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27 September 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:14am

Four of the best British artists you’ve never heard of (because they are women)

Female British artists of the 20th century were long subject to an institutional bias. 

By Zing Tsjeng

Finally, some good news from a government department. The Government Art Collection announced on Monday that it would buy more work by female artists in efforts to correct a long-standing “institutional bias” discovered by Labour researchers. In January, the shadow culture team found that around three-quarters of the works acquired between 2011 and 2016 were by men.

Given that the collection mainly supplies the wall decor for British embassies and government buildings, why does this matter? Well, the government may be flailing in a post-Brexit malaise of its own making, but its stamp of approval still confers a certain legitimacy in the public eye – at least, that’s what you’d hope for any pieces newly acquired in the name of gender parity.

Here are a few more female artists from the UK who have been criminally underrated. Some never received the recognition they deserved while they were alive, while others have been gradually resurrected from obscurity. If the Government Art Collection is looking to spend some cash, they should start here. If nothing else, female artists come cheap – according to research from the University of Luxembourg, work by women sells for 47.6 per cent less than men.

Marlow Moss (1889-1958)

Always impeccably stylish with her shorn hair and a riding jacket, constructivist artist and sculptor Marlow Moss defied gender norms and arguably influenced Mondrian’s adoption of double lines with her striking, mathematically-inclined work.

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Much of her art was destroyed in World War II when the Germans bombed the French chateau she shared with her partner, Nettie. When she fled to the UK, she continued making work and even experimented with sculpture, but found herself an unloved and unwelcome outsider in her native land. One review judged: “The sculptures are superb, objects of austere, calculated beauty. The exhibition deserted and not one work bought.” A Tate Britain show in 2014 aimed to restore her reputation by showing much of her later work.

Maud Sulter (1960-2008)

Sulter was a formidable Scottish talent who created powerful photographic and installation work, wrote poetry and was an active member of the feminist movement and the British Black Arts Movement. Long before conversations about diversity became common in the art world, Sulter placed black women front and centre in her work. She photographed both herself and other black women not only to interrogate their lack of representation in art, but as a means to correct the canon.

Though many of her contemporaries, including Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, went on to gain greater recognition, Sulter only received her first major survey of her work outside of Scotland in 2016, eight years after her death.

Kim Lim (1936-1997)

Viewing the work of Singaporean-British artist Kim Lim is a soothing balm in troubled times. Her exquisite marble and stone sculptures are sinuous exercises in form, shape and simplicity.

Lim arrived in London as a 17-year-old to study art at St Martin’s and never left, though she travelled widely and drew inspiration from ancient Greek, Japanese, and Indian culture. Though the Government Art Collection already owns three Lim pieces and her work is held in the Tate Modern, there have been few retrospectives since her death in 1997.

Thankfully, Lim is slowly receiving her due – she is the subject of a show at S2 London this autumn, and the gallery is also publishing her first major monograph.

Pauline Boty (1938-1966)

South Londoner Pauline Boty was many things: a broadcaster, an actor, the rumoured inspiration for Bob Dylan’s song “Liverpool Gal”… She was also, as her admirer Ali Smith puts it, “the first and only British Pop artist who happened to be a woman”. Boty’s work is brash, bold and innovative. Prepare yourself to come face to face with a headless nude and her enormous, bushy pubes if you ever view her painting “It’s a Man’s World II”.

Boty’s telegenic looks, however, got her the nickname of the “Wimbledon Bardot” and made it easy for critics to initially dismiss her. When she died of leukaemia at the age of 28, her paintings all but disappeared. It was only in the 90s, when a large cache of her art was retrieved from a Kent barn that her name re-entered the history books.

If you would like to find out and learn more about female artists, Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists is an amazing resource. London-based curators and art critics The White Pube are also actively challenging the “pale, male and stale” art world.

Zing Tsjeng is the author of the Forgotten Women book series. The two latest installments in the series, Forgotten Women: The Artists and Forgotten Women: The Writers, are out now on Octopus. She is also the UK editor of Broadly, VICE’s feminist channel.

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