I am very much aware that we are around a fortnight away from Blogvent this year and I would like to fill December with more little-known lady artists, as is my wont. However, in the meantime, here is just such a lass who I am at a bit of a loss to work out why she is not better known. Her paintings are visually exciting and modern, as well as traditionally beautiful and just a little bit utterly bonkers. She seems to have worked hard and been very popular and yet if you look under Art UK, the listing for oil paintings in public hands in the UK, there is only this one, possibly purchased from the War Relief Exhibition where it was exhibited in 1915...
|A Bunch of Flowers (1915)
…and as you will see, it’s not exactly her most exciting work, lovely though it is. So, why have we forgotten Isobel Lilian Gloag?
|Woman in Green (also known as 1860) (c.1909-16)
The fact that she had two major pieces written about her in 1902 and 1916, in The Magazine of Art and The International Studio, makes it both easier to talk about her but also puzzling as to why she has seemingly vanished. Starting with the 1902 piece, penned by the artist and art critic James Greig (1861-1941), the piece ‘Isobel Lilian Gloag and Her Work’ was an overview of her life up to 1902 and her work. It is also funny and inaccurate; however I am very grateful to Mr Greig for it. I will be working in conjunction with him for Isobel’s backstory. She was born in Kensington on 1st August 1865. Greig writes that her parents hailed from Perthshire ‘the most picturesque county in the land of mountain and flood.’ Her father, Henry Dundas Gloag (1830-1908) was actually born in India and her mother Isobel Ogilvie Jackson (1844-1921) came from Australia, but I’m guessing their families originated from the land of Haggis and Nessie before they cleared off to the colonies. Isobel was the eldest of four children, followed by Henry Junior (1867-1929), Mary (1868-1953) and Wilfred (1873-1954). Henry Senior was a captain in the Royal Madras Artillery, and so in Isobel’s first census in 1871, she and her mother, Henry junior and Mary are staying at St Mary’s Terrace, Park Cottages in Paddington. Henry Senior retired somewhen that decade because by 1881 the family are in their new, rather swanky home of Gloucester Terrace, along with their 2 servants, doing very nicely thank you.
|In the Garden (c.1909-16)
Greig helps out with a bit of narrative here: apparently Isobel wasn’t one of those artists who was drawing from an early age – ‘Not being born with a pencil in her hand [may I add, I bet her mother was relieved] she never defaced the nursery walls.’ Apologies for my interjection, but I winced at that. I must also add that my daughter Lily merrily redecorated her bedroom door when she was given her first pack of felt tip pens. We wondered why she was so quiet. I digress. It was only when looking at the options for women that Isobel decided that being the artist was the best of a bad lot, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Miss Gloag did not do things by half and was determined to go to the RA School as she was very sensibly aware that attendance there would give her advantages. She enrolled at St John’s Wood art school to prepare but, as Greig writes, she found she was ‘not in sympathy’ with the academic system of training. That is such a marvellous euphemism that I intend to use it as often as possible. This morning for example, I found I was not in sympathy with getting out of bed. Anyway, she found that a route that she was more in sympathy with was at the Slade…
|Portrait of a Woman (c.1909-16)
As you will know, the Slade School of Fine Art was a youngster in comparison with the established Royal Academy School. It was established in 1871 and is a sort of keynote for a more relaxed, modern way of teaching art that continues today. It always, sadly, reminds me of the ill-fated Miranda in John Fowles’ The Collector but past pupils and teachers include Augustus John, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and Paul Rego. The Wikipedia page on the Alumni is a bit of a who’s who of 20th century art. Anyway, Isobel did really well there but her health was not good. It became apparent to her that formal teaching of any sort was not going to be possible full-time, but she was not put off. She settled for part-time study at ‘Mr Ridley’s Studio’ which gained her access to the life classes at South Kensington.
|Decorated plate (c.1880) Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin
Greig charmingly states that with Isobel, thought led directly to action and Isobel had the thought she would like to study in Paris. Off she went, but not to the Académie Julian which she felt would be as bad as the Royal Academy. Instead, she went to the studio of Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin (1850-1916). What impressed her the most was the sheer variety of students from all corners of the earth, all bringing new and interesting perspectives on art. She said that she received more inspiration from her fellow students than anything her teacher could ever give her.
|A Legend of Provence (1894)
Her absence from the 1891 census (together with that of her sister, brother Henry and father) makes me think that this is when she was in Paris, returning to triumphantly join the Royal Academy and begin her career. I particularly love the Royal Academy catalogues (all of which are free online) because they give you information on the artist as well as their picture. In 1893, Isobel exhibited what is widely belived to be her first picture, A Raw Recruit, and her address is listed as 9 Gloucester Walk, Campden Hill. This painting was so popular that it was awarded a medal at the re-opening of the Crystal Palace Art Rooms in 1896. This was followed in 1894 with A Legend of Provence from Adelaide Ann Procter’s poem of the same name. The painting was accompanied with the following lines of poetry: She raised her head; she saw – she seemed to know – / A face that came from long, long years ago: / Herself; yet not as when she fled away, / The young and blooming novice, fair and gay, / But a grave woman, gentle and serene: / The outcast knew it – what she might have been.
Much like Procter’s verse, this image is filled with women’s concerns and frustrations at the end of the nineteenth century. In a way this reminds me of Rossetti's Found with a woman being accosted by a vision of their more optimistic (and societally acceptable) past. It is almost like this woman is being confronted by the Virgin Mary, arguably the only acceptable lifepath for a woman in the eyes of Victorian society.
|Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1895)
Isabella and the Pot of Basil from 1895 came with the text ‘Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord.’ from Keats. This has to put her in the running to be in the next volume of Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang (The Girl Gang Rides Again). As you can see by the picture, Isabella is fearfully clutching her basil pot/severed head of her lover, looking traumatised. Given that previous versions are more wistful and romantic, I think the fear and horror in this Isabella’s face is somewhat more realistic.
|The Miracle of the Roses (1896)
Isobel was back in 1896 with another dramatic work, this time the deceptively lovely sounding The Miracle of the Roses. I was expecting some lovely gardening scene, but it is taken from a 14th century story by John Mandeville (or Syr Jean de Maundeville, depending how 14th century you are feeling). During his (possibly fictional) travels in the Holy Lands he came across a story of a young girl who was falsely accused of fornication and condemned to be burned at the stake. She prayed to God who turned the flames to red roses and the unburned kindling to white roses and these were the first roses ever seen. Blimey. Again, she tackles the perils of womanhood, false accusations and the fragility and importance of virginity and reputation. Also, bear this story in mind as the next painting is a mirror image of it...
|The Magic Mantle (1898)
She didn't submit a painting in 1897 (possibly for health reasons) but she submitted possibly her best-known painting the year after, The Magic Mantle. Now, this is a very interesting painting and story and I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s a great painting, worthy of Byam Shaw, who I feel she most closely resembles, but what exactly is the message? It comes from an Arthurian tale, where a little boy brings a cloak to the King’s court and declares that only virtuous and faithful wives could wear the cloak. Well, as reported in the Gentlewoman journal, a feckless young wife who felt she could get away with it revealed her shortcomings as the cloak disintegrated: ‘mere shreds and tatters of gorgeous embroideries hanging from a band about her neck… [bringing] smiles of pleased depreciation to the faces of the surrounding courtiers.’ Is 'pleased depreciation' the same thing as Schadenfreude? Do we think that the knight is her husband or the chap sat at the back – neither look particularly impressed. Is one of them her fancy man? According to the Westminster Gazette it was the only picture to sell in the fifth room in the exhibition, for £100. What is equally as interesting is that Isobel, professionally using her initials I L Gloag, was often referred to as a man, leading many reviews to talk about Mr Gloag’s painting. I wonder if the person purchasing her painting knew she was a woman?
|Rosamond (or Fair Rosamond) (1899)
The use of space in this work is interesting as you are remarkably close to the action. Poor old Rapunzel was imprisoned without clothes I see. In this exhibition she had two paintings, the other being a profile and her address is given as Elm Park Gardens, a decidedly red-brick and luxurious bit of London where she would remain for the rest of her life. She was mentioned regularly in the papers, drawing attention to her paintings as being ‘problem paintings’ in the style of Byam Shaw whom she exhibited alongside. In 1901, her paintings Four Corners to My Bed was the smash of the RA, rivalling the popularity of The Magic Mantle…
|Four Corners to My Bed (1901)
The text that accompanied it was the popular children’s rhyme ‘Four corners to my bed, four angels round my head, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on.’ I love that the woman in the background can get on with some work as she has four angellic babysitters. James Greig announced it to be ‘the kind of subject a woman can do better than any man’ as it appealed ‘to the deep maternal tenderness of her finer nature.’ It is a common compliment given to female artists when they tackle subjects to do with motherhood and it always makes me wince. How odd that we never praise male artists with their deep paternal tenderness, for example when they paint the Virgin Mary (as one or two male artists have been known to do, I’m guessing).
|Mother Nursing a Baby (1911)
Isobel also painted an intriguing work entitled The Quick and the Dead for which I frustratingly cannot find any illustration. It is described as a group of women at an alms-house by around them are ghosts of men and children. If anyone can find me that painting, I would be delighted as that sounds marvellously weird.
|Mary Lowndes and Isabel Gloag windows in Sturminster Newton
Also in 1901, Isobel worked with Mary Lowndes (1857-1929) on a set of stained-glass windows for St Mary’s Church in Mary’s home town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Mary also went to the Slade and I wonder if that was how they knew each other, but she had been working as assistant to Henry Holiday. Mary was obviously a prolific window artist, but this seems to have been the only foray into stained-glass that Isobel made. Always one for variety, she also turned her hand to designing a poster for a pastille manufacturer and won £50. Her other poster designs included a girl with a spinning wheel and a very popular one featuring Old King Cole.
|Old King Cole (poster)
|Art Metal Exhibition poster (1898)
The thing I like about Isobel’s art is that she is not afraid of a really long title. After her 1902 RA piece The Daughter of Hippocrates, she brings us some corkers, such as 1903’s For There was Never Yet Fair Woman but she made Mouths in a Glass. I had not the first idea what that was going to be about until I saw the illustration…
|For there was Never Yet Fair Woman but she made Mouths in a Glass (1903)
The fool (from King Lear) is spying on a scene of vanity. The woman practices and admires her beautiful face in her hand mirror, assisted by her elderly maid. Themes on women’s vanity were popular at this time, most famously in Frank Cadogan Cowper’s 1907 Vanity. The artifice and ridiculousness are laid out; before too long that beautiful young woman will be the older lady behind her. In a world where women's appearance was (and is) highly prized, the mocking of women for being concerned with this seems cruel and contrary. I wonder if there is a link in Isobel's art between this and her (untraced) self portrait Portrait of a Plain Woman where she obviously didn't feel she was a 'fair woman'. 1904 followed with the equally impressive title Knowledge Putting the Garment of Sorrow on to Everyman which frankly is a tad depressing. A brief interlude in long titles came with 1906's Clytie who was transfixed with an arrow and dubbed 'unconventional' by The Graphic. However, my absolute favourite title has to be 1909’s Joy, Whose Hand is Ever at his Lips, Bidding Adieu...
Look at the hands reaching for the little figure of Joy - I am reminded of Anna Lea Meritt's Love Locked Out (1890) and also Joy and the Labourer by Mary Young Hunter and the litle cheeky figure of Joy was much admired. I wonder if her continued ill health gave her a somewhat pessimistic view of life – knowledge brings sorrow, joy is fleeting. Her adherence to the latter Pre-Raphaelite revival in colour and the problem picture meant she was a worthy contemporary to Byam Shaw, Brickdale and Cadogan Cowper. She even turned her hand to book illustration, much like EFB...
|Stories of William Tell (1907)
1909 saw not only her election to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Watercolour Society, but also a change in her work, commented on in an article in 1916 by Arthur Reddie, published in the International Studio magazine. This earlier, Pre-Raphaelite phase ended when Isobel turned largely to modernity in subject and treatment. Her delight in the antique and beautiful found a new form of expression in pieces such as The Choice in 1913…
|The Choice (1913)
Goodness, I love a problem painting! The papers praised its 'early Victorian Atmosphere' and in one way it is a very simple image of two girls trying on dresses, with their mother/grandmother seen in the reflection, however it was referred to as one of the 'query pictures of the year' byThe Sketch so what is the problem? Is it something about the dresses, their colour and frothy nature that says something about the chooser? Isobel was always one for a painting that inspires thought but it was also noted how her style had changed.
|The Yellow Coat (c.1913)
I find it interesting that the difference was seen as so marked, although it is clear from works such as The Yellow Coat, there is a difference in the way the figure is handled and unlike her fellow late Pre-Raphaelites, Isobel made her dramas about her contemporaries, not the past. In defence of Byam Shaw, there are examples of him doing similar in pieces such as The Lure but always with fantastical elements. I wonder also how much John Collier’s paintings were an influence, with pieces such as The Prodigal Daughter (1903).
|Bacchante and Fauns (c.1909-11)
It isn’t as if all of Isobel’s pieces from 1909 are strictly modern as there were still pieces such as Bacchante and Fauns which were praised for the echoes of Rubens, and Diana Protected by her Nymphs When Disturbed by Actaeon While Bathing from 1911, but amongst these are some striking and very modern pieces including East and West, a nude featuring a woman of colour and a bulldog.
|East and West (c.1915)
This piece was praised in the 1916 article with Reddie commenting on the ‘clever and amusing’ contrast of the brown skin of the girl and the white dog, with highlights of red and yellow behind them. I would dearly like to see a colour version of this image too as the flowers on her head obviously are echoed in the flowers behind and in itself, the work is no worse in tone than the Nymphs, but there is something about the pairing of the girl and the dog which makes me very Colonially uncomfortable, especially when critics apply the adjective ‘amusing’ to it. What is the message? That the British bulldog is protecting the lovely maidens from over the seas? That a white dog and a black lady are tonally interesting together? Is it a call back to Manet's 1863 Olympia or even The Rokeby Venus? If it was painted in 1914 or 1915, this could have been inspired by the suffragette attack on the latter or a comment on the complication of sex in our attitude to colonialism through Orientalism. Or she might have thought the colours would look good together. I wish I knew more...
|He and She (c.1916)
Amongst the last of her paintings, I particularly like He and She, a painting described in Reddie’s article as being of a ‘coster girl’ and her ‘bloke’ ‘as he holds the reins of the barrow in which they drive out apleasuring.’ (I can’t tell you the last time I went apleasuring, it’s such a shame). I had to remind myself what a costermonger is (it’s someone who sells things off a barrow) but it is definitely a piece on class but it is hard to get the definite meaning. The girl is looking away from her ‘bloke’ and the hand she has raised is her ringless left. Is that a flower coming out of her mouth? Is He looking at She? Is He a pearly king? I can’t tell, it’s all very mysterious and I’m not sure exactly how much ‘apleasuring’ will be taking place.
|Woman With Puppets (1915)
I should mention this piece from 1915 which still intrigues people today - it seems to have been used in an exhibition in 2016. There is a distinct commentary about the power of naked women over the little puppet men. I think that's all fairly obvious, but it is very interesting that when Isobel uses nudity in her work it is almost always to do with power either taken or exerted.
|The Kiss of the Enchantress or Lamia or Knight and Mermaid
The piece I am most frustrated with is this one, which is probably her most famous work on the internet. The date given with it is 1890 which seems unlikely as her first RA picture was in 1893 and this work is definitely of RA quality, yet I can't find an RA listing that would match it. It also has so many different titles that people don't quite know what exactly it is but countless searches have born no fruit as to its current location or any other information. What gives me hope is that it is in colour, so someone must have it in order to make a good colour picture of it.
Isobel's final RA pice in 1916 was Sleep and she died in the January of 1917 leaving much of her work to her sister Mary who seemingly gave some pieces to the V&A in the 1920s. There are a few others dotted around the globe but the fact that she has never been given the sort of attention that someone like Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale has been given over the last few years is criminal. What is so sad is that she was chiefly known as a colourist yet so many of her images are only available in black and white, and only then because of those journal articles. Whilst I am obviously calling for a retrospective (when am I not?) I think Isobel Gloag is such an inspiration, working through her chronic illness and chanelling so much fire and feeling into her modern works of art. In the International Studio article it was quoted that the medium she worked in was "vitality, Sir, vitality" - "In all her work one conceives her to be moved by a distinct purpose, and animated by such fervour and energy that the natural result is the achievement of something extreme, either good or bad, in art."
In her 24 year career, you could never accuse her of being dull and can you image all that colour, all that fury, on a gallery wall? Isobel needs her moment, so if you know of any Gloags, give me a shout.