The Artist as Wallflower (Piccadilly, Westminster)

Usually, the phrase ‘migrants and their families’ is a code for ‘male migrants and their wives and children’. The near-invisibility of women as migrants and their presumed passivity in the migration process in historical reports on the subject, does not reflect reality. For many women relocation meant deliverance from assumed traditional roles and behaviours – as is reflected in the notable careers of two immigrant artists.

Angelica Kauffmanwas born on 30 October 1741 in Chur, capital of the Swiss canton of Graubünden. In 1742 the family moved to Lombardy and ten years later to Como. The young girl showed talent for both art and music, but pursued a career in painting. Whilst in Rome, she became acquainted with German antiquarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose portrait she painted. She also befriended British neo-classical painters Gavin Hamilton and Nathaniel Dance. These contacts inspired her to concentrate on classical and mythological subjects. Since her work proved popular with grand tourists, she readily accepted Lady Wentworth’s invitation to continue her career in England. She arrived in London in June 1766. Within a week she visited Joshua Reynolds in his studio, and her pictures were soon in demand. After lodging in Suffolk Street, Charing Cross, Kauffman occupied a fashionable house in Golden Square, Westminster. In 1767, she suffered a disastrous relationship with bigamist Count Frederick de Horn, who claimed to be a Swedish nobleman. She married him in secret. He signed a separation agreement (February 1768), after being exposed as a fraud and forced to leave the country. She stayed single until July 1781 when, after receiving news of De Horn’s death, she married Venetian painter Antonio Pietro Zucchi, who also resided in London. The couple settled in Rome where her studio became a popular stop for visitors on the grand tour.

Mary Moser was born on 27 October 1744, the daughter of George Michael Moser who had moved from Schaffhausen to London in 1726 where he worked for a cabinet-maker in Soho. During the 1740s he established himself as the finest gold chaser of his generation and a prominent member of the capital’s artistic community. He died in January 1783. At his burial at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, Joshua Reynolds was chief mourner. In his obituary he paid tribute to Moser as the ‘Father of the present race of Artists’, because of his individual skills and inspirational teaching at London academies. Mary had trained with her father and gained the patronage of Queen Charlotte for her flower paintings in oil and watercolour. Her most elaborate work was executed between 1792 and 1795 at Frogmore House, Windsor, where she ornamented rooms with flowers painted directly on the walls as well as large inset canvases that invoked the impression of cascading garlands.

On 28 November 1768 George Michael Moser, together with Francis Cotes, Benjamin West, and William Chambers, petitioned the king to patronise a Royal Academy. Subsequently, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded through a personal act of George III on 10 December 1768 with the aim of establishing a system of professional training and to arrange regular exhibitions of contemporary works of art. The immigrant contribution to the creation of the Royal Academy was considerable. Founding members included Jeremiah Meyer, Francesco Bartolozzi, Giovanni Battista Cipriani, Augostino Carlini, Francesco Zucarelli, and Dominic Serres. Art in the capital was a truly European affair. Moser was elected Keeper of the Academy. Initially located in cramped quarters in Pall Mall, the institution was given temporary accommodation in Old Somerset House in 1771. It moved to Burlington House in 1868, where it remains.

Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were the only women mentioned among the thirty-six founding members of the Royal Academy. As females, however, they were prohibited from the proceedings of the Academy and excluded from committee meetings and dinners. In fact, their presence seemed to cause embarrassment to male members. Johan Joseph Zoffany was born on 13 March 1733 near Frankfurt am Main. After a successful career as court painter to the Elector of Trier, he decided to try his luck in London where he settled towards the end of 1760. Actor David Garrick commissioned him to paint informal scenes at his villa at Hampton where the actor had built a ‘Temple to Shakespeare’. At a stroke a new genre was created. Setting up a studio in Covent Garden, Zoffany painted a series of pictures which became known as ‘theatrical conversations’. Success earned him the patronage of George III and Queen Charlotte.

In 1762 Zoffany was nominated a member of the Academy by the king and painted the group portrait ‘The Academicians of the Royal Academy’ (exhibited in 1772). Fellows are gathered around a nude male model at a time when decency demanded that women were barred from such spectacles. In order to include Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman, the painter added them not as participants to the scene, but – rather unflattering – as portraits (face only) hanging on the wall. A later painting by Henry Singleton, ‘The Royal Academicians in General Assembly’ (1795), shows the ladies alongside other academicians, but their bodies hidden behind the President’s chair with only their heads detectable. Emancipation among artists has seen strange turns and twists. For long, the art world was boys club. Women artists remained virtually invisible to the public eye, they were wallflowers at best. Mary Moser’s death in 1819 marked the start of an extensive stretch of time in which women were excluded from the Academy. It was not until 1936 that impressionist painter Laura Knight became the next woman to be elected a Royal Academician. This long interlude makes it all the more remarkable that these two women who shared an alien background (temporarily) broke the pattern of male exclusivity in British art societies. They demonstrated that migration unshackles mind and emotion. The need to adapt is a force of release from limiting traditions and attitudes.