Two of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768 were women: Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman. Despite that, it did not admit another woman as an Associate (the step before becoming a full Academician) until 1922, when Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933) was elected an Associate.
Annie Swynnerton was a professional painter for her entire working life, an early and active feminist, and campaigner for women’s suffrage. And her paintings are highly individual, and visually very rich. I hope that you will enjoy looking at her work as much as I have done.
She was born Annie Louisa Robinson in Hulme in the city of Manchester, England’s second city after London, and became quite an accomplished young artist, working in watercolours. She was able to sell her paintings to augment the family’s income. She started her formal training in 1871 at the Manchester School of Art, where she won a gold medal and scholarship.
This enabled her to travel to Rome, where she trained from 1874-76, then in Paris at the Académie Julian from 1877-79. She became a close friend with painter Susan Isabel Dacre, also from Manchester, who was a student in Rome and Paris alongside her. Swynnerton was influenced by the paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who died suddenly in 1884. Sadly, Susan Dacre’s works have now largely vanished, and I am unable to locate sufficient images to write an article about her.
On their return to Manchester, Swynnerton and Dacre founded the Manchester Society of Women Painters. Swynnerton’s first painting to be exhibited at the Royal Academy was in 1879, and the following year she exhibited a portrait of Susan Dacre. In 1883, Annie married Joseph Swynnerton, a sculptor from the Isle of Man. The couple spent much of the year working in Rome, but Annie Swynnerton kept a studio in Shepherd’s Bush, in west London.
The Young Mother (c 1887) shows her early influence by Bastien-Lepage, in this social-realistic depiction of a young Italian country girl and her infant.
Cupid and Psyche (1891) follows the long-standing tradition of showing the couple as being very young. Thankfully Henrietta Rae had earlier blazed the trail which enabled this, a painting of nude male and female by a woman, to be exhibited in polite company.
Mater Triumphalis (1892) appears to have been inspired by Swinburne’s poem of the same name, which starts:
Mother of man’s time-travelling generations,
Breath of his nostrils, heartblood of his heart,
God above all Gods worshipped of all nations,
Light above light, law beyond law, thou art.
This was shown in the Paris Salon, but not until 1905, and was given to the French nation in 1915, so is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
The Sense of Sight (1895) is perhaps her most visually arresting image, and a work which deserves to be seen far more widely.
Glow Worm (c 1900) is an unusual nocturne, which shows an elegantly-dressed woman out in a garden on a summer’s night, using a small torch to get a glow-worm to light up in the dark.
The Letter (c 1900) shows a young woman reading a letter inside a mediaeval house, with its bottle-glass windows.
Evelyn (c 1900) is one of her several superb portraits of children.
Illusions (c 1900) is another excellent portrait of a young girl, who is dressed up in a suit of armour.
Her undated Joan of Arc shows this heroine of the French nation as a rather older woman than in most other paintings (including Bastien-Lepage’s depiction), wearing armour, and holding a huge sword.
New Risen Hope (1904) is a wonderful painting of the fresh hope of the young.
Miss Elizabeth Williamson on a Pony (1906) is a fine equestrian portrait.
Swynnerton was particular friends with George Frederic Watts, Edward Burne-Jones, and John Singer Sargent.
John Singer Sargent appreciated Swynnerton’s work, and purchased some of her paintings, including The Oreads (1907), which he later gave to the Tate Gallery. Sargent was also an important influence in her being elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.
When her husband died in 1910, Annie spent more time in London, now in Chelsea, before retiring to Hayling Island, on the Hampshire coast to the east of Portsmouth. In her later years, her eyesight started to fail, but she continued to paint mainly portraits.
The Convalescent (1929) shows a woman still recovering from illness, struggling with her fatigue.
Dame Millicent Fawcett, C.B.E., LL.D. (1930) is a major portrait of one of the leading campaigners for women’s suffrage, who had died the previous year. Dame Fawcett co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1871, and led the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897-1919. She was a tireless worker for the cause since the age of 19 in 1866.
Count Zouboff (1931) was one of her last paintings, and apparently set in rugged hills in mainland Europe.
For once, a reasonable number of her works have entered public collections, particularly that of the Tate. They show her highly individual style, as she progressed from detailed (social-)realism with some Pre-Raphaelite influence, to her later and looser approach. She painted some of the most piercing eyes I have ever seen in paintings, faces and figures which are truly vivid. It is surely time for an exhibition of her work.