Politics, Source, Women's History

Mapping Famous Women’s Lives – Writers & Artists in London’s History

Several years ago, I had the opportunity of a weekend stay in central London. This led to my wondering what I’d like to do there. A visit to one of the usual places – museum, gallery, theatre – would be a good standby but I also wanted something more, something behind the glitzy city façade: a more personal, more exploratory, more emotionally engaging experience of London.

I’d been reading Miranda Seymour’s compelling biography of Mary Shelley’s extraordinary but in many ways deeply sad life. It was such an engrossing read that I felt I’d grown close to Mary and wanted to stay with her for a little longer, wanted ‘more’ of her life. Mary Shelley has deep connections with London: born in Somers Town, she’d visit her mother’s grave at nearby St Pancras and at age nine, she moved to a house in Snow Hill, in the then city’s bookselling area. These places I wanted to find, as a way of acknowledging my respect for her achievements and, well, for simply surviving the life she’d had. As Seymour says in her preface, “Places… are the key to understanding” and, at that moment, I could only agree with her.

The house in Chester Street SW1, where she died, can be found in the Blue Plaque guide but not 41 Skinner Street where she spent some of her most formative years and, indeed, met and fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley. And so I decided to spend an afternoon of that weekend in London, tracking down these houses and finding my way around the back streets of London.  Here began the first of many journeys to discover, as Seymour had earlier found, that “what begins as a curiosity becomes obsession”. I understood Miranda Seymour’s lovely description of being at Shelley’s house on Skinner Street, where she found herself “walking the streets of London in a daze. There are no paving stones beneath your feet, no cars, no office blocks. You hear the clatter of iron wheels, smell the horse dung, see, in a sudden swish of black silk and the glimpse of a shawl, Mary and Claire hurrying down a narrow street towards the carriage where Shelly is waiting in 1814, to lead them to adventures such as these two impatient, headstrong young women have only read about in novels.” So walking around, A-Z in hand, locating the Skinner Street house and Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s place of marriage and burial, opened London up to me in a new and wonderful way and I realised the historical wealth of women’s lives that were quietly contained in this great city.

Years ago, working with one of the GLC Women’s Committee groups (where are we all now?)  I tried to initiate some research on Blue Plaques for women  because I was exasperated by the endless number of plaques to blokes of whom most of us hadn’t even heard, yet there were so few plaques to credit the many remarkable and famous women in our history. Today, there are more Blue Plaques to mark houses of significant women but it’s still disproportionately a male preserve. For instance, at 46 Gordon Square where Virginia Woolf lived, there’s still only a plaque for Maynard Keynes. I wanted to revisit that idea of commemorating women’s contribution to our culture and history by marking their existence on a map of London, simply because others have not done so – though I would like to credit Jennifer Clarke’s In Our Grandmother’s Footsteps, Virago Guide to London of 1984 and Katherine Sturtevant and Kate Murphy’s, Our Sisters’ London: 19 Feminist Walks, Women’s Press, 1991, for sharing that endeavour.

There have been so many wonderful women who have lived in London at some time of their lives or other, that I have grouped them together thematically. Rather than a relatively cumbersome book to carry about, with pages to flick through, backwards and forwards, I designed a pocket sized map for portability, using quality paper for durability and environmentally friendly inks and printing processes because they are available. The first map is on historical Women Artists because they were my first passion. (The second map is on Women Writers, with other categories to follow.) Inside, the map has addresses how to visit houses (many of which still stand) where the women lived or worked, providing transport details and directions. The map also provides biographical information and a short contextualising summary about women artists. I’d like to acknowledge Professor Griselda Pollock at Leeds University for her inspiration and the insights that contributed to the women artists’ material.

The Women Artists map locates the homes of artists including the hugely successful painters Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun and Angelica Kauffmann, as well as other less well known artists like the American Patriot and sculptor, Patience Wright, whose C18th waxwork of William Pitt still stands in Westminster Abbey. I have covered a range of artistic practice, from goldsmiths to bookbinders, needleworkers to history painters in order to avoid the traditional primacy of Fine Art which can often obscure the predominantly female arts and crafts skills. Famous artists are included alongside those it might be a pleasure to discover for the first time. The second, Women Writers, map follows a similar concept of including ‘stars’ with less well known but equally interesting women from the C17th to C20th who have lived and worked in London.

The maps are intended to be an enjoyable and useful tie-in for historians, researchers, practitioners, students or those with a personal interest in the subject or the women.  It’s to enable us to more easily explore our past by combining cultural pilgrimage with the pleasures of biographical history, allowing for a more intimately engaged and targeted experience of London, beyond the usual landmarks.

The map is an all women project with graphic artist Timi Van Houten designing the layout and illustrator Judy Stevens contributing the striking original portraits which bring the women to life on the page. Together with the text, I hoped to make a positive contribution to the women’s movement by validating our history and achievements in a concrete and user-friendly way.

And finally, the idea is to offer the Women Artists /Women Writers in London  maps to select women’s organisations and institutions only to sell, should they wish,  in order to contribute to their under- funded, valuable work.

Julie Harper (c) March 2013

 Julie Harper  taught English, Film Studies and Art History at a 6th form college for many years and now combines freelance English skills tutoring with fieldwork for an independent research company.



Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,