Review: WSG Seminar, 26th March 2022 at The Foundling Museum

Sophie Johnson: History’s ‘Other’ Sculptors: The Underrepresentation of Historic women sculptors (1558-1837) in the history of art

Charlotte Goodge: ‘Sedentary occupations ought chiefly to be followed by women’: The ‘Fat’ Woman and ‘Masculine’ Exercise in the Literary Culture of the long eighteenth century

Moira Goff: Evered Laguerre: A Female Professional Dancer on the London Stage

We returned to the Foundling Museum for our March seminar, after an absence of two years, to hear three outstanding papers and to enjoy an afternoon of lively and informative discussion. As so often happens, unexpected connections between the subjects emerged and we could certainly have continued our explorations for much longer. Sophie Johnson began by extemporizing on her research into women sculptors throughout the period covered by the Women’s Studies Group and beyond, to examine how the few who have found a place in art history have been represented and under what circumstances they forged a career in this overwhelmingly male-dominated art form. She discussed the amateur/professional binaries, the problems and risks surrounding the perceived transgressive nature of the art and emphasised curatorial practice and questions of mistaken attribution as crucial factors in the invisibility of women sculptors.

Charlotte Goodge tackled debates about corpulent women in the eighteenth century in the light of society’s expectations about women’s delicate nature and what kind of exercise was considered appropriate. She focussed on participation in the hunt and on mountaineering and walking, citing literary examples from Charlotte Lennox The Female Quixote (1752) and Thomas Love Peacock Crotchet Castle (1831). Through these literary examples, Goodge argued that the ‘fatness’ of their female protagonists was pointedly used to flag an immoderate excess in terms of over rather than under exercising. Contemporary anxieties about women’s over-enthusiastic exercise centred less on health risks and benefits and more on the fact that robust physical strength was perceived as characteristic of labouring people (especially labouring men), an undesirable outcome for women from the genteel classes. Women’s transgression in different forms was important in both these papers.

Moira Goff offered her findings on the life of the early eighteenth-century dancer, Evered Laguerre, whose remarkable career on the London stage lasted more than twenty years, from her debut at thirteen in 1716 to her final performances in leading dance roles for John Rich’s company in 1737 when she was only thirty-five. We had glimpses of her in a print depicting her dancing with Francis Nivelon in the pantomime Perseus and Andromeda (1731),and in a possible second representation as the ‘Lady dancing’ in Nivelon’s The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior (1737). During our discussion, Goff gave us further fascinating insights into the stage careers of young dancers and into the published dance notation for a Harlequin dance, perhaps related to The Necromancer; or, Harlequin Doctor Faustus (1723) in which Laguerre danced the part of ‘Harlequin Woman’.

The papers demonstrated the difficulties of finding women in the archives, but the importance of pursuing the research if we are to recognise their contributions, a perennial problem faced by those working on women’s history. They also highlighted the delicate line between compliance and error, recognition and notoriety and the inescapable judgements of a patriarchal system. Our thanks to all three presenters, and to those who joined us at the seminar.

Miriam Al jamil

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