Women in Art

Mary Moser (1744-1819) was “one of the most celebrated women in art in 18th-century Britain,” yet today she’s mostly overlooked.

Along with Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Moser was one of only two female founding members of 36 member Royal Academy.

It would be more than 115 years until the next woman, Dame Laura Knight, would be invited to become the next female member.

Mary Moser by George Romney

Moser specialised in flower-painting, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy of academic art, but she was ambitious for professional standing. In this portrait, which shows her at work on an oil painting, she is showing that she wanted to be taken seriously. Moser is placing herself on a par with men who had themselves painted at their easels, dressed in their painter’s robes. She shows that she understands it refers to a tradition of portraits of male artists dating back to the Renaissance.

At the time most male artists asserted their academic status by stressing the intellectual rather than the technical aspects of their work, the oil palette that Moser holds also distinguishes her from the many women amateurs who practised flower-painting using the less taxing medium of watercolour.

The close focus, dramatic colours and sidelong glance also emphasised that her professional status did not need to compromise her femininity.

Moser, Mary; Vase of Flowers; The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Moser’s flower paintings are less a celebration of the wonders of God’s creation as a careful observation of nature. Flowers were a favourite subject as far as consumers were concerned. London printsellers sold countless decorative flower prints, depicting them in baskets, vases, or tied in bouquets. Flower art was also used in pattern books providing templates for ladies to copy for embroidery or for glass painting. Drawings of flowers were also used for Japan work and were copied onto undecorated white china. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, drawing masters specialising in teaching this type of art were much in demand, and many women who had given up flower painting on their marriage found it a useful means of financial support, but it was always uncredited.

Due in part to her father’s connections and patronage by members of the royal family, Moser received several commissions from King George and Queen Charlotte. The most prestigious and famous of those commissions was a floral decorative scheme for the Frogmore House in the 1790s. The “prestigious and lucrative commission” Moser was paid £900, which made Moser “the envy of her male colleagues.” It was also one of her last professional works, as she retired upon her marriage in 1793.

She married remarkably late in life when she was 49 years old. The man she chose was Hugh Lloyd. However, she did not pack up her paint box and retire to the country. But the marriage did not live up to her expectations, and within six months she was on a sketching tour of Europe with miniaturist Richard Cosway.

Cosway left his Anglo-Italian artist wife Maria ho was 20 years Moser’s junior and chose to keep company with Moser. Cosway was a “well known as a libertine and commonly described as resembling a monkey.” The film Jefferson in Paris, which dramatises Maria Cosway’s own romance with the future American President Thomas Jefferson Richard Cosway was portrayed as effeminate, but it seems he was anything but in bed. His diary entries for the time he spent with Mary Moser describe a hot and steamy affair.

Richard Cosway – Self Portrait

Mary Moser’s death in 1819 marked the start of a long stretch of time when, despite no explicit ban, women remained excluded from the Academy.

Lady Elizabeth Butler, renowned at the time for her paintings that reported the realities of the Crimean War, came close to becoming a member in 1871 but according to committee reports, she missed out by a mere one vote.

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Lady Elizabeth ButlerIt wasn’t until 1936 that Dame Laura Knight became the next woman to be fully elected as an Academician, and although having previously had her work rejected by the Academy on grounds of embarrassing the art establishment with what a critic described as “vulgar” and “obviously an exercise” for a self-portrait, she helped pave the way for greater recognition of women in the arts and the continuation of female membership at the Academy.

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Dame Laura Knight


Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle

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Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.


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Against the Grain – 18th Century British Art

Maria Cosway the Artist who Captured the Heart of Thomas Jefferson