BY Eloise Hendy in Books , Opinion | 17 SEP 21

Rebecca Birrell Uncovers the Hidden Lives of Women Artists

The UK-based writer's book This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century (2021) shines a light on the ways women artists have defined their lives on their own terms

BY Eloise Hendy in Books , Opinion | 17 SEP 21

Halfway through Rebecca Birrell’s new book, This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century (2021), there is a revealing anecdote. In 1913, writer and artist Wyndham Lewis tries on a hat at the Omega Workshops, Bloomsbury, and, absorbed in preening before a mirror, disregards the woman working there, watching him. ‘I was never, in his opinion, worthy of notice’, Winifred Gill later wrote in a letter. Instead, she remained invisible, her life and artistic practice overlooked.

It is precisely such oversights Birrell seeks to redress in This Dark Country; here, Gill is worthy of notice. Taking her title from Virginia Woolf’s description of a woman’s life - which, she suggests in ‘Women and Fiction’ (1929), has ‘an anonymous character which is baffling and puzzling in the extreme’ - Birrell explores the desires and ambitions of 20th-century women artists through their still-life paintings and charts the murky landscape of their intimate lives. Figures like Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington and Gwen John are looked at anew, alongside their ‘shadowy counterparts’ - artists such as Gill and Mary Constance Lloyd who are ‘almost always omitted from accounts of modernism.’

Blending biography and art criticism with autoethnography and fictional vignettes, This Dark Country challenges conventional approaches to art history, emphasising ‘the troubling, inscrutable and contradictory’ and ‘the ephemeral idiom of the everyday’. It is a book about attention and where it is paid; it is a work of recovery and reimagining. How can women’s experience, ‘its defining passions as well as its more humdrum certainties’, be understood? ‘Where,’ Birrell asks, ‘did this woman wake up? Where did she leave her cup with dregs of tea from the previous night?’

Book cover with text and flowers
Rebecca Birrell, This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century, 2021. Book cover. Courtesy: Bloomsbury

The book revels in small details. Carrington impressing the Bloomsbury Group by correctly cooking a leek. Lloyd’s taste for salad dressing. Nina Hamnett’s taste for cheap white wine, drunk alone at a bar while doodling on her napkin, and dashing through Paris with Modigliani, swigging beer from a copper kettle. Amongst these women is Birrell herself, flashing through in snippets: ‘I’d come to Charleston to research [...] in a space that had once been Vanessa’s attic studio. During the warmer months it filled with wasps, ladybirds and spiders, and in winter it was submerged in an obliterating cold that left me wearing my coat and hat indoors’. These details matter, the book suggests, because a woman’s creative work cannot be separated from the conditions in which it was made; from her emotional, embodied state of being; from how she lived.

Birrell pays close attention to privilege, and to the structures that either allowed or prevented women from making art. ‘Without the servants,’ she writes, ‘none of the still life Gluck completed in the 1930s would look as they do.’ ‘Where, after all, did the apples at the centre of the canvas actually come from,’ she asks of Bell’s work, before listing her servants and suggesting their ‘names should be on gallery labels.’ Later, she lists John’s ‘invisible women’ - the ‘friends, artists, models, in-laws, mentors, neighbours, lovers, flatmates, collectors’ that formed the everyday texture of her life. Birrell suggests John’s portraiture ‘shares a manner of thinking with an item in Winifred Gill’s archive: a chain of paper dolls’. ‘The women stand alone,’ she writes, ‘but in being stretched into a chain [they] reveal their inner depths [...] as well as their essential connectedness to one another.’ This Dark Country also shares this ‘manner of thinking’. Here too, ‘the women are given three-dimensional structure, bulk and strength only through the presence of other women’.

Still life image of a flower and poppies
Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies, c. 1908-09. Oil painting on canvas. © Estate of Vanessa Bell. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo: Charleston Trust. Courtesy: Bloomsbury

Birrell follows Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s model of ‘overreading’, which, as she states in her 1993 essay ‘Queer and Now’, aspires to ‘make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled.’ Likening her archival findings to ‘a few murmured words overheard through a wall’, Birrell stresses she ‘arrived at these intimacies by groping through darkness [...] I filled in the blanks as best I could’. The result is an extraordinary work of imaginative empathy. From John’s ‘observations strewn across the sheets like seeds’ - ‘faded primroses and dandelions,’ ‘cyclamen & straw & earth’ - Birrell proposes the artist was ‘preparing for new growth, observing how beauty might be drawn from all that was sharp and stinging and covered in dirt’. Looking at John’s A Lady Reading (1909-11), Birrell argues that, by insisting ‘on the right to live simply for herself [...] the woman stood reading alone in her room, undisturbed and invulnerable, becomes a radical, heretical figure.’ In paying attention not only to their art but to their habits, tastes and “most tender, troubling moments,” from these artists’ still-lives Birrell conjures lives that simmer with desire, queerness, and resistance.

Ultimately, although Birrell’s focus is the early 20th century, This Dark Country is radically contemporary. Perhaps the dominant question driving the book is how women can define their lives on their own terms, and, for women artists, what constitutes a liveable life. ‘What kind of life,’ Birrell asks of her subjects, ‘what kind of selfhood, would best nourish their art?’ A century on, this question still troubles artists and writers working today. Birrell does not claim to have definitive answers, but, in resisting pre-imposed narratives, and attending to the unseen, unacknowledged and unrecorded, she charts an alternative path that offers a queer, wayward way of looking that draws on ‘speculation, fantasy, hope, empathy’ to dismantle conventional understandings of success and failure. By envisioning and championing these women’s experiments in living, Birrell makes space for possibility. In This Dark Country, she lets in light.


Main image and thumbnail: Portrait of Rebecca Birrell. Photograph: Sophie Davidson. Courtesy: Bloomsbury 

Eloise Hendy is a poet and writer living in London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ambit, The Tangerine, Emotional Art Magazine and The Stinging Fly among others, and she was recently shortlisted for The White Review’s ‘Poet’s Prize 2018’