This scene depicts a London art school interior from the early 20th Century, featuring two female pupils practising their craft. The woman in the foreground is working on a painting with concentration, observing the plaster cast sculpture in front of her and taking advantage of the natural light that is streaming in from the prominent windows behind. A second woman can just be seen through the hanging drapes that divide the space that they are in – noticeably both women work wearing long, and somewhat cumbersome, skirts and aprons.
In 19th Century Britain women faced an uphill struggle to get equal access to training. As the 1900s began, women were poised to take their place as artists in numbers never seen before. Art education had begun to open up by the end of the last century, and – for those who were able to afford it – the prospect of training seriously became a reality.
The Slade School of Fine Art and Heatherley School of Art were two of the first art schools in London to take women on as pupils. As seen here, the women were enrolled in drawing and painting classes, developing and honing their skills by drawing from plaster casts of classical sculptures. It would only be after perfecting the technique of recreating plaster casts that they were then allowed to attend life drawing classes.
The Royal Academy also admitted women from 1860 onwards – but it was not until the 1890s that they were allowed to attend life drawing classes. Originally, here the male models had to wear bathing trunks with a length of fabric wrapped modestly around them. At the start to the 20th Century this was briefly changed to the wearing of discreet thongs, before clothes were eventually discounted all together.