Inspiring women: Jessie M. King
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Although raised in a strictly religious household where she was discouraged from making art, the Scottish painter and designer Jessie M. King (1875-1949) not only managed to gain a good art education and to establish a long and successful career, but she it made her mission to inspire other women (through teaching, lecturing, and mentoring), encouraging them to believe in their creativity and personal right to pursue art careers. Her own work, rooted in folklore and fairy tales, was born out of an intensely personal vision, and played a part in the development of Art Nouveau; and, later on, in the Art Deco movement.
King was educated at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1890s, during it's heyday as a center of Art Nouveau; it was one of the few art institutions that admitted women at that time, and that took their work just as seriously as men's. She then taught at the school, while embarking on a career in book illustration and design. In 1908, she married fellow artist E.A. Taylor, and in 1910, the couple moved to Paris -- where they ran The Shearling Atelier for Fine and Applied Art (as well as a summer school on the Isle of Arran) until the First World War.
When the war forced King and Taylor to return home to Scotland, they settled down in the fishing village of Kirkcudbright. I tend to think of Kirkcudbright as the Chagford of its day, for it was home to numerous artists, many influenced by the Art Nouveau moment and (as was common in that movement) who also shared King's interest in myth, folklore, and magic. Both King and her husband viewed art-making as a quasi-magical, deeply spiritual endeavor...and King herself was an ardent believer in fairies. Her art, she said, came from her inner vision of the unseen world that resides within nature.
Green Gate Close, where King and Taylor lived, soon became an important centre for women artists, with King (as always) supporting and inspiring many other artists around her, while also producing an astonishing amount of gorgeous work herself. Like William Morris (another hero of mine), she didn't limit herself to one medium but allowed her vision to flow into every corner of her work and her life. She painted, illustrated, wrote, designed jewelry and ceramics, was instrumental in bringing the art of batik to Great Britain; she designed textiles and metal-work and furniture and rooms, both alone and in collaboration with her husband.
Had I access to a trust-worthy Time Machine, of all the places and times I would like to travel back to, Kirkcudbright in the 1920s and '30s is high on the list...for although there are many arts circles I find fascinating (the Pre-Raphaelite circle of Morris and Rossetti, for example), it is rare to find one with a strong coterie of women artists at the center. I'd love to have been one of those young women showing up on King's doorstep, a portfolio under my arm....
More information on Jessie King can be found in Jude Burkhauser's excellent book Glasgow Girls: Women in Art & Design 1880 - 1920. There's also a biography by Colin White, The Enchanted World of Jessie M. King, which sounds completely fascinating -- but alas, I can't vouch for it personally as I've not yet found a copy I can afford! King's work can be viewed online on the Art Passions website, and on the Jessie M. King blog. It's also possible to visit King and Taylor's old home in Kirkcudbright, which is now The Greengate B&B.