AT a party to celebrate Ethel Walker’s appointment as CBE she was introduced as the country’s leading woman artist. “There is no such thing as a woman artist," she said, pointedly "There are only two kinds of artist – bad and good. You can call me a good artist if you like.”

That was in 1938. Then in her 70s, Edinburgh-born Walker had exhibited widely, including at the Royal Scottish Academy, and in the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris. She had also dedicated an enormous amount of energy to having her work recognised on a par with her male contemporaries, no small feat at a time when some women chose to show anonymously and others under ambiguous names to deter critics.

One of Walker’s paintings was acquired by the Tate Gallery in 1922 and the institution held a posthumous retrospective of her work after her death in 1951. Although she was hugely recognised in her lifetime, her name is all but forgotten today.

For a variety of reasons something similar happened to Phyllis Mary Bone, Dorothy Carleton Smyth and a string of other women whose work will go on show from November 7 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, alongside that of better known Joan Eardley, Jessie M King, Bessie MacNicol and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. Modern Scottish Women traces the careers of painters and sculptors from 1885 to 1965, when Fra Newbery became director of Glasgow School of Art (GSA), until painter Anne Redpath’s death. The 80 years which lay between saw an unprecedented number of Scottish women train and practise as artists.

“Fra Newbery was massive in terms of gender equality for his staff as well as his students, while Anne Redpath is widely recognised as being the doyenne of post-Second World War Scottish painting,” explains Alice Strang, curator of Modern Scottish Women, the first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland.

“When I was doing the research for the Scottish Colourists series of exhibitions there were lots of women artists' names coming up around the edges who were catching my attention. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something important going on here that hasn’t necessarily been told before.

“The 1990 Glasgow Girls exhibition was absolutely fantastic and Jude Burkhauser, who curated that show, looked at the phenomena of women students at Glasgow School of Art under Fra Newbery. A lot of them were applied artists: needlework, metalwork and so forth.

"I realised we hadn’t looked at women artists beyond those who trained at GSA in that period, but also looking at them as painters and sculptors.

“There are artists who have done fantastic work and for a number of reasons aren’t better known or they haven’t had solo shows, whether it is short careers or early deaths.”

Before the 19th century, women were excluded from virtually all forms of artistic training. It took Newberry’s appointment at GSA to crystallise a movement that was mainly driven in Glasgow in terms of serious women artists.

“The story is muddied by the idea of the feminine accomplishments: you might be able to play a Chopin nocturne prettily and you might be able to paint a watercolour without the maker identifying herself as a professional artist. Glasgow School of Art was founded in the school of design in 1845 and three years later they were admitting female students,” says Strang.

“Edinburgh was more conservative, you saw change in 1908 when Edinburgh College of Art was founded from various pre-existing training institutions, and had male and female staff from its inception.”

Apart from women being in the obvious minority, the fundamental difference between the training offered to male and female students was access to life classes, where models would pose, sometimes nude, and students could study the human figure and draw it. To be able to render the human form in a skilful, realistic way was considered the most important part of art training, and women were excluded.

“They might have been permitted in segregated classes with chaperones and partially draped models. A lot of the artists we have looked at actually went to Paris because the training was more progressive than that which was available here,” says Strang.

Kathleen Scott Kennet, one of the sculptors in the show and Captain Scott of Antarctic’s widow, saw a nude male model for the first time in 1901 in Paris. “Before reason could control instinct I turned and fled, shut myself in the lavatory, and was sick,” she said afterwards.

The story of Modern Scottish Women is a tale of resourcefulness and finding a path, whatever obstacles were put in their way. Many early art students were women born into artistic families, such as Margot Sandeman, Cathleen Mann and Flora Macdonald Reid. Others faced strong opposition from family members. Jessie M King’s parents felt “a career in art meant a bohemian life and this was no calling for the daughter of a minister of the Church of Scotland”.

Often they came from middle-class families who could afford the fees – £5 a year at Edinburgh College of Art when it opened in 1908 – and attended quieter daytime classes with a higher proportion of female students, whereas early morning and evening classes were attended by working men. There was blatant inequality at independent Paris studios in the late 19th century where women were charged 100 francs, compared to the 50 francs paid by their male counterparts.

For those fortunate enough to gain art training, the discrimination didn’t end there. A gendered hierarchy of art meant painting came first, though only certain subjects were deemed suitable for women.

“Emile Zola said flower painting was most suitable for women because the freshness and gracefulness of the flowers makes it appropriate for women painters. The least feminine type of work is sculpture because it is the most physical – you’ve got to get down and dirty and hack pieces of stone. A lot of women would exhibit their sculpture anonymously because otherwise, if it was known that it was by a woman, it would be judged in a very different way,” says Strang.

“Then you have the applied arts or the crafts, which were considered the most feminine, and it was the most acceptable really for a decent middle-class girl to make pretty earrings. These women were trying to break through cultural conventions like this.”

When they did triumph and try to work after art school, domestic and financial necessities often got in the way.

“For me one of the saddest stories is Cecile Walton. In some ways she had the brightest prospects, the daughter of Glasgow Boy EA Walton and when she was very young they moved to London and Whistler was among their neighbours. She was taught by Jessie M King. They moved to Edinburgh and she attended Edinburgh College of Art, then went off to Paris and Florence,” says Strang.

“You could say she fell in love with the wrong man, the Scottish artist Eric Robertson. They divorced and she was left responsible for two boys. It brought an end her painting career, she had to get salaried work.”

This isn’t just a tale of missed opportunities and what would have been. When these women did get a chance to pick up their brushes the work they produced was wonderful, from visceral wartime scenes to exuberant landscapes, touching, emotional portraits of family life to pioneering sculpture.

Edinburgh School of Art trained Mary Cameron, nicknamed Bloody Mary, fell in love with Spain and at the turn of the century produced frank and uncompromising paintings of bullfights. One in particular was so gory it was used as a postcard in anti-bullfighting propaganda in France and Germany.

“The press at the time, when they reviewed Mary Cameron’s work, always had to stress her femininity, almost to make up for the pretty brutal paintings. She was having none of it, saying, ‘Hang on a minute, look at my paint-splattered hands, painting is hard work, you have to roll up your sleeves, it is manual labour’,” says Strang.

During the First World War, Norah Neilson Gray volunteered as a nurse at the Scottish Women’s Hospital outside Paris that was funded, set up, run and staffed by women. Off duty, she painted scenes from the wards. Meanwhile Doris Zinkeisen was commissioned by the Joint War Organisation in 1945 to record their activities in Europe.

“She was part of the team who liberated Belsen concentration camp, and she painted that with real bravery. They are tough images but they are very important. You see the atrocities of the Second World War in her paintings, and we have one of those in the show,” says Strang.

It wasn’t uncommon for women to work in their own studios. Dean Studios in Edinburgh was in a converted church and housed a colony of artists including Phoebe Anna Traquair. Hazel Armour had studios in Edinburgh and London, Mary Cameron in Madrid and Seville.

“As a result of selling a big picture, Mabel Pryde Nicholson paid to have a studio built in her back garden but rather sadly wrote to her son Ben Nicholson, saying, ‘Your father William gets precedence because it means cash’. He was able to sell his work more readily,” explains Strang.

Dorothy Johnstone was teaching at Edinburgh College of Art but had to resign when she married her colleague because the Marriage Bar prevented married women from holding full-time teaching positions. She often painted at the kitchen table because that was where she could easily paint her children.

These sisters were most definitely doing it for themselves. As well as exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy and RGI, the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists was set up to provide studio and exhibition space and in Edinburgh the Scottish Society of Women Artists offered opportunities to show and sell work. “Aitken Dott, started in Edinburgh to provide artists’ materials and framers, sets up a Scottish gallery in 1897 and they were the commercial gallery that did the most to promote women artists. It was run by two women directors, and while Beatrice Proudfoot was in charge she put on three exhibitions of women artists’ work,” says Strang.

Their work was still reviewed in terms of being produced by women and praised for being feminine.

Strang explains that paintings by Mary Cameron, for example, would be captioned as by "Mrs Alexis Millar". In other words, the women were referenced in terms of their husbands.

“Louise Annand exhibited under the name Richard or Dick sometimes so that people would believe her work was by a man and judged accordingly, maybe a bit like JK Rowling. Stansmore Dean Stevenson has an ambiguous Christian name so people assumed she was male and possibly that benefited her. It is intriguing when you look at what contemporary critics, the majority of whom were male, were saying about female artists,” says Strang.

Early death stopped short promising careers. “Joan Eardley from cancer; Bessie MacNicol in childbirth aged 32, that’s not going to happen to a male artist; and Nora Neilson Gray from cancer,” she adds.

There are plenty of tragic stories, yet hope too that more work is yet to be uncovered.

“There are other artists we don’t know very much about yet because a lot of their work remains in private hands. Norah Neilson Gray is celebrated for her portraits, a lot of them were commissioned by Glaswegian families and they still remain in those families. Ottilie MacLaren Wallace’s sculptures are still mainly in private hands. We managed to track work down, which was fantastic, but it is tantalising. There is so much more out there,” hints Strang.

“One of the things I really hope comes out of this show is that all women are inspired by these women but in particular, pupils who are thinking of training as artists, women who are studying to be artists and women artists at whatever stage of their career.”

A year before she died in 2000, Mary Armour recalled her first day at GSA: “I was so excited and nervous, and carrying so much, I got stuck in Rennie Mackintosh’s swinging door. My advice to any young woman walking through that door today: it won’t be easy, the life of an artist is never easy, things have changed some and there are now more and more opportunities for women in art and design.”

Considering today’s generation of artists, Strang comments: “It would be interesting to talk about women artists who are practising now and say: ‘What has been your experience? How do you find things now? Are you defined as a woman artist or have we now reached the stage where you are an artist, good or bad?’”

Modern Scottish Women, at the Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from November 7 to June 26 is supported by The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Charitable Trust and a sorority of women across Scotland. Alice Strang’s fully-booked lecture at Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, Scottish National Gallery Complex, is to be repeated on November 7 at 3.30pm. Free tickets can be booked on 0131 624 6560.