An Introduction to “A Driving Force: Women of the London, Ontario, Art Community 1867-2017”

by Nancy Geddes Poole, member, A Driving Force Advisory Committee

“Even in the beginning there was art at the forks of the Thames…drawn figures in charcoal and vermillion on the trunks of the trees…of men with deer heads”[1] and in the spirit of this website, I would like to believe these drawings were created by indigenous women.

Artists, teachers and schools, galleries and exhibitions, and finally, collectors and supporters, might be considered the four pillars sustaining our website. Acknowledging that it always begins with the artist, we find our first woman artist to be Lady Alexander who sketched a view of a steeplechase in London in 1843. However, our website begins in 1867; by that time several professional artists had arrived in the young city but no women were recorded among them. These men were engaged by the recently established Art School. [2] One of these teachers is credited with developing china painting as a business and at one time there were nearly one hundred women employed painting china in a nationally recognized, thriving industry in London.[3]

We were astonished and delighted to discover that, in the economic depression of the 1890s, it was women who came to the rescue of the Art School, which was struggling to survive. Five women from the Women’s Art Club, organized the previous year, were invited to sit on the board of the School.[4]

Another happy result of the art school, and private classes given by the professional art teachers in the community, was that talented young ladies were winning prizes at the annual art exhibition at the Western Fair. Several continued their art education abroad returning to sell and exhibit their work for the pleasure of the growing number of art enthusiasts and collectors in the community.

However, it is not until the twentieth century and the appearance of three people, Mackie Cryderman, Elsie Perrin Williams and Wilhelmina McIntosh that we can truly comprehend the powerful role women played.

Mackie Cryderman created Beal Art and made it one of the foremost art schools in Canada. She also made a major contribution as an advisor to the unique art programme begun later at Fanshawe College.

Elsie Perrin Williams loved art and was determined that London would have a public gallery. Despite the twists and turns of years of litigation concerning her Will, eventually concluding with an Act of the Provincial Legislature, she gave us the London Art Museum, known today as Museum London.

Wilhelmina McIntosh, an art lover and collector, on her death left $50,000 to the University to give us the McIntosh Gallery, the jewel in Western’s crown.

How could we forget a fourth woman, Eleanor Somerville who, in 1955 at the request of the chief curator of the London Gallery, organized a women’s committee similar to that enjoyed by the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). Within a year she had, indeed, assembled “A Driving Force” that, for more than fifty years, raised funds not only for the purchase of important art for the London collection but also spearheaded the construction at the forks of the Thames, of the new Gallery, now Museum London.

These women, with the exception of Mackie Cryderman, were not artists, but their vision, energy and determination have created and sustained a thriving art community in London for nearly ninety years. They were, indeed, “A Driving Force”.

“It’s becoming almost a cliché for museums and galleries to tout exhibitions of underappreciated female artists getting their due later in life, but the fact is that generations of women have indeed been neglected and left out of the mainstream narratives,” observed Lindsay Pollock in her Editor’s letter in the September 2016 edition of Art in America. So, in recognition of this, A Driving Force: Women of the London, Ontario Art Community 1867-2017 is a website created to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Canada and the seventy-fifth birthday of McIntosh Gallery at Western University. A coterie of people is compiling the names of women from the past and present whose stories may be found on this website which will continue as an important resource long into the future.

[1] Nancy Geddes Poole,  The Art of London, (London: Blackpool Press 1984), p. 1.

[2] Poole, The Art of London, p.31.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.