‘Supposing That Lots of Things Were True’ | Scottish Women Artists on Wikipedia

Closing the gender gap on Wikipedia by introducing Scottish women artists at the National Galleries of Scotland.

When Celebrating Scotland’s Art: The Scottish National Gallery Project completes in 2023, the new galleries will include dedicated spaces for changing displays of Scottish works of art on paper. These displays will include exciting new acquisitions of drawings, watercolours and prints by Scottish women artists as well as newly conserved works from the existing collection, some never previously exhibited. Among the carefully selected artists are those who made up the ‘Glasgow Girls’; the group active in Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century, which counts the sisters Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and Frances Macdonald MacNair as well as Jessie Marion King among its associates. There are works too by recognisable women artists, Phoebe Anna Traquair and Anne Redpath who will be exhibited alongside less familiar names such as Margaret Stirling Dobson and Armyne Ware.

Frances Macdonald MacNair Bows About 1910 Reproduced courtesy of Patrick Bourne & Co.
Annie French Princess Melilot Dated 1941 © Estate of Annie French. All Rights Reserved 2017/ Bridgeman Images

The intention is that the new displays will highlight the important contribution of women artists to graphic art in Scotland and bring attention to outstanding works in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. The role of women artists has often been diminished due to their exclusion from professional fine art training and fine art societies before the mid-19th century. The areas of artistic practice often associated with women, such as the textile arts, printmaking and watercolour, were undervalued and considered of lesser importance than the male-dominated, academic disciplines of painting and sculpture. Women’s artwork is less likely to have survived or may be harder to trace, and without publications about their lives and careers, basic biographical details can be difficult to corroborate. Biographies about women are important because they form the foundations upon which galleries and museums reflect an accurate representation of the artists in their collections.

Against this backdrop, the National Galleries of Scotland has been working with a group of specially trained Wikipedia editors to fill knowledge gaps and achieve greater parity for the women artists highlighted through Celebrating Scotland’s Art. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is the largest Open Educational Resource in the history of human knowledge. Search for the name of any notable person on the Internet and you are almost certainly guaranteed to return Wikipedia in your top search results where an entry has been written by its volunteer community. Yet, of the women artists chosen for the new Celebrating Scotland’s Art displays, a quarter did not have Wikipedia entries at the start of the editing process while existing articles contained inaccuracies. Over six ‘edit-a-thons,’ the group of all-female editors has set about remedying these silences by rigorously researching the artists’ lives using library resources available from the National Galleries of Scotland and online, to compose their articles in the company of fellow art enthusiasts.

Armyne Ware The Pine Wood Dated 1934 © Estate of Armyne Ware, All Rights Reserved 2018 / Bridgeman Images
Susan Fletcher Crawford Drummond Castle, Perthshire About 1907

Scottish women etchers Margaret Stirling Dobson, Susan Fletcher Crawford and Armyne Ware have been brought to life through newly created articles for each artist while improvements are made to the article for Katherine Cameron, member of the Glasgow School. For Cameron, this was achieved by drawing on information in a biography of her brother’s life, the well-known artist Sir David Young Cameron. Sources of information about the women – derived from the lives of male relatives – was a recurring theme in much of the research undertaken by the group. Even so, it is remarkable to see substantial articles now in the frame for women where hitherto, little could be found about them from a simple Google search.

Mary Newbery Sturrock is perhaps better known as the daughter of Glasgow School of Art Director Francis Henry Newbery and artist Jessie Rowat Newbery, and as the sitter in an early portrait by Cecile Walton, acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. She now has her own Wikipedia article focused on her independent career as a floral watercolour artist.

Phoebe Anna Traquair is often remarked to be the first female member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). This misplaced plaudit has a complicated chronology; however, by claiming Traquair as the first, the existing information on Wikipedia overlooked the credit owed to other women artists such as Christina Robertson, who was elected an Honorary Academician in 1829 - nearly a century before Traquair - and Josephine Haswell Miller, who was elected the first female Associate member of the RSA in 1938. (The actual accolade belongs to Phyllis Mary Bone, the first woman Academician fully elected to the RSA in 1944). By removing the inaccurate information contained in the article on Traquair, the group was able to follow how misinformation contained in one source can be perpetuated time and time again.

Phoebe Anna Traquair Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1852 - 1936. Artist (Self-portrait) 1911
Eric Harald Macbeth Robertson Mary Newbery, 1892 - 1985. Artist 1911

Of course, circulating accurate information about women artists relies on the facts being proven and more importantly, on the facts being published. The artists the group focused on researching have limited information written about them in the reliable secondary sources that Wikipedia’s strict editorial rules prescribe as necessary for citation. Following a literature review, glass engraver Helen Munro Turner’s page is edited to reflect her actual life dates but in many cases, the group resorted to conducting original research using genealogy databases and archival sources. For those artists whose biographies have been difficult to verify, the group has instead contributed to the National Galleries of Scotland documentation on artists such as Flora Macdonald Reid to inform future exhibition interpretation and to inspire new research.

There is a twist in the discovery by the group that Glasgow School of Art graduate Jean D Burns illustrated the children’s book Supposing That Lots Of Things Were True: A Book Of Rhymes by Harriet G Hog and published by Gowans & Gray in 1929. In the absence of supported biographical data for women artists, it’s clear that suppositions about their lives are all too common. Trying to understand why so much of her artistic output was produced in her earlier years, the group determined that as she was bereaved of her mother aged 20, Burns took on care of her younger siblings and the running of the house. Her story is symptomatic of society’s perceived role of women as domestic caregivers with artistic careers all too often curtailed by the divestment of family responsibility.

Jean D. Burns Cumbernauld Glen Dated 1934 © The Estate of Jean D. Burns

The efforts of our dedicated and considerate editors have contributed to rectifying silences about Scottish women artists on Wikipedia and to closing the gender gap. 80% of articles on English-language Wikipedia are about male subjects compared to just 20% about women. We’ve created and improved articles for Scottish women artists whose art is ripe for research. This is only the start; there’s still much more to do to ensure the contribution of women to the art world is revealed, reinterpreted, and revered as it evidently deserves to be.

To volunteer your assistance to Wikipedia articles written about the Scottish women artists whose work will be displayed in Celebrating Scotland’s Art: The Scottish National Gallery Project contact [email protected].

By Jennifer Higgins, Librarian, Portraiture, 20 September 2022