Wummin's Wednesday: Bessie MacNicol (1869 – 1904)
We love a strong Scottish woman here at Walking Tours in Scotland so welcome to our blog series, Wummin's Wednesday. We'll be posting some Wednesday's about a Scottish women who has had an impact on her community or the world. Like our Facebook page to see when we release our new posts!
This blog post was written by Amy Lyall, a student journalist. You can find more of her excellent stuff here: https://amylyallwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter @amylyall1.
Subdued, earthy tones blur springtime florals into rolling fields. Sunlight shines through leafy branches, dappling the angelic face of a maiden dressed in white.
Under the Apple Tree (1896-99) is just one of the artworks displayed in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, painted by Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ MacNicol, who was considered the city’s most important female artist at the turn of the 20th century.
Born in Glasgow on 5 July 1869, Bessie was welcomed into an era which saw the flourishing of female painters across the city’s art scene. Alongside a fondness for music, she attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1887 until 1892. During her studies, the school was led by the influential Fra Newbery. He offered women the opportunity to thrive as students and teachers, many of whom were said to have spent their free time between classes stitching banners for the woman’s suffrage.
After graduating, Bessie was encouraged to study in Paris at the Académie Colarossi. This decision sailed Bessie upon the first wave of Scottish women to cross overseas with look to furthering their artistic training, as men had already been doing for centuries – therefore crossing both geographic and social borders. The French capital brought one of the first establishments to offer classes in which women practised alongside men, however Bessie reportedly spent more time ‘haunting’ the galleries of the city, than benefiting from her ‘restrained and repressive’ lessons.
After returning to Glasgow, Bessie acquired a studio on St Vincent Street, creating works for various exhibitions and even being commissioned to paint a portrait of leading Kirkcudbright artist, Edward Atkinson Hornel.
Bessie was influenced by the work of Hornel and preferred painting with oil and watercolour. She was inspired by the plein air tradition of the Barbizon School, which she presumably appreciated during her time in France. Cherishing the outdoors, Bessie became known for her ability to craft light, colour and texture into her landscapes, while her portraits showcased solid composition and psychological depth. Her work was compared to leading Impressionist painter, Berthe Morisot, as their subject matters often featured fashionable young women posing in nature.
In 1899 Bessie married physician and fellow artist, Alexander Frew. The couple moved to the Hillhead area of the city, where Bessie set up a large studio at the back of their house. Both of her parents passed away in 1903, and the following year, she died aged 34 due to complications in the late stages of pregnancy.
Her husband remarried shortly before committing suicide in 1908, leaving his new wife in possession of Bessie’s art. Within a year of Alexander’s death, she had sold all of the paintings, meaning that today there are very few items of Bessie’s portfolio known to exist.
Throughout her career, Bessie’s work was exhibited over Scotland and in London, even reaching some European and American cities such as Vienna and St Louis. By the 1960s, Bessie had been included in a group of artists known as the Glasgow Girls, which featured the likes of Margaret MacDonald, the wife of Charles Rennie Macintosh. This clan was established to bring attention to the city’s female creatives, who were so commonly overlooked in history’s preference of male artists.
In 1990, the work of Bessie and her fellow females was revived in a major exhibition titled, Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920; framing them forerunners in shifting the art world towards modernism.