After two years in Europe Annie Swynnerton and Isabel Dacre returned to Manchester. Manchester had two very important establishments with regards the Arts. There was the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science, and the Arts (RMI) which had been founded in 1823. It came into being following a visit to the Exhibition of Paintings and Works of Art of the Northern Establishment of Artists at Leeds by three Manchester artists – William Brigham, Frank Stone and David Parry in the summer of 1823. They believed it would be a good idea to have a similar annual Exhibition in Manchester and so, in October 1823, at a public meeting held in the Exchange Room by Manchester merchants, local artists and others keen to dispel the image of Manchester as a city lacking in culture it was decided to establish an “Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Manchester”. In March 1824, King George IV agreed to give it his royal patronage and it became the Royal Manchester Institution (RMI). The Institution held regular art exhibitions, collected works of fine art, and promoted the arts generally from the 1820s until 1882, when the building and its collections were transferred under Act of Parliament to Manchester Corporation, becoming Manchester Art Gallery.
The other artistic establishment in Manchester was the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) which was founded in 1859. Both organisations hosted major exhibitions every year and drew in well-known artists whose works were hung alongside those of younger and unknown aspiring artists. It was also an ideal time for what we now term “networking” when painters and sculptors who had their work on show could mix with the buying public and pick up new commissions. Annie Swynnerton and Isabel Dacre had their work exhibited and their portraits were in much demand. Another recipient of many commissions especially for his portrait busts was a sculptor from the Isle of Man, Joseph Swynnerton and it is quite likely that he had met Annie during one of the exhibitions. He had studied and lived in Rome and it could well be the case that he persuaded Annie to visit the Italian capital once again.
It was in 1878, during her two-year stay back in Manchester that Annie Robinson, later Annie Swynnerton, completed one of her most impressive works. It was a commission, received from the Portico Library in Manchester, for the portrait of William Gaskell, the English Unitarian minister, charity worker and pioneer in the education of the working class. He was a writer and poet and the husband of novelist and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell. For his forty years of service to the library the proprietors offered Gaskell a gift of either a portrait painted by Annie Robinson or a bust sculpted by Joseph Swynnerton. On the advice of his two daughters, Meta and Julia, who had seen Annie’s work, he chose a portrait. It turned out that the library board found enough money to pay for both the portrait and the sculpture and so Joseph and Annie set to work on their commissions. On completion the bust of William Gaskell was given to the library where it went on display and the portrait painting was given to Gaskell himself. On his death the portrait was passed on to his daughter, Meta Gaskell, who in 1914 donated it to the Manchester Art Gallery where it remains to this day. Annie had become good friends with Meta and Julia Gaskell and it was through them that she came to meet the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Edward Burne-Jones, and John Everett Millais as well as the American portrait painter, John Singer Sargent.
Isabel Dacre and Annie Robinson left Manchester once again and returned to Paris where they remained for a year. On their return to Manchester their reputations as accomplished artists had grown, and their work was in much demand. The two women were very disappointed that the prejudice against women artists had not changed very much and they were well aware that female artists were able to get better tuition in Paris than was possible in England apart from London which now had, since 1856, the Society of Female Artists. Isabel and Annie decided to rectify the situation in 1879 and founded the Manchester Society of Women Artists. The society hosted many exhibitions which created opportunities for local women to display their work. The society also allowed women to take part in life drawing which up till then had not been available to women in Manchester. It was all about the equalizing of opportunities for women in the world of art.
The Society held three annual exhibitions in 1880, 1882 and 1883 with Annie and Isabel providing the most works but by the time of the 1883 exhibition which was held in a studio used by Annie and Isabel the number of paintings on show had declined. In 1884 the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts decided to change its admission policy and allow women to full membership instead of just as Lady Exhibitioners and provided female artists with the same training and opportunities as their male counterparts. However, it was another three years before women could sit on the MAFA Council. This change of attitude by the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts was a triumph for Annie and Isabel and their Manchester Society of Women Artists and down to their hard work and constant lobbying for artistic equality. The Manchester Society of Women Artists had served its purpose and was now no longer needed.
Annie Swynnerton eventually found the artistic opportunities in Manchester were limited and realised that if she was to remain in England she must position herself in London or maybe even go back to Paris. She eventually made the move to London and found that there she had opportunities to meet fellow artists and the chance to exhibit her work at the likes of the Royal Academy or one of the new avant-garde galleries such as the Grosvenor Gallery. Such opportunities were far greater than when she was living and working in Manchester.
There is no definite evidence as to when Annie Robinson first met the Manx sculptor Joseph Swynnerton, but we know their paths must have crossed during exhibitions in Manchester, or maybe when they were awarded the William Gaskell commission or when they were both in London and in Rome where Joseph spent most of his time. The couple were finally married on July 6th, 1883 at St Marylebone’s Parish Anglican Church in London. The wedding day was also Joseph’s thirty-fifth birthday; Annie was four years his elder. Although Annie was a Catholic. the service had to be held in an Anglican church as Joseph was not a Catholic, but Joseph later converted to Catholicism. The couple’s final decision to marry was not made for many years after they first met, and many wonder about the delay in formalising the relationship. Was it due to their constant travelling and being apart? One theory regarding the delay, albeit a somewhat cynical one, was that Annie, who was a staunch believer in improving women’s rights, delayed marrying her husband until after the Married Women’s Property Act became law. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that significantly altered English law regarding the property rights of married women, which besides other matters allowed married women to own and control property in their own right.
Joseph wynnerton had trained as a sculptor in Rome where, from 1869, he had his main home. He was very successful and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy and received many commissions for his work from clients in both Rome and Manchester. At this time Annie was also exhibiting her work at the Royal Academy and had split her time between London and Manchester but she was persuaded by her husband to leave England and come and live with him in Rome, albeit they both kept on their own studios in London.
When I was reading about Annie and Joseph’s wedding I came across a quote with regards the couple from Joseph’s “Aunt Florrie”. It is a very unflattering comment and of course we know little about “Aunt Florrie” or her age when she met Annie and later came out with this bizarre description of the couple. It quotes her saying:
“…He married a lady who was a Roman Catholic. Her name was Annie. I saw her shortly before they were married. They visited at our house and she was absolutely the ugliest woman I ever saw! I have often wondered about that because Uncle Joseph was such an admirer of beauty. She had a large bony frame without an ounce of flesh. Her eyes were sunken very deep in the sockets. Her forehead and cheek bones were very prominent and she had a very large mouth with protruding teeth!…”
It was very apparent that the lack of equality between men and women when it came down to opportunities was not just present in the art world but in all facets of life. There was a great feminist movement in Manchester which, at this time, had become a vibrant centre for new money, business, and social change, and in 1867 the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage was launched. Annie and Isabel Dacre became actively involved in the movement. The leading activist in the Manchester suffragist movement was Lydia Becker who was a friend of both Annie and Isabel.
Lydia Ernestine Becker sat for one of Isabel Dacre’s portraits which was completed in 1888 just two years before her death due to diphtheria at the age of 63. It is a somewhat austere portrait and is maybe due to the serious nature of her work as the President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In the depiction we see that her hair is on top of her head in a tightly-wound bun giving us an uninterrupted view of her face. The background of the painting is dark and plain and allows us to concentrate on the sitter. She wears a plain darkly coloured silk dress which mirrors her sensible and pragmatic character. She wears wire-framed glasses and an ornate necklace. There is a rose corsage attached to the lace of the dress. It is an un-idealized likeness which conjures up the image of an intellectual woman.
Annie Swynnerton had an extensive network of female friends, many of who were leading lights in the Suffragist movement. Another of her many portraits was her depiction of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who was influential in gaining British women over 30 the vote in 1918. Garrett Fawcett was Lydia Becker’s successor as leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In this portrayal Fawcett is donned in the robes of the University of St Andrews, the establishment that awarded her an Honorary Doctorate in Law for services to education in 1899, and although the painting is undated it could well have been completed the year Fawcett was given the award at the age of 52. The setting for the depiction is an unknown domestic interior. Natural light has been blocked out by a screen which we see behind the lady but there is a strong shaft of light which illuminates her face, hands, and the front of her doctoral hood. This is a classic use of chiaroscuro technique which Swynnerton had used on many of her early portraits. It is another un-idealized portrait which shows the lines and creases of the face of the sitter but in a way, this has had gravitas to the work. In 1930, a year after Swynnerton had died this work was included in the Royal Academy exhibition entitled Portraits of Distinguished Men and Women. Ironically the National Portrait Gallery in London had rejected this work, and many believed this was because of Fawcett’s support of the Suffragist movement.
Joseph Swynnerton had been a healthy and very active man, but it is known that the couple had hurriedly returned to London in the early months of 1910 where Joseph was treated for a heart complaint. We cannot be sure what Annie and Joseph were told about his prognosis but from London they travelled to the Port St Mary in the Isle of Man, where Joseph had been born. Was it just that they believed a change of location would aid his recovery or was he returning to his birthplace one more time before he died?
We will never know but two weeks after their arrival, on August 10th, 1910, Joseph Swynnerton died, aged 62. He was buried in Kirk Maughold Churchyard, on the Isle of Man, where some years before he had expressed a wish to lie. Of his death Annie wrote:
“…Meanwhile he has passed away in the sickness of hope deferred – lulled to rest by the dirge of the seagull and the murmur of the waves on the shores of his beloved island.
What a sense of loss – of exquisite companionship for ever fled, only those can estimate who were privileged to know him…”
Annie returned to Rome but soon left Italy and returned to England…….
………………………………..to be continued
Most of the information for this and following blogs about Annie Swynnerton was found in some excellent books which I bought at the Painting Light and Hope exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery.
Annie Swynnerton, Painting Light and Hope by Kate JT Herrington and Rebecca Milner
The Life and Works of Annie Louise Swynnerton by Susan Thomson
Annie Swynnerton, Painter and Pioneer by Christine Allen and Penny Morris.