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Celebrating women artists in the Ulster Museum

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I am a curator of art. I mainly look after the works on paper collection in the Ulster Museum which includes prints, drawings and watercolours. Though I also have a particular interest in women artists across the whole art collection, including paintings and sculpture. A large part of my job is to research the collections and create engaging stories about it for you, the public.

Sometimes my research informs an academic audience. Most often, I create ways in which I can make information about the collections accessible and engaging to as broad an audience as possible. I achieve this through exhibitions, enquiries, talks, books, tours, fun (I hope) events, podcasts, TV and social media.

Essentially, it’s my job as a curator to look after your collection of art and help you explore it.

Art History and Women

Through my research on women artists I have become aware of the sheer amount of information that doesn’t exist. There is a need for us to reflect and construct a more inclusive history. I have begun to recognise patterns that explain why women artists have often remained invisible in art history. Why many conversations around women fail to represent the truth of the past.

Read the previous installments - Part 1 & Part 2

I'm happy to say the Ulster Museum stands out as having a strong representation of women artists - around 18% to 20%, compared to the world average of around 4%. When you start breaking the collection down and looking at specific areas like Irish art or at work purchased in the last 40 years, then it is closer to 40%.

I’ve pulled out a couple of my favourite from the historic Irish collection:

Susanna Drury

Her depictions of the Giant’s Causeway from the 1730s were the first widely distributed images of the formation. Reproduced throughout Europe for publications, they entinced the first tourists to the site. Susanna was often uncredited.

Image: Susanna Drury (fl.1733 – 1770) East Prospect of the Giant's Causeway (c.1739) gouache on vellum BELUM.U1652
Susanna Drury (fl.1733 – 1770) East Prospect of the Giant's Causeway (c.1739) gouache on vellum BELUM.U1652

Moyra Barry

Moyra is a perfect example of how we should be careful when looking at women of the past through our contemporary readings. Often dismissed because of being a flower painter. I argue that she was a savvy business woman. One who needed to support her family, so she painted what she knew would make money. Women with disposable incomes wanted to buy flower paintings.

Image: Moyra Barry (1886-1960 ) Rhododendrons (c.1934) oil on canvas BELUM.U590 © the artist's estate
Moyra Barry (1886-1960 ) Rhododendrons (c.1934) oil on canvas BELUM.U590 © the artist's estate

Mainie Jellet

Mainie and her friend Evie Hone are credited with bringing Modernism to Ireland. Their male counterparts were looking in, concentrating on constructing a new Irish identity. Meanwhile, they travelled and looked outward, bringing back the new European style to Ireland.

This custom of women travelling together to study is a fascinating area. There is much to explore and research about the collaborative approach of communities of women artists.

Image: Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) Seated Female Nude (1921 -22) oil on canvas BELUM.U2293
Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) Seated Female Nude (1921 -22) oil on canvas BELUM.U2293

Grace Henry

Grace, is an example of a woman literally written out of history. The wife of Paul Henry, they worked side by side during their marriage, both producing large bodies of work. She was with him on Achill Island when they both painted some of their most famous pieces. Following the breakup of their marriage, Grace’s work continued to be associated with Paul Henry, and not recognised for its own merit. She was even left out of an autobiography on Paul Henry. This has resulted in her work being less known.

Image: Emily Grace Henry (1868-1953) The Easy Chair oil on canvas on board BELUM.U664 © the artist's estate
Emily Grace Henry (1868-1953) The Easy Chair oil on canvas on board BELUM.U664 © the artist's estate

Our work and plans

Over the past few years we have been able to celebrate women artists in the Ulster Museum collection. Exhibitions such as Making Her Mark and events such as the year-long Hear Her Voice series of films and talks highlighted many artists work.

There is still a lot of work to be done to correct the imbalance. There are currently more Wikipedia entries on sitcoms than women artists!

I’m currently planning an exhibition looking at Maine Jellett. In my wider exhibitions that hold many artists, I strive to have at least 30% of them works by women.

Image: Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863-1941) Portrait of a Lady oil on canvas BELUM.U2275
Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863-1941) Portrait of a Lady oil on canvas BELUM.U2275

I’m looking forward to sharing more information on women artists in the Ulster Museum collection over the coming years.