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Shannon Hunter Hurtado, Genteel Mavericks

Professional Women Sculptors in Victorian Britain
Béatrice Laurent
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Shannon Hunter Hurtado, Genteel Mavericks. Professional Women Sculptors in Victorian Britain. Bern, Peter Lang, 2012. 348 p. ISBN: 978-3034307567

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1In this book, the twenty-seventh volume in the CISRA (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts) series edited by J.-B. Bullen, the author aims to revitalise four eminent Victorian female sculptors, who may have otherwise faded into oblivion. Through a meticulous examination of unpublished letters, papers and diaries of Mary Grant, Amelia Paton Hill, Susan Durant and Mary Thornycroft, Shannon Hunter Hurtado gives flesh to their names. The author shows how these four artists dealt with personal and professional dilemmas, how they negotiated middle-class expectations and endeavoured to extend the limits of what was considered appropriate behaviour for a lady of the nineteenth century.

2Contemporary portrayals of female sculptors by novelists, critics, journalists and colleagues help the reader to contextualise the struggles the four women undertook in order to obtain admission at the Royal Academy, to become ‘Career Women’, and to gain both recognition and respect.

3Rather surprisingly, Hurtado’s analysis demonstrates that these female sculptors who ‘stood at the leading edge of the confrontation between the dominant culture . . . and the emergent feminist movement’ (3) enjoyed substantial success and accolade during their lifetimes. Their very location in that culturally stimulating moment of history makes their lives and works significant as examples of assimilation of two major trends, the paternalist mainstream and the feminist counterstream. The author shows that Grant, Paton Hill, Durant and Thornycroft as partly from affluent families enjoyed the prestige, fortune and privilege of the upper classes. Their wealth and connections made their unconsciously feminist claims more acceptable and served the whole community of female artists.

4Hurtado’s book is therefore a valuable addition to Victorian studies scholarship not only for the sake of four largely forgotten women artists but also because the results suggest that being female, these four outstanding sculptors had the power to negotiate and use their positions to instigate change. Their recession in the shadows of art history seems therefore due to twentieth-century scorn of Victorian art more than to their contemporaries’ gender bias which has been vastly explored and exploited but yet may have been less severe than their class prejudice. Indeed, the ‘Genteel Quartet’ earned comfortable incomes from their work, some of which was commissioned by Queen Victoria herself and were ‘self-consciously professional sculptors’ (7). Hurtado’s book goes against the grain of twentieth-century Victorian scholarship and demonstrates that nineteenth-century gender prejudice was somewhat overestimated.

5In Pen, Pencil and Poison, Oscar Wilde famously wrote that ‘There are many historians, or at least writers on historical subjects, who still think it necessary to apply moral judgments to history, and who distribute their praise or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster’. If historians victimised Victorian women, Shannon Hunter Hurtado showcases four notable exceptions, and in doing so, encourages a new candid re-interrogation of archive material in the vein of Matthew Smith’s Inventing the Victorians (2001).

6Instead of lazily accepting ideas and judgements fabricated in the twentieth century, Hurtado paves the way for a fresh, positive, assertive re-evaluation of what it meant to be a self-supporting woman professional in the nineteenth century. This book is a wonderful addition to the CISRA series and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in Victorian culture.

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Béatrice Laurent, « Shannon Hunter Hurtado, Genteel Mavericks »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 02 avril 2015, consulté le 24 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Béatrice Laurent

Université des Antilles et de la Guyane

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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