Blog, General, Source, Women's History

Dictionary of British Women Artists by Dr Sara Gray

For ‘throwback Thursday’, Dr. Sara Gray gives us a glimpse into her 2009 book, Dictionary of British Women Artists.

The history of women artists remains largely uncharted even today, but particularly the history of British women artists. When I started researching for a Ph.D. thesis in the 1990s, it was virtually impossible to find anything much about women in British art or the decorative arts, other than the occasional reference here and there in a history book. Not coincidentally, most of the art history books I checked were written by men!

When I began to research old journals and newspapers in my regional libraries, however, I began to find more and more names of women I knew little or nothing about. Sometimes, there were even entire articles devoted to one woman artist, and occasionally a portrait photograph. It was perhaps those old black and white photographs which made me realise that these were real women who had done remarkable things, yet they had almost disappeared. So I began to make notes, and to copy articles, and eventually I had fifteen large files filled with references to more than 3,500 British women artists active during the previous four centuries.

In 2004, after completing my Ph.D., I began my ‘Dictionary of British Women Artists’ which, with its 600 biographies, was published by the Lutterworth Press in 2009. With many more names still needing research, I began a larger volume titled ‘British Women Artists – A Biographical Dictionary of 1000 Women Artists in the British Decorative Arts’ which was published earlier this year by Bennion Kearney. Many of the women I have researched over the last fifteen years, such as Margaret Bartels, Mary Symonds and Catherine Donaldson, have all but vanished. Others, such as Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink, thankfully remain better known today.

As someone who grew up in an atmosphere where education for women was not encouraged, I know first-hand just how vital it is that we continue to research the history of all women, and to present their contributions in all areas of life to each new generation. Through magazines, social media, exhibitions and books, we must celebrate those who are no longer here to speak for themselves, but particularly women. As someone with a lifelong passion for art, and a strong belief in the value of education for all, my own research will continue for as long as I keep discovering remarkable women artists and their fascinating stories.


Dr. Sara Gray holds a Ph.D. from Manchester University. In 2004, her first book, ‘John Ruskin and the Lakeland Arts Revival 1880-1920’ (Merton Priory Press) was published, which was taken from her Ph.D. thesis. That was followed in 2009 by ‘Dictionary of British Women Artists’ (Lutterworth Press), and by  ‘British Women Artists – A Biographical Dictionary of 1000 Women in the British Decorative Arts’ (Bennion Kearney) in 2019.