Thursday 20 July 2023

A Future As Bright As Her Talents

Blimey, excuse the couple of months' interval, I've been horrifically busy and have therefore had to neglect the blog, but I will try and make a bit of an effort, not least because I have stuff I want to write about.  At present, however, I am sending book proposals out, so that is taking a lot of time and energy.  However, when I saw the name 'Agnes Pringle', I knew I had to drop everything and investigate because that is such a magnificent name...

So welcome to the life of Miss Agnes Pringle - of course you have heard of Miss Pringle!  She was The Queen magazine's hot art tip for 1894 and blimey, she won lots of prizes.  Her massive and ambitious works of art even made it into a couple of public collections, such as this one...

A Group from the Scene 'The Coronation Procession of Edward VI, 1547'
in the Church Pageant, Bishop's Park

However, I'll admit it, Agnes is not top of everyone's list of Victorian female artists.  So, what went wrong?

Agnes Pringle (undated) Ralph Hedley

Agnes was born in Gateshead in 1853, third child of Thomas and Elizabeth.  She was preceded by a sister Elizabeth (b. 1849) and brother Thomas (b.1851), neatly dodging the impetus to be names after either of her parents. She was followed by William (b.1855) and lastly Frederick (b.1858), leaving her as the middle child of five.  The family were not badly off at all with father Thomas working as an Iron and Shipping agent with Hawks, Crawshay and Co. The family had a servant and lived at 3 Barrington Place, Gateshead in 1861 - it's hard to see how posh it is as the area looks very chopped about, but I'm guessing they were, at the very least, comfortably off.

Aged 6, Agnes found she adored art and had quite a talent for it, copying a picture of a castle in such detail that it became one of her mother's greatest treasures until the dog ate it (true story, it's quoted in The Queen magazine in 1894). She attended a drawing class when she was 8, complaining bitterly that the older children were given more difficult and interesting things to draw, but within 6 months of being there she won first prize for her pictures. It was decided that she would be sent to art school to pursue her passion, and so attended the Government School of Art when she was 12, under William Cozens Way (1833-1905) and Robinson Elliott (1814-1894).  The family moved again to Elswick, a rural district of Newcastle Upon Tyne.  Agnes's sister Elizabeth is listed as a teacher in the 1871 census, but that would not last, as we shall see.

A Garden (undated)

Agnes's talent was enough to uproot the family from the North East and bring them all the way down to Westminster, enrolling Agnes at the Royal Academy in January 1882, just before her 30th birthday.  The family began to disperse - William became a chemist and journeyed to India, dying there in 1892. Thomas junior remained in the north, working as the agent for the sale of steam ships and marrying in 1900. Elizabeth was also still in the north, working as a governess but this would be the last census she was separated from her family.

Agnes blessed her training in Newcastle as she later stated it helped her with more difficult academical studies that were demanded at the Royal Academy.  By the end of her first year she had won a silver medal and a prize of books for a set of drawings, together with a premium of £10 for the best drawing of the statue The Laocoon.  In 1883 she turned her hand to sculpture, winning £10 for the best copy of the Venus de Milo.  The same year, her painting Tynemouth Cliffs was purchased by Earl Percy for his collection.

Children Playing Croquet (1877)

She made her RA exhibition debut in 1884 with Iza, described in the newspapers as a 'clever head study'.  Her address was 58 St Oswald's Road, West Brompton (or Fulham, depending on how posh you are feeling) where the family were to remain until after the death of both of their parents.  Elizabeth joined them there and the 1891 census has both Elizabeth and Agnes listed as oil painters, with Frederick working as a commercial traveller (one of those occupations lost in time - are people still commercial travellers? How about Ostlers? Do people still Ostle?)

Agnes's 1885 masterpiece Disturbed showed a tiger with its mighty paw on the body of an antelope, looking towards an oncoming threat.  You cannot fault Agnes's ambition in her works and it is a shame that I cannot find any trace of this painting online.  Nor can I find possibly her most admired work On Guard from 1889 which featured a 'handsome Arab' (much was made on how handsome this chap was in the papers) and was bought by Lord Derby after exhibition in Liverpool.

By the 1890s, Agnes had become an artist who the papers seemed to know things about, for example when she exhibited a study of Beatrice at Earl's Court, the papers noted it was one of those Shakespearean heads that Agnes 'finds special pleasure in painting.' Up to this point, Agnes hadn't exactly littered the walls of the RA with Shakespearean subjects but it was said so casually that it must have come from somewhere and my guess is one of those 'At Home' pieces that grew in popularity with female artists at this time. In The Queen magazine in 1890, Agnes appeared in an article entitled 'Selected Works of Lady Artists, from their own sketches' and Agnes's piece Pike Fishing At the Crystal Palace is printed alongside others by women like Louise Jopling. The Queen loved women artists and their stories, printing Agnes's own mini biography in 1894, probably in response to her enormously successful picture Chivalry, depicting a scene that she witnessed firsthand in Piccadilly - a boy crossing sweeper ('of a rather bully order' according to The Newcastle Chronicle) and street urchin are fighting because the crossing sweeper has knocked over the basket belonging to a flowergirl. This sort of 'appropriate' female art, of children, animals or flowers, was highly praised but she would insist on veering off and tackling other things... 

Hamlet and Ophelia (1893)

One of the Shakespeare subjects we actually have a picture of is also from 1893, and shows Hamlet being a bit of a rubbish boyfriend to poor old Ophelia. The crushed rose at her feet underlines the message as Ophelia gives him back his presents - 'Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.'  Damn straight Ophelia, you can buy yourself flowers, as Miley would say. The sharply contrasting dark and light, not to mention the luminous Ophelia, make it a very striking image and secured Agnes's reputation as one of the country's hottest paintings.  Then she painted this...

The Flight Of Antony And Cleopatra From The Battle Of Actium (1896-7)

The painting took a few years to create, and reports of it started appearing from 1894 until it was exhibited at Messrs Henry Graves & Co in Pall Mall in 1896. Much is made in the newspapers of the depiction of Cleopatra ('The serpent of the Nile') and the shamed and silent Anthony as they beat their hasty retreat. The energy and drama of the work is emphasised by the movement of the water and the fabrics, while the figures remain static and pensive.  It was a sensation - 'in her admirable scheme of colours that Miss Pringle most excels' raved one paper, 'the rich colouring charms the eye!' quoted another.  The exhibition of this work coincided with her election as an Associate of the Society of English Artists. With this ascension, The West London Observer reported 'We sincerely trust that her future may be as bright as her undoubted talents warrant us in anticipating.'

So, after being the hit of the season and winning everything, what did Agnes do next? What does a sensational female artist do after being a sensation?  That is a tricky question, because at that point they just become establishment but, on the whole, without the clout that the establishment male artist had. Part of this is that in 1900, there weren't exactly a lot of 'elder stateswomen' artists as being a professional female artist had not exactly been an option for a vast number of women up until the advent of art schools and wider acceptance.  Also, the number of women who hit the big time and sustained it was not yet great enough to influence, so most female artists at this time, if they had talent, rose up and had their moment, then sank back into the heap with everyone else.  Agnes's works Chivalry, Rival Roses and Evening, Piccadilly Circus all appeared in the London Salon of the Allied Artists Association Ltd in 1909, held in the Royal Albert Hall, but she wasn't exactly raking in the money. Like many other female artists of her generation, Agnes turned to book illustration and provided works for such cloying cuteness as Chubby Cheeks and Darby and Joan, both of which lok so sweet that you would be at risk of pre-diabetes.

In 1913, after the death of her mother, Agnes started giving lessons.  From her studio in Sutton Court Road in Chiswick, Agnes advertised 'Medallist RA, Member of North British Academy etc' giving lessons on 'portrait painter, oil and watercolour'.  Later in the year she advertised a 'Spring Course of Outdoor Sketching'.  She moved to Cornwall Gardens in Kensington around 1918 after the area was gentrified, and continued to work and teach but slipped into obscurity. The last we see of her is after her death in 1934 - Elizabeth, older sister and fellow artist, gifted the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle with the painting of Anthony and Cleopatra that had caused such a sensation 40 years previously.

So, what happened to Agnes? Well, obviously there are thousands of Victorian artists we do not know now - I'm not saying the fact she is a woman has nothing to do with why she was lost in time, but the sheer numbers of people working as professional artists in 1900 means that in our rediscovery and appreciation of all things Victorian, we might not have caught up with all of them yet.  When I started on my quest to become an art historian in the 1990s, 19th century art was still very much seen as utter rubbish and embarrassing so we haven't openly loved the English 19th century for very long.  I do think that in our rediscovery, we tend to find the men first.  That isn't a reflection of us as much as a reflection of the environment in which the women worked. Male art was prized far higher, it cost far more, it was celebrated for more, than that of women. Finding female artists and their output is hard - where is Agnes's handsome Arab? Where are her scrapping street children? Where is her tiger? All I can find is her frankly dubious cats...

Blimey, that's twee, but herein is the problem - the likes of Agnes Pringle do not get top billing as we don't have access to her best work other than Anthony and Cleopatra, but one publicly owned painting doesn't make a reputation. God bless the internet as it means I can find far more of Agnes' works than I would be able to without it, but it is still not enough.  It is up to us to raise the profile of these artists so that we have a better picture of the nineteenth century and the place of women artists within it.  We need to make sure that Agnes, and all her fellow lost women, have a future as bright as their talents.