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March 22, 2021

Women in Design: The Influence of The Glasgow Girls

Kathryn Shanks
Women in Design: The Influence of The Glasgow Girls
Next in our series about influential women in design, we look at the Glasgow Girls, a group of women in the early twentieth century who excelled in the art scene before they could even vote.

Part of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, the Glasgow Girls got their collective name from the school they studied at, the Glasgow School of Art, though they were by and large individual artists. Even sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald (later Mackintosh and MacNair respectively), who were half of the Glasgow Four alongside their partners in their early careers, forged individual paths as they grew older. Their similarities arose not just in their alma mater, but in their skill and success in the face of a male-dominated industry and society.

The Macdonald sisters were the most renowned of the Glasgow Girls, having opened an independent studio and receiving international acclaim when they exhibited with their husbands at the 1900 Secessionist exhibition in Vienna. From stylised graphic design to textiles and metalwork, Margaret and Frances pioneered the Art Nouveau style, and their designs – particularly those exhibited in Vienna – influenced the works of Gustav Klimt. Margaret’s gesso and textile panels were highly popular in Europe, while Frances’ sometimes haunting designs evoked an ethereality and, later, disillusionment. Though both artists were eclipsed in their time by their husbands’ popularity, they have been increasingly recognised as integral to the Art Nouveau movement.

Ann Macbeth is perhaps less famous than the Macdonald sisters, but she was an exceptional artist, educator, and activist of her time. She worked in many mediums, from book design and metalwork to carpets and embroidery, and taught at the Glasgow School of Art as the head of the embroidery and needlework department. She published several books on crafts, including Educational Needlecraft (1911), which remained a textbook on the Scottish curriculum until the 1950s. Macbeth was also a dedicated suffragette, producing two banners for the cause and even being imprisoned for militant activism, although the nature of her actions is unknown. She was an advocate for women’s financial independence, encouraging women to design and create their own clothes using ‘humble materials’.

The Glasgow Girls as a category included many more wonderful women, such as Jessie Marion King, Eleanor Allen Moore, Annie French, and Norah Neilson Gray, all of whom made their impact on the art history canon. We focused on Ann Macbeth and Margaret and Frances Macdonald because we believe they are incredible representatives of the talent, renown, and formidability of these early-twentieth-century artists, deserving of just as much fame as their male counterparts in the Art Nouveau style.

If you liked this article, keep an eye out for the rest of our series throughout March as we spotlight influential women in design. You can also read our introduction to the series here.

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