Too often they're simply described as "the unknown woman" or "wife of". One of the problems with historic collections of art is not just that the women artists are few, but that when it comes to female sitters, too often we know too little about them. But a band of driven researchers are now looking into uncovering lost artists, and also the worlds of these women. By Vicky Allan

THAT Newhaven fishwife, the one with the tanned arms resting on her empty creel, head bent away as if preoccupied by something, until recently was one of the many women in the National Galleries of Scotland collections whose individual lives we really knew little of.

Mara Barth, project learning officer, scatters a collection of early photographs across a table and tells me that all these women are unknown. It’s a feature not just of these images, but of many paintings and photographs of women in the National Galleries of Scotland’s historic collections, and in many art collections across the world.

Sometimes the only title these subjects get is “unknown woman”, or "four unknown women". Sometimes it is “wife of”, or “daughter of”. One sits on a motorbike. “We know a little bit about her, because we got curious and we liked her motorbike. We found out where this motorbike was registered, and it was in Morningside and we know that this was a type of bike designed for ladies.”

“There are a lot of female sitters in the collection,” says Barth, “but we often don’t know a lot about the sitters. This event is around exploring not just women artists but women sitters in the collection and specifically around the Scottish collection. We’ve drawn images from the early photography collection that are of unknown women. Nothing is known about any of these women. Or course in the early photography there is quite a lot of unknown men as well as women. This is a nice way to highlight some of the everyday women of Scotland. Early photographs were where we see them the most.”

Some of these anonymous women are at the centre of an event at the National Galleries Of Scotland titled, Where Are The Women? It’s an interesting title, for, actually, if you walk around any of our galleries, you do see plenty of women. There are nudes, classical goddesses, queens, ladies in their fine hats and gowns. But what feels absent too often is a sense of who some of these women really are. That’s particularly so when the women are working class.

One of the inspirations behind this evening event is feminist author Sara Sheridan’s Where Are The Women?: A Guide To An Imagined Scotland, which created a new map of the country, in which many of the statues of men that populate our streets were replaced by those to women or the roads renamed to memorialise women not men.

“I’m interested in the memorialisation of women,” says Sheridan, who will speak at the National Galleries event, "and when I wrote my book to remap Scotland, I discovered amazing things about our foremothers. We need to normalise women’s achievement, we need to normalise women’s voices and we need to normalise women’s bodies as well. My book is one creative take on that.”

Sheridan acknowledges that in the National Galleries of Scotland the problem is not a blanket absence of women of the sort we see among the statues in our streets. Images of the female sex are plenty, though, in the historic collection, the vast majority of them are created by men. One of the problems is, though, she says, that these women are edited. An example she gives of this is the Victorian nudes.

“When we do see them they’re not real people, they’re statues. There is no body hair or anything like that and they all had these mad hairstyles. They were meant to look like statues and statues don’t have hair. The Victorians were inspired by statues from Greece and were painting women to look like that.”

She believes this editing of women is still relevant now. “I founded Reek, a perfume company where when you wear the perfume you form a memorial to the women it commemorates. I want to talk about the way women’s bodies are represented because that’s something we care about at Reek. We don’t retouch images. We get a lot of complaints on Facebook because if you put up a lot of skin and nudes it’s taken down, and of course perfume photography is all about skin and nudes.”

The National Galleries of Scotland event is another take on the kind of memorialising of women that Sheridan does. It also reflects a kind of righting of a wrong, an attempt to uncover more – for instance more about that Newhaven fishwife, taken in 1843.

The image is iconic. It’s one of which the early 20th century philosopher, Walter Benjamin, wrote, “She has something that can’t be silenced, something that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman that was alive there.”  

The early 20th century philosopher happened to be looking at a copy of the photograph that had no name attached. Frequently the image was published, nameless, with other titles like “Newhaven beauty” or even “Newhaven Madonna”. Yet we do know the name of this young woman. its creators, Hill & Adamson, the first Scottish photography studio, did publish it, and, in the past few years, armed with that piece of information, the researcher and photographer Caroline Douglas has made it her mission to discover and understand this working-class woman, Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall, to bring her story to light.

 “I really just wanted to build up a picture of Elizabeth Johnstone Hall’s life. There has been a lot of scholarship on Hill & Adamson, but it really struck me that there hadn’t been a great deal written about the individuals, the unknown subjects, who sat for them. So my approach has really been from a different vantage point, the study of the history of photography from the perspective of the sitter, and very much so in this case, a working class sitter. I really think our understanding of the emergence of photography as a discipline changes when we begin to write these unknown figures into the history of the medium. These are some of the world’s earliest photographic subjects, which is extraordinary in itself. And also they represent one of the first photo documentary series ever made. You have these living breathing subjects. And yet we still don’t know all that much about them.”

What do we now know? “There’s a wedding band there on her finger,” she says. “She was born Johnstone. And she married Daniel Hall and in the Scots tradition she kept both her maiden name and her married name.  She was married but didn’t have any children. Sadly she died in relative poverty, though at quite an old age – in 1901, the same year as Victoria died. They died within days of one another.”

One of the things she doesn’t know for sure is what awareness the subjects in these photos would have had of the circulation of the images. She also very much doubts that she would have been given a copy of the image, or invited on the occasions when they were exhibited. “In my research I've learned that many of these individuals weren't literate. In the census records I've been consulting, bold strokes or black marks where someone has been unable to sign their name.”

But one of the most fascinating things about her research into Johnstone Hall, is that it took a more personal twist when Douglas’s mother noticed a tweet about her research. She sent her a message, saying, “Caroline, you know we’ve got both Johnston Halls and Listons [the name of a male subject in the photographs] in the family.”

“In my pursuit of trying to understand women in early photography, I’m finding I’m perhaps related to both the fishermen and women in the picture,” she says.

Douglas has an interest not just in the sitters – but also in the processes of early photography and the women who might have been involved in that. One thing she has been exploring is that there was a female technician on the Hill & Adamson project. There was also, she found, much further back, an Edinburgh woman who was key to developing some of the chemical processes that would lead to early photography.  “Elizabeth Fulhame was doing chemistry experiments in Edinburgh in 1790s, fifty years before the 'founding fathers' are deemed to have invented photography. And yet her work forms part of the bedrock of the invention of the medium. In the foreword of her book Fulhame writes, ‘Censure is perhaps inevitable for some are so ignorant that they grow sullen and silent and are chilled with horror at the sight of anything that bears the semblance of learning – and should the spectre appear in the shape of a woman the pangs which she suffers are truly dismal.'"

It’s not an uncommon feeling, that desire expressed by Walter Benjamin to know more about the person featured in a portrait. It’s one many visitors appear to feel around a popular painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Daniel Macnee’s A Lady In Grey.

Gallery attendants have said they frequently are asked questions about this painting, long known to be a portrait of the artist’s daughter, Isabella Wiseman. “You look at her,” says Freya Spoor, a curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, “and want to know more. You’re intrigued by her immediately. And she has a wonderful intimacy because they were father and daughter and I think they were very close. I think they had a similar sense of humour. ”

Interested to uncover more, Spoor started looking into the object files and found that they also have two photographs of Isabella Wiseman donated by the descendants. “One has her in a similar post to Lady in Grey. She was an elderly lady at that point, sitting with her hands clapped in front of her.”

The photographs were given to the gallery by a descendent called Dr Ruth Wazzell, and she discovered that the family also had an archive at the National Library of Scotland. “I was able to go and look at that. Lovely anecdotal information on her – about going to all the Royal Academy shows, going to the theatre. I think she had quite a keen sense of humour. You sort of felt like you were getting more of a personal picture of what Isabella was like.”

The Where Are The Women? event, while it does have a focus on sitters, is also about asking where women are in all areas of art production, and that includes the artists themselves. Spoor notes that there are gaps where they shouldn’t be. The reasons why women’s works are missing are hugely varied. Artworks by Frances Maconald McNair, for instance are far fewer than they might be, because her husband, Herbert McNair, burned much of her studio work on her death. “It is a curious Victorian phenomenon to deal with grief, or it could be reputation-saving. But it happened quite regularly.”

Also doing a talk at one of the events are The History Girls, Rachael Purse and Karen Mailley-Watt. Their focus is “friendship portraits”, the paintings female artists have done of each other. She observes that when it comes to finding women in history, whether in written sources or art, where you have to look is in “the gaps”.

“Women are often not mentioned at all, unless you look. For instance if you look at the Chronicles of Charlemagne’s rule some of his wives aren’t even mentioned by name but the children are mentioned so you have to guess who they are or where they are from by the mention of their children. You have to play detective because for a lot of history women are regarded as irrelevant so their names aren’t used a lot. Up until 1800s, women became a legal nonentity upon marriage. Officially she didn’t exist. She wasn’t dead legally, but she wasn’t alive, she was just like an extra limb of her husband.”

Purse also notes that the lack of women’s art prior to the 20th century is partly a reflection of the role they were expected to take in families. “As soon as they became pregnant or got married they were no longer able to practice art, and those that were able to do it up to that point were dependent on parents allowing them to do so and that generally meant only middle class people. The art that is produced by these women is just kept by the family usually. It doesn’t get sold and seen and written about by critics and collected by museums. It’s in people’s houses”

“What I find upsetting,” she adds, “is that so many of these women’s periods as artists are cut short by getting married or by a family, maybe they’re unmarried but a father gets ill and they’re the only unmarried daughter left so they have to stop then look after the household and their father. It’s really sad when you see the abrupt stop."

Frequently those artists who have risen to the kind of prominence that has seen their work in historical collections have not had children. One of these is Flora Macdonald Reid, an artist that Freya Spoor has recently researched. “Her brother,” Spoor says, “was John Robertson Reid and her sister Lizzie was also an artist. She travelled extensively across Europe: France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and she incorporated exciting aspects which were reshaping art, rural naturalism. She was looking at rural people who were within the local area, real local flavour and presenting them in a really honest way. The muddy boots, the weather-beaten face.”

Macdonald Reid never married. “I think,” says Spoor, “that was so she could focus on her art entirely. She dedicated her life to her artwork. She exhibited widely and in places where her work would have been seen on a par with men. She could command similar prices to her male counterparts.”

Of course, some very noteworthy female artists did have children and made motherhood the subject of some of their work. In Romance, Cecile Walton, produced a post-birth self-portrait, in which she depicts herself partially undressed, in a pose reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia. She holds up her baby and peers as it. Her older child plays at her feet.

As Spoor puts it, “It’s quite inquiring of motherhood generally. I think she was quite perplexed by this new child and what the future held for her. It’s very honest in that way and it’s extremely relevant for themes today. She was mirroring other artistic tropes so you could say like Manet’s Olympia and further back to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. It’s extremely honest and frank and I think it was considered quite shocking at the time."

The Where Are The Women? event is part of a process of uncovering, of bringing women into the light. Researchers are gradually revealing that the female artist was not quite the rare beast that is often made out – but that unearthing her takes hard work. They are like detectives seeking out the women in art.

“If it’s not one of the big names like Margaret Macdonald, or Phoebe Anna Traquair or Jessie M King,” says Rachael Purse, “the names we’ve heard of, then it become difficult. So you have to have a passion. I love Margaret Macdonald Macintosh and Joan Eardley, but they didn’t exist in a vacuum. These other people existed. Shocker. There was more of them!”

Where Are The Women? Is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on November 8