With the recent news of the imminent demise of women's studies as a valid academic pursuit, it seems a feat of remarkable timing that an invigorating show about precisely that, the study of women's history, should be mounted at the National Portrait Gallery. Brilliant Women: 18th-century Bluestockings is a collection of contemporary portraits and artefacts from the Georgian period concerning the bas bleu, a group of influential female movers and shakers who were loosely connected by some fundamental shared values.
The fact that most of them were filthy rich, too (the exquisite gold-framed miniature portraiture of a friendship trinket is just one example of their ability to purchase exactly what they wanted), does not detract from the fact that these were intelligent women with inquiring minds and the resources to devote themselves to the traditionally male preserves of natural history, art and philosophy.
We meet up with a range of women. There are those who could make things happen. Elizabeth Montagu comes across as hugely resourceful, manipulative, even, whose salons were arranged precisely in serried rows by la grande dame herself. Others were gloriously talented. Angelica Kauffmann portrays her own tussle with the muses of music and art. One of the great advantages of being your own portraitist is that you can do yourself full justice in the beauty department.
But the most influential were the thinkers, those women who thought that the female estate should be set up differently, and who set down their ideas on paper. There is an original letter penned by a very young Mary Wollstonecraft to her older mentor, Catharine Macaulay. Mary expresses her admiration that Catharine has sought "the laurels" and not "the flowers" in the development of her writing career. What an insight into a visionary mind. Mary's portrait is compelling: hair untended, hunched protectively over an open book, her eyes carrying that near-maniacal gleam of genius. The European dimension is represented with the rebellious Madame de Signy, who was banished from Napoleon's court.
Who are the counterparts of these women today? Has the designer handbag indeed taken over from the lilac ink? There is so much that is vital and thought provoking to be gleaned from this show, and judging by the attendance, many are gleaning, both women and men. Women's studies dead? I don't believe it.
To 15 Jun (020-7306 0055)
Jane Morris, FE lecturer, Rugby
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