IF she’s known at all now, Margaret Morris is remembered as the partner of the Edinburgh-born painter John Duncan Fergusson, a member of the Scottish Colourists group who flitted between Paris and London for the first four decades of the 20th century and then established himself in Glasgow because he considered it the most “Celtic” of the big Scottish cities.

Today, Fergusson is lauded as one of the most important Scottish painters of the last century. He has been given stand-alone exhibitions by the National Galleries of Scotland (there was a major one in Edinburgh in 2011) and even has his own museum, the Fergusson Gallery in Perth. But in her day Morris was considered the starrier of the two thanks to her glamorous calling – she was a dancer and choreographer who organised and ran a series of dance schools – and for the verve and energy she brought to the British and French art scenes in the decades following the first world war. In later life she was instrumental in putting dance on a modern footing in Scotland, forming the Celtic Ballet of Scotland in 1947, the year of the first Edinburgh International Festival. It would be a further two decades before choreographer Peter Darrell relocated to Glasgow from Bristol to turn his company into Scottish Ballet.

It’s that Margaret Morris – ex-Suffragette and unapologetic champion of the avant garde – who is the principal subject of a new book by art historian Richard Emerson, a former Chief Inspector of Historic Buildings at heritage body Historic Scotland. Its title is Rhythm And Colour, it’s the inaugural publication from new Edinburgh-based imprint Golden Hare, and it has walk-on parts for many of the artistic and literary greats Morris mixed with in London and in the south of France, where she set up her celebrated summer dance schools. Among them are Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

But at its heart Rhythm And Colour seeks to place Morris back on the pedestal Emerson thinks she belongs on and, in the year we commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which gave women over 30 the vote, to contextualise her achievements as businesswoman, artist and impresario. She was a true pioneer and, to use a 21st century term, a serial disruptor. “If there’s a club for very big fans of Margaret Morris then I’m absolutely a paid-up life member,” he says. “I think she’s tremendous, really tremendous.”

Morris was born in London in 1891. Her father was the portrait painter William Bright Morris and from the age of seven she was having dance lessons with John D’Auban, ballet master at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Aged eight, she was a child performer and by 19 she was already arranging dances and designing costumes for performances. She had also started an affair with the writer John Galsworthy and, encouraged by him, formed her first troupe, Dancing Children.

She was also politically engaged and well-connected. “She was a committed suffragette and sold the suffragette newspaper in London when she was about 16,” says Emerson. “Her mother, aunt and cousin were all militant suffragettes and she was friends with other women like Ellen Terry [a renowned actress and later a dame] and her daughter Edith Craig [a theatre director and activist in the Suffrage movement]. These were all powerful women making careers in the arts and Margaret Morris was taken up by them when she was in her late teens.”

In 1913 Morris travelled to Paris, where she met Fergusson, and two years later, aged just 24, she opened the Margaret Morris Club in London, an arts club decorated for her by the artists Jacob Epstein and Wyndham Lewis and with members including Fergusson’s friend and fellow Scot, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Other attendees includes George Bernard Shaw, Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound.

By this point Morris had opened the first of a series of dance schools which would eventually have offshoots in several other British cities as well as a summer presence in Wales, Devon and at Cap d’Antibes in the south of France, where she and her scantily-clad students gave performances in the open air. It was one of these that Pablo Picasso visited in 1923. He later told his friends Clive Bell and Roger Fry, both art critics and members of the Bloomsbury Group, about the “four and twenty young ladies” he fell in with, who “swam divinely but couldn’t dance at all”.

The criticism probably wasn’t merited. Morris brought invention, rigour and new ideas to the medium of dance, inspired in part by an influential meeting with Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond but also by her own Bohemian spirit and a sense that dance should be, as she put it, “a living art … capable of expressing the ideas and emotions of the 20th century”.

But Margaret Morris isn’t the sole focus of Rhythm And Colour because among the dancers that Picasso watched were the book’s two other subjects, Frenchwoman Helene Vanel and London-born Lois Hutton. Both younger than Morris, they were proteges who would also go on to make their mark in the art world of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1926 they founded the ballet company which gives Emerson’s book its title – the Ballets Rhythme et Couleur – as well as an accompanying dance school. One of its first pupils was Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. Later they hung out with the Surrealists and by the late 1930s the androgynous Vanel had been photographed by Man Ray and was one of the most famous dancers in Europe. She and Hutton also lived openly as lovers for a time. For Emerson, all three of his subjects were imbued with what he calls a “beginning-of-a-new-century idea”, one that drove them to act for themselves and to not be subservient to men. “They all felt that pretty strongly,” he says.

Morris spent much of the second half of her life in Scotland. She still made regular trips to France with Fergusson but from 1939 the couple were based in Glasgow. Again, she gathered influential artists and musicians to her, easy enough to do in wartime in a port city thronged with migrants. The Jewish artist Josef Herman, who had fled Poland, designed a ballet for her. His fellow Pole Jankel Adler was another artist that she championed. “Herman describes how extraordinarily cosmopolitan Glasgow was during the war,” says Emerson. “You could hear every language in the street. There were Central Europeans, there were French, all sorts of people. And Margaret Morris brought them all together.”

But gradually Morris moved into the background, her ability to work and create hindered by constant money problems. “Everything she touched that was creative was hopelessly financially disastrous,” says Emerson. “She faced bankruptcy on several occasions.” She also started to become eclipsed by Fergusson. “From the 1920s and probably from the start of the Margaret Morris Club, Fergusson was slightly in the shadow of her. It’s much easier to find newspapers in America or Australia or New Zealand talking about her and her ideas than to find any references to Fergusson. So I think she was the famous person, probably up until about 1940 when Fergusson established a power base in Glasgow. But then he becomes the more dominant figure in what was probably quite a patriarchal culture and she fades from view.”

But a century on from her pioneering dance summer schools and fiercely avant garde performances, and nearly four decades after she died in Glasgow, aged 89, Morris, her legacy and the lives and work of the women she inspired may be coming back into the light.