- 28 Oct 2019
In the most recent issue of PMC Notes PMC archivist Anthony Day offers a glimpse into the history of women artists.
During her lifetime, the amateur art historian Daphne Haldin, who passed away in 1973, attempted to compile and publish a dictionary of female artists in Europe born before 1850. This was an ambitious project, and sadly never realised, but the papers she left behind present a fascinating resource for the researcher. Unlike the majority of the archival collections housed at the Centre, which include research files and working papers from significant British critics and art historians, Haldin was neither established nor published. Her archive offers very little insight into her process or the artists she wrote about, yet it remains a significant starting point for discourse on the history of female artists.
So, who was Daphne Haldin? Unfortunately, very little is known about her. The papers have been stored at the Centre since the 1970s but their journey from Haldin’s desk to the archive stores remains a mystery. The archive itself does not contain any significant personal material, except for an astrology chart. The slight information we do have about her has been revealed through genealogical searches, but does not help explain her interest in art, or her qualification to undertake such a daunting project.
We do know that Haldin did not work alone. Many of her notes include scribbles of communication to her assistants: ‘Gretl’ appears to have been translating entries from the German dictionary of artists, Thieme–Becker, and if we turn over some of the catalogue entries on scraps of notepaper we might intrude on a terse or argumentative note to the mysterious ‘FA’. Indeed, Haldin’s regular recycling of paper reveals some clues about her personality and interests: many notes are written on the backs of flyers for intellectual clubs, like Sesame Imperial and Pioneer Club or the Georgian Group, others are scrawled on circulars from the Marylebone Conservative Association or the Girls’ Public Day School Trust. These fragments only tell us so much, but nevertheless help form a picture of a life hidden behind the archival record.
The papers also give a sense of Haldin’s determination and belief in the dictionary itself. We can read the many rejection letters she received from publishers. While the archive only includes a handful of the letters she sent, her persistence is evident in that many of the replies were clearly drafted in response to a second approach. Haldin pushes them to explain the reasoning behind the rejection, and a letter from Thames and Hudson, dated 16 July 1963, offers a sadly typical response. Explaining why readers did not need a dictionary focusing exclusively on female artists, the author wrote: ‘those of them who made a name for themselves are relatively few and are mentioned in the reference books; the others are of no more interest to the average student of the history of art than are the countless male artists who have failed to qualify for inclusion’.
This view has long-since been discredited and many volumes on female artists have now been published. However, Haldin’s archive reveals her own particular insight on the subject, working within a broad definition of what a worthy artist could be, and setting her historical parameters as far back as the eighth century. The result is a rich resource encompassing many female artists we may perhaps have overlooked. In particular, the inclusion of church decorators, playing card designers, and those practising the decorative arts, offers a chance to engage with areas of art practice often excluded from conventional histories.
Haldin had planned entries for at least 1,454 artists, and in reading this vast volume of biographies – albeit brief in themselves – clear patterns emerge. Time and again, whilst cataloguing this collection, I read the story of a daughter showing an interest in painting and being trained by an artistic brother or father; or a wife learning from, but ultimately overshadowed by, her husband as she completed his lithographs. There are of course exceptions, and Haldin also covers famous female artists, such as Mary Beale or Angelica Kauffman. While we must avoid the temptation to impose frustrated ambition on individual artists based on broader notions of the myriad barriers women have faced, this archive offers the opportunity to extend our ideas of what constitutes art, and question male conceptions of ‘genius’, or the enduring validity of a canon that disregarded a vast wealth of artists, while privileging the few.
With every new archive collection released to researchers comes a new set of opportunities. One of those offered here is the chance to continue Haldin’s research into some of the lesser-known female artists she documents by following her paper trail with a fresh perspective. For instance, British printmaker and caricaturist Mary Darly (active 1760–1781) occupies an intriguing place in the eighteenth-century public sphere. She was a lower-class woman operating within the heart of political satire and an influential figure in the development of populist cartoons as a form of social critique. Or, perhaps, Hannah Palmer (1818–1893), wife of Samuel, and an artist in her own right. She had exhibited at the British Institution in 1840, but very little is known about her later work, if indeed she was able to make any alongside the pressures of leading the family household. An archive doesn’t have to be the definitive and authoritative source of information; it can be an inspiration or a starting point. The Daphne Haldin Archive certainly fulfils this role, providing inspiration not only for art historians, but also social historians and those studying gender politics. How this collection actually arrived at the Centre, and who Daphne Haldin really was, may remain a mystery, but somehow her hard work found its way into the historical record and now it is ours to reinvigorate and explore.
About the author
Archives Project Cataloguer at the Paul Mellon Centre