Art and Opportunity


Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a foot soldier in the British women’s suffrage movement

A woman’s role in society and social justice interest me and I like to explore these issues in my writing. Recently I went to the cinema to see Suffragette and I was pleased to see that the working class perspective was also highlighted, not just the work of the Pankhurst family and other wealthy women.

Films like Suffragette show how far we’ve come in the pursuit of the right to vote and yet one of the most poignant scenes for me was at the end when a timeline showed how it was much later that women finally achieved suffrage on equal grounds to men in other countries.

mswwebgraphic-470x664px-fa2The opportunities available to women was again on my mind when I went to Edinburgh to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition at the National Galleries for Scotland and attended an excellent illustrated talk delivered by Alice Strang, senior curator, who selected the works for the exhibition. During the presentation, Alice explained that many of the extremely talented female artists had their careers cut short due to the Marriage Bar preventing them from continuing to hold a teaching post after their marriage.


Hard to pick a favourite but this stunning self-portrait by Doris Zinkeisen stood out.

This seems outrageous and quite shocking these days but although times have changed, I wonder to what degree women of all backgrounds have the same chance to make it as an artist. Many of the women artists featured in the exhibition had come from privileged backgrounds, with parents who were artists themselves and who could afford the tuition fees for art school and trips to Paris for life drawing classes, had access to studios and materials and no real necessity to earn a wage to support a family.


A dreich day made brighter by a fantastic exhibition.

Fast forward a hundred years to 1985, the era of my novel, Talk of the Toun, and the main character Angela is a gifted artist who desperately wants to go to Glasgow Art School. So what’s the problem? She’s hoping to leave the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path but her parents want her to get a job straight from school, just as they did.

‘Listen hen, ah enjoy making ma nail pictures but it’s a hobby. Ah ken you like tae draw and paint but that’s no something that’ll pay the bills.’

‘It’s mair than a hobby.’

‘It’s awright for the likes of Mr McDougall tae fill yer heid with ideas but he’s no living in the real world. What kinda of job could you get after art school?’

‘Ah could be a graphic designer or a portrait painter or an art teacher or…’

‘Wheesht, when was the last time you saw any of those jobs advertised in The Falkirk Herald?’

‘But there are loads of careers with a degree in art, you can…’

‘Look, yer dad kens what’s best for you, no Mr McDougall. Ah cannae see you in amongst arty farty folk. And ah wouldnae want you tae be disappointed when you couldnae fit in.’

Thirty years on, are things any easier in 2015? I’m not convinced that Angela’s dilemma no longer exists. The talk was free but to visit the exhibition I spent £9.40 on a train ticket and entrance admission of £9 so not a lot of change from a twenty pound note. I’m lucky that I can afford to indulge my interests but how many aspiring artists from a deprived area could access the event and be inspired?