WOMEN ARTISTS OF BOLOGNA

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, c. 1580.

Yesterday I happened to be looking at Maxwell Armfield’s An Artist in Italy, his series of travel articles from the 1920s in which he views the landscapes and buidings with a colourist’s eye and describes the paintings he’s seen. It happened to be appropriate reading for International Women’s Day because his section on Bologna featured the leading role played by women artists and intellectuals in that city – Novella Andrea, Caterina dei Vigi, Prosperzia de’ Rossi, Lavinia Fontana and Elizabeth Sironi.

Armfield’s interest in women artists wasn’t accidental: he was married to the feminist writer Constance Smedley, whom he’d met at Birmingham Art School in the 1890’s. Her writing is almost forgotten now but she’s remembered as the founder of the International Lyceum Clubs for Women Artists and Writers, which she set up to provide support for professional women. As the Dictionary of National Biography says, “She aspired, not only to enable women to compete equally with men, but to create a democratic, non-hierarchical, centre for worldwide cultural exchange, and travelled across Europe, helping women in Amsterdam (1904), Berlin (1905), Paris (1906), and Florence (1908) to open clubhouses.” Their marriage was unconventional: Armfield was gay and Smedley’s disabilities precluded normal marital relations, but they had a productive artistic partnership in England and the USA and they probably travelled to Bologna together.

Constance Smedley and Maxwell Armfield.

ALBRECHT DÜRER (2)

Albrecht Dürer, The Imperial Captain Felix Hungersperg, 1520

Some of Dürer’s drawings and paintings reminded me of Maxwell Armfield (1881 – 1972), who was the first artist I ever noticed because, as a child, I had his illustrations to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, drawn for J. M. Dent in 1910.

Maxwell Armfield, illustration to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1910

Armfield trained at Birmingham Art School, the first to come under the infuence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and painted in a late Pre-Raphaelite style – linear with a highly-worked surface, usually in bright colours and with a shallow picture space – which he kept up long after it had become unfashionable, even in the years after the Second World War.

Maxwell Armfield, Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff, 1927. (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)

His landscapes are flat and he’s interested in the patterns they make, which makes them artificial and imaginary, suiting fairytales, especially when they feature castles on distant mountains.

Maxwell Armfield, San Gimignano, Italy (Victoria Art Gallery)

Dürer’s landscapes, many of which also have castles on mountains, have the same fantastic effect. There were other influences on Armfield, notably Japanese woodcuts, and his drawings are very much simpler than Dürer’s, but both have the same hard line and absence of extreme tonal contrast.

Albrecht Dürer, View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol, 1495

Albrecht Dürer, Christ Carrying the Cross

Maxwell Armfield, illustration to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1910