Autograph Letter Collection: Women in the Arts

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 106 9/18
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      1 A box (1 volume)

Scope and Content

The collection contains letters from women involved in the arts concerning their work, business matters, publicity, articles and general social correspondence. Correspondents include Sarah Siddons, Emily Faithfull, Fanny Kemble, Elizabeth Thompson, Isabella Dallas Glyn, Mary Davis, Fanny Stirling, Mrs Morritt, Lady Bancroft, Genevieve Ward, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Madge Kendall, Mrs Steele, Philippa Strachey, Ethel Coffin, Rutland Boughton, Marion Terry, Eva Moore, Sybil Thorndyke, Alys Russell, Lena Ashwell, Marie Tempest, Agnes Hill, Marie Lohr, Dame Ethel Smyth, Irene Vanbrugh, Ruth Draper, Ethel Warwick, Dame Laura Knight, Cicely Courtney, Lilian Braithwaite and Ninette de Valois.

Administrative / Biographical History

In a period in which the women's sphere was ideologically located in the home, their entrance in to the public sphere was seen as either a scandal or an object of mockery. However, while the fields of politics and commerce were largely closed to females, paradoxically, other positions in the public eye were not. Women writers and artists could be found from the Renaissance onwards and actresses in particular could achieve great fame for their work. However, women who entered into the public sphere in this way were generally considered to be outside of the normal rules of society even while being lionised by its members. This equivocal social position left them open to abuse, but at the same time meant that they could move freely around all sections of it while remaining at liberty to look after their own business and financial affairs in a way that a woman was not normally permitted to do. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the ambiguous status of such individuals with its benefits and limitations led a number of women involved in the arts to become acutely conscious of women's overall status. This led a number of them to become engaged in the campaign for the vote and for improvement of women's status. Groups such as the Actresses' Franchise League and the Artists' Suffrage League undertook collective action which others continued on an individual level throughout this period and into the second half of the nineteenth century as the campaign to improve women's status continued.

Emily Faithfull (1835-1895) was the youngest child of Reverend Ferdinand Faithfull, rector of Headley in Surrey, and his wife, Elizabeth Mary, on 27 May 1835. She was educated both at home in Headley, Surrey and at a boarding school in Kensington, from the age of 13 before being presented at court in 1857, aged 21. She was a member of the Langham Place Group. Emily had a keen interest in women's employment that later led her to write and give lectures on the subject. In 1859 she was a co-founder of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, together with Jessie Boucherett, Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes. Emily also served as secretary to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science's Committee in Nov 1859. Bessie Rayner Parkes was also a member of this committee and it was she who introduced Emily to the printing press. Emily founded her own printing house, The Victoria Press, in Mar 1860. It was a printing office for women typesetters, housed in Great Coram Street, later in Farringdon Street and then Praed Street, London. Emily being appointed Printer and Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty in 1862 acknowledged its success. From 1863 to 1880 she published and edited the 'Victoria Magazine' that became a voice for those championing women's employment. In 1864, due to her close friendship with his wife, Helen Jane, she was involved in the public scandal of the divorce case of Admiral (Sir) Henry Codrington that affected her public reputation. Emily became one of the first women to join the Women's Trade Union League, founded in 1875 by Emma Paterson. She also served as Treasurer to a girls' club in Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury and on moving to Manchester, ran the local branch of the Colonial Emigration Society. In 1872 Emily made her first visit to the United States where her talks were well received, she re-visited in 1882 and 1883-4 and produced a book entitled 'Three Visits to America' (Edinburgh, 1884) which compared the movements for women's work in England and America. She also published two novels. In 1874 Emily was involved in establishing the Women's Printing Society and a few years later, in founding 1877, the 'West London Express', which unfortunately only lasted eighteen months. Emily was on also the staff of the 'London Pictorial'. Ownership of 'The Victoria Press' was transferred to the Queen Printing and Publishing Company in Apr 1881. In the same year Emily helped found the International Musical, Dramatic and Literary Association, which was concerned with securing better protection through copyright. Emily was fortunate to receive £100 from the royal bounty in 1886 and from 1889 received an annual civil-list pension of £50. After suffering for many years with asthma and bronchitis, Emily died 31 May 1895 in Manchester aged sixty.

Alys Russell [née Whitall] (1867–1951) was the daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, a rich American Quaker, who left Philadelphia to settle in Surrey after scandal had forced him to relinquish his career as a charismatic evangelist. She had studied at Bryn Mawr College before the move from Philadelphia. The literary scholar (Lloyd) Logan Pearsall Smith was her brother. Alys was a Fabian Socialist. She married Bertrand Russell in 1894, his 1st wife, they divorced in 1921. She died in 1951.

Philippa Strachey (1872-1968), known as Pippa, was born in 1872 to Lady Jane Maria Strachey and Major Richard Strachey. She was brought up first in India, where her father was a leading figure in the administration, and then in London, where the family moved in 1879. Her mother was active in the movement for women's suffrage and both Philippa and her siblings were encouraged to contribute to this work. In 1906 she became a member of the executive committee of the Central Society for Women's Suffrage and the following year she was elected the secretary of its successor the London Society for Women's Suffrage. In 1906 she joined the London Society for Women's Suffrage, succeeding Edith Palliser as secretary the following year. It was also in 1907 that she joined her mother Lady Jane Maria Strachey in organising what became known as the 'Mud March' at the instigation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and which went from Hyde Park to the Exeter Hall to demand the vote. During the First World War she was deeply involved in various war works, from being the secretary of the Women's Service Bureau for War Workers to participating as a member of the Committee for the London units of the Scottish Women's Hospital from 1914-1919. This war work began her lasting involvement with the issue of women's employment and she remained the secretary of the Women's Service Bureau after 1918 when it became concerned with helping women thrown out of jobs on the return of men from the Front. She remained there until its dissolution, which came in 1922, caused by a financial crisis in the parent organisation. However, subsequently Strachey helped to found a new group to fill the gap, becoming the secretary and then honorary secretary of the Women's Employment Federation. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, family problems took up much of her time as she nursed both her mother and her brother Lytton until their deaths. However, all through this time she remained active in the London Society for Women's Service and when it was renamed the Fawcett Society in 1951, she was asked to be its honorary secretary. It was that year that she was awarded the CBE for her work for women. She subsequently was made a governor of Bedford College. Increasing ill-health slowed the pace of her work and blindness finally forced her to enter a nursing home at the end of her life. She died in 1968.

Access Information

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfiche only.

Other Finding Aids

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Alternative Form Available

A copy of this archive is available on microfilm held at The Women's Library.

Related Material

The Women's Library also holds records of the Actresses' Franchise League (2AFL) and the Artists' Suffrage League (2ASL). Other collections within Strand 9 which may be of interest include 9/07 Literary Ladies.