Over the last few years we've seen a surge of interest in scholarship relating to Scottish women in the arts, and we were delighted to see another publication to add to the list. Released earlier this year, Scottish Women Artists is the latest book by Arts and Heritage Curator Charlotte Rostek and we caught up with her to find out more about it.
Let’s start with your background. You have an interesting career path in both the
auction world and as a heritage professional. How did you get to where you are?
Arts and heritage always appealed, and it took me a while to work out what roles I’d be
best suited for. When I finished my art history degree at Glasgow University I started as
an Assistant Curator (of fine art) at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Germany. However, Scotland
was calling (love!) and on my return I eventually became Keeper of Art at Paisley
Museum and Art Gallery – completing what I call my ‘apprenticeship’ of Scottish fine and
decorative arts. I have subsequently worked with amazing organisations and collections
including the NTS’s Hill House, the Prince’s Foundation’s Dumfries House and Mount
Stuart on the Island of Bute. I have also gained experience in the auction world and am
currently project consultant at Dalkeith Palace owned by the Buccleuch Living Heritage
Trust. I am a Trustee of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society and will shortly join the
board of the Textile Conservation Foundation. My experience and interests are very
versatile and I have always enjoyed stepping on unchartered territory. For a while I
thought my career was very eclectic, but I am able to draw on a depth and breadth of
experience and expertise which opens all sorts of interesting opportunities and are
relevant for a development project such as Dalkeith Palace.
Your new book Scottish Women Artists was published this year. What prompted you to write this book?
The Fleming Collection approached me with the idea, and it really appealed - an opportunity to make a contribution to a cause in art history which is still pretty under-represented. Although Scotland’s contemporary visual art scene has a very strong female presence at
international level - this year’s Venice Biennale saw around 80% of the Scottish contingent being female – our understanding of the past tends towards a male domineered story. Even given the hurdles they faced, female artists who achieved against the odds still need to become more visible and their legacy seen within that context. The awareness of context and legacy is a huge issue. While women artists may be secure in the present, past bias is still worth reassessing and correcting.
From what I’ve read so far there are so many fantastic artists featured. It must
have been difficult to decide who to include and leave out! How did you decide
what to include and what not to?
The brief was that 60% of the artists had to be chosen from amongst the Fleming
Collection’s holdings, partly because the associated images were available at no or little
cost. This was helpful as it narrowed down the choice to some extent – the book had to fit a
certain size and format. Beyond that, to my mind it was very much going to be a survey - a
chronology which would allow the uninitiated reader to pick up a sense of who-is-who in
Scottish art herstory. It was also important to create a narrative flow from the 18th century
to the present day and I was looking at artists whose work represented big milestones in the
story, chiming with stylistic developments or with the zeitgeist. There are of course many
artists who I would have loved to include, but short of producing a dictionary of Scottish
women artists I had to be really ruthless.
What were your favourite collections to work with when you were carrying out
research for Scottish Women Artists?
Well, the Fleming Collection for sure! They started collecting female Scottish artists in the
1960s - in fact Joan Eardley’s work was amongst the first purchases. The Fleming is
considered to be the most important collection of Scottish art outside of public institutions
and I love their ethos of using art as an agent of cultural diplomacy i.e. building relationships
by promoting Scottish art. They are also still buying and growing the collection, paying equal
attention to historic and contemporary art. I find this really appealing – both the resulting
diversity and the connection between past and present.
Over the last few years we’ve seen a greater effort towards readdressing the
gender imbalance in the art historical canon. What do you think we can do to
ensure this momentum is not lost and make changes permanent?
A great question! Of course it’s not always clear how future historical analyses will grow out
of the present, however, I think it’s partly about public engagement and shared
understandings in society, but also reflected, led and influenced by academia and critical
writing. Just think of the influence Ruskin had on 19th century art appreciation as a whole.
We can’t know how it will pan out in the future, but a young network like SWARN has a very
important role to play I think. Something like Joan Eardley 100 has shown the power of
collaboration between scholars, museums, the art market and ordinary people. The project
gave nationwide visibility to this unique artist who is now firmly lodged in mainstream
awareness and really holds her place in the ‘pantheon’ of great (women) artists. with a
relevance beyond simply academia.
I think that it is important to widen out to the general public and the education system to
allow women (and men) to absorb this still relatively under-emphasised dimension of
Scottish art history. The more we look the more we see. Research as encouraged at
university level too is a key driver in uncovering the place of women in Scotland’s art. The
more of significant artists who can be rediscovered and exposed through exhibitions and
books the more that people will learn and, as a result, connect with. Such connections are
powerful life threads which bring joy and reinforce our sense of identity and history.
What have been your favourite exhibitions or publications over the last couple of
One of the most captivating works I have recently seen is NYC based artist Amie Siegel’s
Bloodlines, a film which was recently commissioned by the Scottish Modern Art Gallery and is currently shown at Modern One in Edinburgh. It follows the journey of paintings by the 18th century artist George Stubbs (1724-1806) to a major retrospective exhibition as they
depart from the walls of their reclusive habitats in British country houses or within major
institutions to the gallery and back. I thought the filmatography was utterly arresting, the
quietude of the film (no voice over nor narration) almost otherworldly, and the interleafing of the subject of Stubbs’ paintings with activities in the real locations was as subtle and skilled as it was suggestive of meaningful connections. Siegel’s film explores themes of ownership, labour and class, capturing what she calls ‘human, equine and artistic
bloodlines’. 82 minutes of a visual feast – superb.
Loved of course Modern Scottish Women Artists of 2016 and the companion catalogue –
brilliant reference work; recommendation: Scottish Women artists – Transforming Tradition
at the Sainsbury Art Centre curated by Gemma Batchelor and Vanessa Tothill; I know it’s
perhaps a little off topic but absolutely adored Anna Keay’s The Last Royal Rebel, a
biography of the Duke of Monmouth, which partly anticipates your last question.
And finally, what are you most excited to be working on now?
I am currently working as part of a team developing Dalkeith Palace near Edinburgh as a
venue for arts and culture. Today the palace is owned by the Buccleuch Living Heritage
Trust; it dates from the early 1700s and once was Scotland’s grandest house and quasi Royal
palace. Anna Scott, the 1 st Duchess of Buccleuch and daughter-in-law to Charles II, was
heiress to the Buccleuch’s ancient castle and returned to Scotland after her second husband
had died. Her first husband had been the Duke of Monmouth, the hero of Anna Keay’s
recent book. Anna (Buccleuch) remodelled the ancestral castle and furnished it with great
style and with extravagant art and furniture. So this is a story of early female patronage and
one that it would be great to explore in much greater depth and with a wider focus
highlighting the importance of female patronage in Scotland from these early days to the
contemporary art world today.
Thank you so much to Charlotte for taking the time to answer our questions. We highly recommend picking up her book Scottish Women Artists which can be purchased from The Scottish Gallery for £9.95.
Charlotte Rostek is an arts and heritage curator, writer and lecturer. She is currently working as Project Consultant for Dalkeith Palace owned by the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust.