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Archive for the 'Lisa Plotkin' Category

Question of the Week: What is Pelvimetry?

By Lisa, on 10 September 2014

Lisa PlotkinLast Saturday I was engaging at the Grant Museum of Zoology where I started talking with two visitors about the history of science. As a Victorian historian, my doctoral research specifically looks at the historyof Victorian medicine and its relationship to women and the articulation of the healthy female body. There couldn’t be a better setting to discuss those themes than the Grant Museum- the only remaining zoological university collection in London, which houses a dizzying array of zoological specimens dating back to the early nineteenth-century. The museum’s founder, Robert Edmond Grant, is particularly known for his influence on the young Charles Darwin, when the latter studied under him at Edinburgh University.

As I was discussing Darwinian science with the museum visitors, one of them brought up phrenology- a not totally unexpected turn as visitors often bring up the history of eugenics when I am discussing my work. First developed in the late eighteenth century, but reaching the pinnacle of its popularity in the mid-19th century, phrenology is the pseudo-science of skull measurement in order to determine a person’s character, intelligence, and overall mental capacity. Distinct, but not unrelated to craniometry (which is the measurement of cranial features to classify people according to race and temperament) phrenology had a big impact on the concept and understanding of “race” in the Victorian period.


A pelvimeter. © Dittrick Medical History Center

This is when I introduced the word “pelvimetry” into the conversation only to receive puzzled looks. What is pelvimetry? Well, from its root word “pelv” and the fact that I am a woman’s historian you might be able to hazard a guess. In obstetrics today, pelvimetry is the measurement of the female pelvis in relation to the birth of a baby. However, in the Victorian period pelvimetry was also used to measure the female pelvis to determine racial characteristics, and to provide a medical explanation as to why a woman’s worth was inextricably linked to her reproductive system, as opposed to her brain.

Or, as the obstetrician Francourt Barnes remarked in 1884, “If woman excels by the pelvis, man excels by the head.” In keeping with this line of reasoning, the eugenics advocate Havelock Ellis ranked the races according to pelvic type and size: the oval (European), the round (American), the Square (Mongol), and the Oblong (African), emphasizing the underlying claim that the oval or European pelvic size was conducive to the healthiest brain development in babies. In this way, the female pelvic type corresponded racially to the male brain size. Craniometry and pelvimetry in easy complement, both asserting the superiority of Europeans, while at the same time stressing sexual difference to cast women as sexual and men as cerebral.

To learn more about pelvimetry see: The Female Body in Medicine and Literature (ed) Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge or come and find me in one of UCL’s three museums- lisa.plotkin.10@ucl.ac.uk.







Question of the Week: Why is brain coral shaped like a brain?

By Lisa, on 12 March 2014

Ruth Blackburn #1By Ruth Blackburn

The aptly named brain coral is a dome-shaped member of the family Faviidae which has distinct sinuous valleys (that’s the wibbly ridgey bits that look like the surface of a brain).

So why the dome shape?  This is largely driven by the position of the coral within the reef: brain coral is found in shallow parts of reef at a depth of about 1-15 metres. At this depth there is substantial wave action, which corals with a compact spheroid shape are much more resilient to than those with thin antler-like projections.

Brain coral from the Grant Museum collection.

Brain coral from the
Grant Museum collection.

The sinuous valleys on the surface of the brain coral can also be explained.  These mark the areas in which polyps – soft bodied marine creatures – are most densely found.  Polyps are able to secrete calcium carbonate (just like the scale that builds up in your kettle) to form a hard and protective exoskeleton that it can live in: this exoskeleton is what you actually see when you visit the Grant Museum.

Question(s) of the Week: What is a toilet spoon and did you kill that

By Lisa, on 26 February 2014

Lisa PlotkinIt’s been almost two years since I began working in UCL’s three public museums as a student engager and in that time I’ve been asked a lot of amusing questions, ranging from “did you kill that?” (most often asked by children visiting the Grant) to “would you like to grab a drink?” (most often asked by visitors on Friday afternoons who don’t realize I actually work at the museum which is why I have stopped to have a chat with them) to “Is that for sale?” (asked by one visitor at the Petrie while pointing at a faience figurine dating from the middle kingdom).

As a student engager it is my job to talk to the visitors and engage them with the collection as well as my own doctoral research, which is on the nineteenth century history of gender and medicine. And by talking with the visitors I inevitably get asked a lot of questions, some of which I have absolutely no clue how to answer. I do know for certain that I didn’t kill any of the animals that currently occupy the many jars that fill the Grant Museum of Zoology. However, I don’t know how all those animals got there (a rather macabre thought) nor do I know what a toilet spoon is, or at least I didn’t until I was asked by a boy and his father during my shift at the Petrie last month. Turns out toilet spoons, or cosmetic spoons, were used to store perfumes for makeup in ancient Egyptian society.


Toilet spoon

There were also objects called toilet trays, which are small bowls made from stone and thought to be produced as offerings in the cult of Isis. Beautifully and intricately decorated, Petrie classified these trays as “cosmetic” in function- although that remains in doubt. Needless to say the little boy was a bit disappointed that the toilet spoon (and its tray sister) did not have another function in the ancient world.

And that I think is the best part of my job- learning from the visitors as much they (hopefully!) learn from me. So please come by one of our museums from 1:30 to 4:30, look for the people wearing “UCL Museums” name tags and wandering all around the museum floor and ask away! You may be surprised about what you learn- I know I will be.



Slade Artists Do It Better: Q&A with Artist Siân Landau

By Gemma Angel, on 20 May 2013

Lisa Plotkin  by Lisa Plotkin





Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with young artist Siân Landau to discuss her work, and in particular, her contribution to UCL Art Museum’s Duet exhibition. For such a young person Siân’s CV is impressive. A recent graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, she is also the recipient of the prestigious Thomas Scholarship from the Slade and has also served as a Heal’s artist in residence.

Duet is the fifth annual collaboration between the Slade School of Fine Art and the UCL Art Museum. The exhibition challenged Slade students to take inspiration from a piece of work already in the Art Museum’s vast collection, and produce something in response. The results were as varied as they were thought provoking, with participating artists taking inspiration from Hogarth to Gwen John, and many others. But it was the four watercolours on the wall, two of which are shown below, depicting colourful female nudes that really caught my eye.

Slade Lady1


Entitled Slade Ladies Do It Better this piece by Landau sheds a unique light on the Slade as a historical institution for female artists and allows us to re-imagine the ways in which the female nude has become an artistic and cultural symbol. Landau’s accompanying text explaining the piece in more detail reads as follows:

The four watercolours I have made are of nude women who are currently studying at the Slade, in each image a woman recreates the poses of female life models from drawings made by some of the first women to study there. The studies I work from were made between 1893 and 1915. I acknowledge the original works by naming each piece with the first name of the artist who made the drawing; Alice, Dorothy, Ethel and Eveleen. My contemporary response to these traditional life drawings celebrates the diversity of female beauty, with colour and decoration to bring life and delicacy. I hope to encourage reflection in a society where women continue to feel the pressures of the male gaze and its unrealistic ideals.



As an historian of women and gender, I immediately wanted to sit down with Sian and try to get at what compelled her to make this piece, find out more about her process, ask what kind of reaction her work is garnering, and find out what is in store for her next.

Q: How did you become a student at the Slade and what has inspired you to continue making art? 

A: I have always loved art and when I was at school doing my A levels I thought to myself wow, I can actually go forward with this and really enjoy studying it! So then I did a foundation course at Chelsea [College of Art and Design] in 2009-2010 and I absolutely loved it. It was a real chance to just explore so many different ways of making art- we did fashion, we did graphic, fine art, visual communications and media, and it was then that I knew fine art was definitely for me. I applied to the Slade from there and the last three years here have been amazing. They give you the freedom to do what you want to do and it has only been in the last year that my interests have taken on their true identity, I guess. The first couple of years you are kind of dabbling around, thinking what is it- what is the crux of my work? It takes some time to figure that out.

Q: What was it like working within the constraints of Duet as a concept?  What did your process entail? 

A: Artists are always inspired by a number of things, but it was different to actually come in and work with a specific piece. But, it was within my own art practice that I started looking at women artists and the place of erotica in feminist discourse. That tension isn’t resolved yet, but I knew I was interested in exploring it further, so when this project came up I thought I would just go in and see what they had, like what I might respond to. And when we came in for the initial briefing they had loads of easels out around the room with loads of different works that they had selected and one of them was a nude woman- you know, a life model- and I saw it and I thought that’s what I’ve got to respond to!

I mean in a contemporary sense a nude woman is not a shocking thing anymore, it’s everywhere so I just thought I could make a piece that commented on that ubiquity. And then it was through coming back and doing research and looking at more women artists that drew women at the Slade that I really made the connection with how I could take that and do something with it. And for me it just seemed really important and obvious that I should take that and literally use the women working now at the Slade because life drawings aren’t really done here anymore- I mean it’s not a big part of the programme – so with this piece I was able to bring that back again as well.

Q: What do you hope to convey with this piece?

A: I hope to highlight the history of the Slade as an educational facility for women, which was something that I found out more about in the process of making this piece. The Slade opened in the 1870s and women were admitted, which was 25 years before any other professional art school let women enroll, which was an amazing fact to find out. What a great thing for women’s rights to be able to study at that level and I wanted to increase awareness of that.

Q: How does this piece fit in with the rest of your work? Do you explore these types of themes often?

A: Well it’s in there. The degree show I just exhibited was more about desire- the physicality of desire. I was making paintings that were quite abstract at first, but then when you look closer you see that there is actually a really fluid image of two people in a sexual act. And they were all quite colourful- I love to experiment with colour and pattern and line as well. My drawings are usually a lot looser than is shown with this piece. And my ceramic sculpture pieces deal with the hands on side of sexual encounters and just handling something, whether it’s the body, or for me it was handling clay, in order to express desire. So, yes my previous work does link in with some of the themes I explored in this piece, so it was nice to run something parallel with my contemporary practice, yet still different. In the future I do want to look more into the history of the nude, which does have an immense history.

Q: And how has this piece been received?

A: Overall it has been really positive.

Q: So, now that you have finished at the Slade, what’s next for you?

A: Good question! I am not going on to an MA & further study is not a priority for me at the moment, but I will be making work, doing some research, just getting a studio space and carrying on making work.

So Comfortable You Can’t Even Feel It! The Cocaine Tampon

By Gemma Angel, on 29 April 2013

Lisa Plotkin  by Lisa Plotkin






Last May, a Utah woman was in for a surprise when she purchased a $1.99 box of tampons from a local store in Salt Lake City. Instead of a cotton tampon inside the applicator, the woman discovered something else with a much steeper price tag: cocaine. At first she was completely astonished and didn’t realize it was cocaine – she thought that the cotton might have somehow disintegrated; so unlikely was the pairing of cocaine and tampons to her. Similarly, when the police were called in to collect the cocaine, they too expressed their surprise at this method of transporting drugs. Detective Carlie Wiechman, spokesperson for the Salt Lake City Police Department, said this in response to the crime: “It’s not every day we run across this. We run across different ways of packaging and distributing, but it never ceases to amaze us the different and creative ways of trying to move drugs around.”

However, the marriage of cocaine and tampons is not as farfetched or creative as the Salt Lake City PD imagined, and for 19th century surgeons and gynecologists it was a regular – dare I say it, ‘everyday’ – medical sight. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, cocaine was regularly used as a local anesthetic in surgery. It was often administered in the form of what doctors referred to as a tampon – a medical device invented in the 18th century primarily as an antiseptic to clog up bullet wounds. The tampon was traditionally soaked in whatever antiseptic or anesthetic drug was in general use, before being applied to a wound. These tampons were not particularly associated with women; at least not until later in the 19th century that is, when cocaine came to be  regarded as an especially effective treatment for gynecological diseases.


The medical tampon.

A: Kite-tail tampon; small wads of cotton tied together
on one string with a fairly large tampon on the end.
B: Ordinary rolled tampon.
Image from Practical Clinical Gynecology in:
American Journal of Surgery, vol. 39, issue 1 (1938).

Cocaine was believed effective against a whole range of women’s ailments: From painful intercourse; to uterine diseases; to cervical endometritis; to inflammation of the urethra; to dysmenorrhea – the list goes on and on. [1] In fact, cocaine was even believed to assure a ‘painless childbirth’ and according to Physician to the British Lying-in Hospital, John Philipps, could even cure the scourge of ‘sore nipples’. [2].

How would the cocaine be applied in these situations? A typical gynecological answer: by vaginally “inserting a tampon soaked in a freshly prepared solution of 2 % cocaine through a narrow Ferguson’s speculum.” [3]

Therefore, with regards to many women’s diseases, the question was not should cocaine be used- but how much. This was common until the interwar period. Of course, accidents do happen and sometimes these tampons were never removed, (most were). To read more about other ‘accidental’ foreign bodies left behind in women’s bodies, read my previous blog post here. Although many women were on board with the idea of being treated with cocaine, some did however refuse. So, the Utah woman who recently discovered cocaine in her tampon carton was by no means the first to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to tampons with coke on the side!

Learn more about our current UCL exhibition on all kinds of foreign bodies see.


[1] Stephen R. Kandall: Women and Addiction in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[2] John Philipps: ‘The Value of Cocaine in Obstetrics’, in The Lancet (26 November 1887), p. 1061

[3] ‘A Note on the Morphine-Hyoscine Method of Painless Childbirth’, in British Medical Journal (6 January 1917).



Of Foetuses & Fibroids: the Accidental Foreign Body

By Gemma Angel, on 8 April 2013

Lisa Plotkinby Lisa Plotkin






As our current exhibition in UCL’s north cloisters demonstrates, “foreign bodies” may take many forms, as well as being continually redefined throughout history. Putting it simply, the term “foreign body” in medicine usually refers to an external object introduced into the body that isn’t supposed to be there. As my colleague Dr. Sarah Chaney notes in her recent blog post, some of the most common foreign objects uncovered from the bodies of 19th and early 20th century patients were coins, safety pins, buttons and needles. These objects could enter the body accidentally or with purpose. Medical instruments or tools, for example, were on occasion accidentally lost inside the patient’s body during an operation. For those Seinfeld fans out there, think back to the “junior mint” episode. However, it was neither pins, mints or instruments which were the subject of a 1939 article in the British Medical Journal devoted entirely to foreign bodies. Rather, Dr. A. H. Charles, obstetric registrar at St. George’s Hospital, zeroed in on one particular foreign body that was with some frequency discovered in the female bladder: slippery elm bark. It may surprise some readers to discover (as it certainly did Dr. Charles), that slippery elm bark was commonly used as an abortifacient. In fact, it is still used by women to induce abortion today.[1] Writing on elm bark as a foreign body inside the bladder, Dr. Charles observed:

Five cases in which a piece of elm bark was used have been reported in detail previously, and in all of these the body has remained undiscovered for some time, until its removal suprapubically after calculus formation had taken place, causing symptoms leading to its discovery. Why the bark of this noble tree should be so popular is difficult to understand.[2]

Called “slippery” elm because when it gets wet it becomes slippery, this type of elm bark has traditionally been used to cause early uterine contractions and induce labor. The bark is inserted into the cervix where it then absorbs water and expands, dilating the cervix and triggering contractions. Needless to say, this procedure was not always successful and could cause life-threatening infections. Occasionally the bark could end up in the bladder by mistake, which is what Dr. Charles had observed. For many of the women who mistakenly inserted the slippery elm into their bladders, there the bark most likely stayed, unless a severe medical problem compelled them to seek medical attention. No doubt for many of the women attempting to self-abort, their experience with slippery elm was less than satisfactory and could have proven fatal.

Slippery Elm Bark, sold as an abortifacient

Slippery Elm Bark, sold as an abortifacient.

Accidental or intentional abortion occurred with a lot greater frequency in the 19th and early 20th centuries than some might imagine, and was inextricably wrapped up with both the idea and concrete reality of “foreign bodies.” For many, the coat hanger is the ultimate symbol of a foreign body inserted into the uterus to cause abortion. Still others may think of obstetric forceps as the foreign body which has caused thousands of fetal deaths during delivery. But what about uterine fibroids? How many abortions have they caused, and can they be regarded as foreign bodies if they are naturally occurring? A uterine fibroid is a benign tumour of the uterus, commonly found in women of reproductive age. Most fibroids are asymptomatic and therefore, most women are never aware that they even have one. However, on occasion these fibroids can cause health complications or interfere with pregnancy. Before the advances of late 19th century abdominal surgery and gynecology, uterine fibroids were not treatable. However, by 1916, obstetric surgeon Sir. John Bland-Sutton was able to boast that “uterine fibroids are common tumours; so common and troublesome that I have removed the uterus in 2,000 women.”[3]

From his experience performing hysterectomy on thousands of women a theme emerges: uterine fibroids closely mimic pregnancy in a variety of ways, and it is difficult – sometimes impossible – to distinguish between the two. Writing of this unfortunate similarity in 1913 Bland-Sutton observed, “A large sub-mucous fibroid produces similar changes in the uterus to those set up by the growth of the fetus […] Women with large sub-mucous fibroids are more or less in a condition resembling chronic pregnancy.”[4] What this similarity meant – and what gynecologists and obstetricians of the time openly acknowledged – was that sometimes a hysterectomy was performed to remove a fibroid that either never existed in the first place, or was also sitting alongside a feotus, masking a pregnancy. Either way, an abortion was performed.

The photograph below demonstrates the reality of such surgeries. This particular specimen belongs to UCL Pathology Collections, and is currently on display in the Foreign Bodies exhibition. The anonymous woman patient underwent a hysterectomy most likely sometime in the early 20th century, in order to remove the sizable uterine fibroid, which can be seen on the right side of the image. However, on closer examination of the image, we see on the left side a preserved feotus, frozen in development, somewhere between 8-11 weeks.  It is unclear whether this woman or her doctor even knew she was pregnant.

Feotus in uterus, with large fibroid tumour. UCL Pathology Collections. Photograph Gemma Angel.

Feotus in utero, with large fibroid tumour.
UCL Pathology Collections. Photograph Gemma Angel.

Such examples abound in medical literature, and Victorian and Edwardian gynaecologists, obstetricians, and surgeons spoke of them with little or no censure. It was all a part of the surgical trial and error that they were practicing. The feotus was sometimes viewed as a necessary casualty in removing a potentially life-threatening fibroid. Either way, be it by slippery elm, by accident, or with purposeful intent, the feotus was removed as a foreign body, like any other. By examining the medical establishment’s attitudes towards fibroid removal we catch a glimpse into one way the feotus, and the experience of pregnancy in general, was understood in the past.


[1] David A Grimes, Janie Benson, Susheela Singh, Mariana Romero, Bela Ganatra, Friday E Okonofua, Iqbal H Shah. “Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic.” The Lancet Sexual and Reproductive Health Series, October 2006.

[2] British Medical Journal, 29 July 1939.

[3] Sir John Bland-Sutton, “A Clinical Lecture on 200 Consecutive Hysterectomies for Fibroids Attended With Recovery” reprinted British Medical Journal, 4 July 1916.

[4] Sir John Bland-Sutton, “The Visceral Complications Met With Hysterectomy for Fibroids and the Best Methods for Dealing With Them” British Medical Journal, 1 November 1913.

Justice for Magdalens

By Gemma Angel, on 12 November 2012

Lisa Plotkin by Lisa Plotkin






Many visitors to the Grant Museum of Zoology reacted very strongly to the recent exhibit Buried on Campus, which ran from April 23rd until July 13th. In fact, almost every single conversation I struck up with visitors during my time on the museum floor had something to do with the story the exhibit was telling – namely, the discovery of the remains of 180 individuals were discovered buried underneath the main quad at UCL in 2010. Visitors were surprised, inquisitive, and incredulous. Where did the bones come from? they wanted to know. When were they buried? Was UCL aware of this all along? Conspiracy theories abounded.

And it was not just the visitors who were asking questions. My fellow engagers did as well, with both Katie and Sarah writing blog posts on the topic. It seemed everyone was interested in reclaiming these human remains and reinserting them into an historical narrative. Buried on Campus also touched on a topic that is prominent in my own doctoral research, recalling the same questions that Sarah, Katie, and visitors alike asked: mainly, where in history do these bones belong and what are we going to do with them now?

From the main quad of UCL I will detour to Dublin, where in 1993 an order of nuns put up a portion of their estate for sale to a real estate developer. Subsequently, the remains of 155 women were found buried in unmarked graves on the grounds. Their discovery was a catalyst for which revealed the hidden history of the Magdalen Asylums – or the Magdalen Laundries, as they were also known. If you haven’t already heard of Magdalen Asylums then perhaps you can guess their purpose from their namesake. These asylums were built to serve as penitentiaries for the housing and redemption of ‘fallen’ women. Their target demographic was prostitutes, but other so-called ‘deviant’ women were also admitted, for crimes ranging from unmarried motherhood to mental instability. While Magdalen Asylums were first created in the late 18th century, it wasn’t until post-famine Ireland that they were transformed from voluntary refuges for cast-out women to punitive institutions, which sometimes detained their inmates unwillingly for life.

Magdalen Asylums were supposed to offer a new vision for post-famine Irish society. They would solve the problems of poverty, family breakdown, and moral decline. As the Reverend Father Kerr explained:

The appalling demoralization of our times is evidenced mostly in the decline of that virtue amongst woman-kind which is her chief glory and title to our esteem. To-day in ever increasing numbers “Magdalen” has imitators in her sin. But few will share her penance.[1]

But that was no longer true due to these Asylums; now fallen women could share her penance. And repent they did. The women penitents were required to work long hours in laundries for no pay. They were to live under a regime of prayer, silence, and complete obedience and they were separated from their children. They could no longer leave voluntarily, as the late 19th century ushered in a preference for permanent inmates.

Magdalen Asylum.


This 1897 account sums up the situation succinctly:

At five o’clock I was at the Magdalen Home and was introduced by the Mother Superior of the Convent of Mercy to the Sister-in-Charge and six nuns who managed the laundry. We were all seated in the Sisters’ parlour where I put my questions. Most were answered by the Sister-in-charge.

         “How many girls have you?”


         “How many are unmarried mothers?”

         “About 70 percent”

         “And the others?”

         “Some are sent here when they leave the Industrial School because they need special


         “Are they mental defects”?




         “Are the girls paid?”

         “No, they earn their keep.”


         “Are the girls free?”


         “Can a girl leave whenever she chooses?”

         MOTHER SUPERIOR: “No, we’re not as lenient as all that. The girl must have a suitable

         place to go…”

         “How long do they stay”?

         “Some stay for life” [2]

These asylums continued to operate up until the 1980s. In 1997 the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate premiered, featuring the testimonials of four former penitents. The women spoke of having to endure physical and sexual abuse while incarcerated against their will and one woman spoke of being forcibly separated from her child. Since then there have been numerous documentaries chronicling the physical and psychological abuse that the estimated 30,000 Magdalens suffered. Calls for justice for these forgotten women resound in Ireland today, and on June 6th, 2011 the United Nations Committee Against Torture put out a statement urging the Irish government to investigate the claim that thousands of girls and women were tortured in Catholic laundries.

As I reflect on the impact that Buried on Campus had on the UCL community, I can only imagine the impact that the 1993 discovery must have had in Ireland. Visitors to the Grant wondered at our complicity in the deaths of those 180 people buried underneath our lecture halls, and many were adamant that the narratives of these unknown people should be reasserted into UCL’s history. I am happy to say that over the past two decades Irish historians, and the Irish public, have given us a great model to follow in doing just that. And whilst justice was not granted to the unknown 155 buried in a mass grave within a convent’s walls, their story is being told and their memory is not forgotten.


[1] Rev. Father Kerr, Galway. ‘The Good Shepherd Nuns at Home’, in The Fold of the Good Shepherd  (1931), p. 10.

[2] Halliday Sutherland: Irish Journey (1958), pp.81-83.

Art Not Words: Female Figure Standing, 1913

By Gemma Angel, on 13 August 2012

Lisa Plotkinby Lisa Plotkin






1913 was an interesting year for British women. Militant suffragette violence had reached an all-time high, with dozens of women sent to prison each week in the name of female suffrage. The deeds of the suffragettes became more and more outrageous as time went on, with many smashing windows, setting fires, attacking members of parliament, and just generally causing havoc by doing things that women simply were not supposed to do. Under their militant slogan “deeds not words!” thousands of women joined the cause.

By 1913 women were doing and not just saying. They may not have had political representation, but they were making political news. They were heavily involved in local politics; they were nurses in larger numbers and doctors in fewer; they were teachers and factory workers; reformers at home and missionaries abroad. In short, they were as diverse in occupation then as women are now. And they were also artists.

Thia was a fact that UCL’s Art Museum left me no doubt of during their most recent exhibition, in which work from the affiliated Slade School of Art was showcased. Founded in 1871, the Slade School followed UCL’s proud tradition of gender equality and admitted men and women on equal footing, seven years before the University of London allowed women to take examinations.

In 1913 women’s output was limited, constrained by legislative factors and social mores. But in 1913 their artistic output from the Slade was nothing short of astonishing, both in quantity and quality. The featured artists in the recent UCL Art Museum exhibition were tasked with taking historical pieces from the UCL collections, and producing works that somehow comments or speaks to the earlier works.

The two easels grabbed my eye immediately – in fact for me they were really central to the whole exhibition. As you can see from the image below – the piece (by current Slade student Laura Kuch) features two almost completely identical paintings of the backs of nude women. Kuch positioned them as though they were facing back-to-back – their double always invisible – but standing just behind them.

Laura Kuch, Dopplegängers, 2012. Two wooden easels, Dora Carrington, Female Figure Standing, 1913 (framed), Fanny J Fletcher, Female Figure Standing, 1913. © Laura Kuch. Installation shot photographed by Mary Hinkley, UCL Media Services.

But Kuch herself was not the painter of these two works; she discovered them tucked away in UCL storage. This surprised Kuch. Why were there two identical paintings, both labeled “Female Figure Standing, 1913” and why were they attributed to two different artists?

It was later discovered that the two artists, both women students at the Slade in 1913, painted this female figure standing as part of a competition. These two paintings were the first and second place winners. As an historian of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, these two female nudes speak to me. Women artists painted this woman 99 years ago. They competed in a university competition 99 years ago. A woman took off her clothes for a group of artists 99 years ago. Those are all statements about the status of women 99 years ago. It might seem divorced from the larger Woman Question of the time, but it wasn’t.

The great, late poet author Adrienne Rich once wrote: “We are not the Woman Question asked by somebody else; we are the women who ask the questions.”[1] The women artists of the Slade from the 1870s until today posed their questions and stated their answers, through art. Not deeds, not words, but art. And now almost one hundred years later we still get to enjoy it.


[1] Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).