Posted on 08/03/2013
Portrait of Geoffrey and Christopher Herringham, 1889
by Annie Swynnerton
Oil on canvas, acc. no. P1367
8 March is International Women’s Day and to celebrate we are throwing the spotlight on this portrait of Geoffrey and Christopher Herringham by Annie Swynnerton (1844 –1933), who, in 1922, made history by becoming the first woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Academy since 1768.
Swynnerton was born near Manchester and was one of seven daughters. In 1871 she entered the Manchester School of Art where she won a scholarship for watercolour and a gold medal for oil painting. Like many female artists of her day she was frustrated by the limitations of the training on offer to women artists in Britain. To supply the deficiencies of her art education she travelled to Rome in 1871 with her friend Susan Dacre and studied there for two years. On her return to Manchester the two women founded the Manchester Society for Women Painters in order to promote the work of female artists and to offer them access to additional training. By 1877 her desire to improve her work took Swynnerton and Dacre to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. This was one of the leading art schools in France but more importantly for British female artists it offered them access to life drawing, seen as essential training for any serious painter in the 19th century. Art training for women in Britain lagged far behind that on the continent and at this point female students of the Royal Academy Schools were still forbidden to draw from the nude. Despite the prejudices and restraints on women artists Swynnerton had a flourishing career. Her reputation led to her friendship with the society portrait painter John Singer Sargent and it was Sargent who supported her election as an associate member of the Royal Academy. In 1922 she became the first woman in almost 150 years to become a member, despite the fact that two female artists helped to found the Academy in 1768.
Swynnerton was an active suffragette. She signed the Declaration in favour of Women’s Suffrage in 1889 and eight years later added her signature to the claim for women’s suffrage. She was friends with leading suffragettes and was commissioned to paint several portraits by suffragette patrons. These included Christiana Herringham, the mother of the two boys in this portrait. Herringham was a fellow artist but used her wealth and enthusiasm to support a number of causes including women’s suffrage. She was a committee member for the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage as well as founding the suffrage newspaper the Women’s Tribune Co.
This idyllic-looking portrait of Geoffrey and Christopher in Aesthetic dress was painted in 1889. Sadly, Christopher, the elder son, died in 1893 aged 11 and his brother, Geoffrey, was killed in 1914 fighting in the First World War when he was just 19 years old.
Following the death of Christiana Herringham in 1929 her ecletic art collection, which includes paintings by her and other women artists as well as Indian miniatures and Japanese woodblock prints, was given to Bedford College by her husband. It is now part of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College’s art collection. Several items are on display on the Victorian corridor including this very personal portrait of her children and other items can be seen by contacting me by telephone or e-mail to make an appointment.
Laura MacCulloch, College Curator
01784 443 998