that can personify the lush Victorian excesses of Godward and the stark post-War harshness of Nevinson has to be wondered at. 

However the scope of this book is far wider than just the lives of these three sisters and their contemporaries.  Peterson's view of artists models travels from Elizabeth Siddal and Fanny Eaton all the way to Daphne Charlton, who died in 1991.  Mind you, such a wide sweep does draw attention to the fact that not much changes - Charlton, like Siddal was an artist herself, but provided inspiration and support to a more famous male artist (Stanley Spencer) to whom she was romantically involved.

Portrait of Daphne Charlton (1941) Stanley Spencer
It is a magnificent book with plenty of bright and colourful illustrations.  It is written in a conversational style, easy to read, and relays the information in an enjoyable way.  As if to underline how much the book isn't only about the Avico sisters, you have to wait until Part Six on page 121 before we even reach their part in the story.  Up to that point, Peterson is setting the scene of how we now know so much about models and the women who rose from anonymity to become names we remember. In no way a dry historical account of life for the women of art, Peterson's book whisks you from place to place, meeting well-to-do Ladies and models struggling to survive.  As we move from Victorian, through the war years, to more modern times, it is sobering to see how the lot of an artist's model doesn't change, certainly in the perception of the art-viewing audience. Female artists who also model find their work overshadowed by love affairs, women who come to rely on their looks remain insecure about their diminishing resource.  All the more reason we should know and treasure these women who have inspired so much and become so familiar.

Herbert Palliser's Bacchante, modelled for by Leopoldine Avico (1929)
I love a good compendium and so was delighted to find twenty pages of short entries about each woman mentioned in the book.  With birth and death dates, it provides a wonderful starting place if you fancied researching one of the more obscure women and is a marvellous quick read to dip in and out of, in case you were wondering who had an affair with Dora Carrington or who died of tuberculosis.

Lady Ottoline Morrell (1919) Augustus John
I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful book and recommend it as a cracking good read.  Useful and attractive it will be essential to researchers, those in search of inspiration or those who love seeing photographs of the women who shaped our artistic landscape.

The Women Who Inspired London Art: The Avico Sisters and Other Models of the Early Twentieth Century by Lucy Merello Peterson is available direct from the publishers, Pen and Sword or from all good bookshops now.