Forgotten Women: 'Now You See Us' at Tate Britain

Words by
Pippa Lowe

15th May 2024

Tate Britain’s new show ‘Now you See Us’ shines a light on 400 years of women artists in Britain: the passionately defiant women who paved the way for generations and changed the perceptions of women as artists forever. With 150 works which were either forgotten or misattributed, it’s a fascinating survey of female achievement in the arts from the Tudor court to the aftermath of the First World War.

As you step into some of the world’s most famous art galleries, it is no coincidence that the broad majority of pieces are the creative product of men. In recent years, only 7% of art in top public collections are by women. However, the case isn’t that there aren’t enough pieces by female artists. In fact, there are thousands, spanning centuries. Tate Britain has been determined that the work of female artists gets seen - even if it is centuries later. The new exhibition Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920 shines a light on the passionately defiant women who paved the way for generations to come and changed the perceptions of women as artists forever.

Now You See Us Tate Britain - Gwen John self portrait
Gwen John, Self-Portrait, 1902. Photo Tate (Mark Heathcote and Samuel Cole)

It's a sad fact that women who took a career as an artist were never seriously taken as professionals. Only amateurs. So naturally, many fought back against these stereotypes. Whilst some stuck to what women were ‘meant to be painting’, colouring canvases with images of delicate landscapes, others dared to tackle with societal expectations, painting scenes that only men were allowed to create. From gory battle scenes to depictions of the nude.

Now You See Us Tate Britain - Joan Carlile
Joan Carlile, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1650-5. Photo Tate.

As well as campaigning for the same artistic training and membership of professional institutions that men received. The life of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, who is credited with the campaign for women to be admitted to the Royal Academy Schools, is explored as part of the exhibition. Moving chronologically, from the Tudor era through to the 1920’s, the showcase communicates the burning passion that multiple generations of women had for their art. Through not only their pieces, but their determined acts of social rebellion that gradually reshaped views into we know today.

Now You See Us Tate Britain - Martha Darley Mutrie
Martha Darley Mutrie, Wild Flowers at the Corner of a Cornfield, 1855-60. Photo Tate (Seraphina Neville)
Now You See Us Tate Britain - Rebecca Solomon
Rebecca Solomon, A Young Teacher, 1861. Tate and the Museum of the Home.

Now You See Us features work from some of the art world’s most famed women. We see a focus on Artemisia Gentileschi who was one of the most highly acclaimed artists of the 17th century, despite being a woman. Highlighting her career by creating major pieces in London at the court of Charles I. A recently rediscovered piece of Gentileschi’s named Susanna and the Elders is currently on loan to the Tate from the Royal Collection for the very first time.

Now You See Us Tate Britain - Clara Maria Pope
Clara Maria Pope, Peony, 1821. Courtesy of the Natural History Museum.

Other critically appraised artists are notably featured from the Victorian period, where there was a vast expansion in public exhibition venues. Including awe-inspiring piece, The Roll Call 1874, by Elizabeth Butler. The very painting that prompted art critic, John Ruskin, to take back his comment that “no women could paint”. The Victorian period also saw boundary-pushing nude art from names such as Annie Swynnerton and Henrietta Rae.

Now You See Us Tate Britain - Mary Knowles
Mary Knowles, Needlework picture, 1779. Royal Collection Trust © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

Whilst displaying such distinguished pieces that sparked history-altering conversation and debate. The exhibition also reveals overlooked artists such as the work of sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, Katherine Read and Mary Black from the 18th century. In addition to pieces being presented to the public for the first time ever, including Florence Claxton’s satirical piece Woman’s Work: A Medley 1861. It is an opportunity for the work of those who have never been showcased to get a moment in the spotlight, even centuries after the pieces’ completion.

Now You See Us Tate Britain - Anna Airy
Anna Airy, Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells, Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1918.

Finishing in the early 20th century, the exhibition presents art produced in line with women’s suffrage and the First World War. Including war artist, Anna Airy, who worked using a range of conventional styles. In addition to those who contributed to newly emerging movements of modernism, abstraction and vorticism such as Vanessa Bell, Helen Saunders and Gwen John. The show concludes with work from Laura Knight and Ethel Walker. Two powerfully ambitious and critically acclaimed professionals who were also members of the Royal Academy. An opportunity they may not have had if not for the bold and venturesome female artists that stood before them. Both earlier in history and in the exhibition.

Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920 is running at the Tate Britain from 16th May – 13th October 2024. Book tickets here.