In honour of International Women’s Day let’s have a look at the way female artists are represented in the collection at Gallery Oldham. As is the case with many art collections in Britain, male artists outnumber their female counterparts on the gallery walls and in the art store. At Gallery Oldham out of the known artists in the collection 82.6% are men and 17.40% are women. There are many reasons for this large gap in representation including the barriers women faced historically in attending art school, the prevalence of gendered bias in gallery collecting particularly in the nineteenth century, and socio-economic hardships women have faced in the art world that led to their exclusion.
Yet, some of the most popular artworks within the collection were created by women. For example, Helen Bradley’s paintings of nostalgic scenes of the northwest which are consistently on display as part of the Oldham Stories exhibition. Her remembrances of the Edwardian period of her youth such as ‘It was Early Spring…’ (Fire in Union Street) have proved thought provoking for those members of the public intrigued by the history of the region, as well as being a point for discussion on many school trips.
The artists Ethel Wright and Annie Swynnerton crafted their paintings during the time period Bradley so fondly recreates in her work. Interestingly, Wright and Swynnerton were active in the suffrage movement, though the subject matter of their beloved paintings Bonjour, Pierrot! and Cupid and Psyche don’t necessarily reflect this activism. These two paintings joined our collection in the 1890s, rare inclusions of work by known female artists into the collection during this time.
In recent years Gallery Oldham has been actively working towards closing the gender gap within our collection. This has included collecting artwork from female British artists as well as international women artists. Notably, the expansion of the gallery’s ceramics collection over the past twenty years has led to the addition of many female British potters and ceramicists. These include Mary Rogers, Kate Malone, and Catherine Yarrow.
In the late 1990s the gallery began working to gather a South Asian art collection, specifically through collecting work from areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many of the Bangladeshi artists whose work came into the collection at this time were women. These include Atia Islam Anne, Kanak Chanpa Chakma, and Rokeya Sultana. These women are painters and printmakers whose work primarily looks at identity politics amongst women and marginalised groups of the region.
Female artists have been included in the collection at Gallery Oldham since the early days of its existence, but in much smaller numbers than male artists. Though there is a way to go in terms of closing the gendered gap in the art collection in Oldham, we are taking steps to make it more representative of our community and wider society.