Here at Special Collections we hold material, including correspondence, press cuttings and photographs, pertaining to the highly influential Scottish artist, Jessie Marion King. She was born in Glasgow on the 20th of March 1875 and died in Kirkcudbright, where she lived with her husband, E.A. Taylor, for many years, on the 3rd of August 1949. As such, the month of August this year marks 70 years since her death and thus seems an appropriate occasion for delving deeper into her story.
As a recent graduate in History/Philosophy, I have approached Jessie M. King with a background of and an interest in gender history, and taken this as an opportunity to explore our collection and in turn, reflect upon the position of women in a creative, yet arguably male-dominated, sphere in 19th and 20th century Scotland. It is important, sometimes, to view history through a particular lens – one which seeks to understand the gendering process broadly, but also to recognise the intersectionality of circumstances and identities.
In 1892 King attended the Glasgow School of Art, continuing her studies there for seven years before going on to teach Book Design in 1902, whilst running summer workshops on the Isle of Arran. She is perhaps best known for her illustrations and book designs, but she turned her hand to many mediums including designing jewellery, ceramics, wallpapers and fabrics. Notably, GSA was a progressive institution, opening its doors to women three years after its establishment in 1845, and at the turn of the century, had entered its so-called ‘golden era’. This co-occurred with the period of artistic prosperity in Glasgow as it experienced the changes and developments associated with vast industrialisation, which saw the emergence of the ‘Glasgow Style’ headed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow Four and a host of others, including King, whose work reflected shared characteristics. Significantly, from 1905 onwards, King was an active member of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists, which was founded in 1882 with the purpose of gaining recognition for deserving women in the field. Her position within and support for this society points towards her strife to succeed as a woman in art and her desire to enable other women to have similar opportunity.
MS Gen 1654/603: Lady Artists – a press cutting from the Bulletin Glasgow: offers congratulations to the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists on an exhibition, paying compliments to various female artists including Jessie King. Comments on her ‘delightful sense of arrangement and happy colour’.
Kirkcudbright, a relatively small fishing town in south-west Scotland, emerged as an ‘artists’ town’ in the mid-19th century. At the forefront was E.A. Hornel alongside other artists predominantly hailing from Glasgow or Dumfries & Galloway, including King’s husband, E.A. Taylor. However, King’s role in this community should neither be understated, nor entirely amalgamated with her husband’s. In 1915, King and Taylor returned from Paris, where they had lived and worked, to settle in Kirkcudbright following her purchase of Greengate and its close some years prior.
MS Gen 1654/490: Kirkcudbright as portrayed by Helen Johnstone (b. 1888-d.1931), a member of the coterie, in her artwork: ‘Rosy-cheeked children, playing on greenery-yellowery grass, blue skies with a foam of white clouds, and a country-side dappled with shadows but flooded with light – these were the temptations to visit Kirkcudbright’.
By the 1920s, King had established what was termed the ‘Greengate Close coterie’, whereby coterie means a small group of people who share exclusive interests, and in this instance, were all female. She played a pivotal role, therefore, in establishing a strong female network comprised of like-minded artists at different stages in their careers and, more broadly, their lives, existing at the centre of a burgeoning artists’ community. It is clear that King was a notable figure in Kirkcudbright, and her home came to be described as ‘one of the features of Kirkcudbright’s art colony’ (MS Gen 1654/704).
MS Gen 1654/490: Women Artists in the South: ‘Their habitat was the Garden of Green Gate, which is the centre of women artists’ coterie, and gathers the homes of the Close about it just as a hen enfolds its chicks under its wing’.
It is a privilege to be able to peruse this collection and consequently gain an insight into King’s life from her position as an influential female artist, and more specifically, to understand the lasting impact she and the community she belonged to had on both past and present-day Kirkcudbright. Examples of past artistry can be found around the town, symbolising the identity formed in 1850, and demonstrating the community’s far-reaching inspiration and long-lasting impact. King’s residence now operates as a B&B, standing as a commemoration of the lives of her, her husband and the women of the ‘Greengate Close coterie’ to some degree. Importantly, I believe, this serves to reinforce the gravity of preserving history as a lived phenomenon.
Jessie Marion King worked tirelessly to inspire and encourage other women through teaching, lecturing and mentoring: her provision of advice and guidance, as well as her own talent and individual flair, went some way in strengthening the heart of the artists’ community in Kirkcudbright. Inspired by and intertwined with the Art Nouveau movement, she arguably sought to break down the barriers between fine arts and applied arts, and those that stood in front of female success.
An interesting observation? MS Gen 1654/414: Women and their Work – press cutting from unidentified Glasgow source featuring an article about an exhibition in the city displaying King’s illustration work. However, what struck me as an unrelated but interesting (and perhaps somewhat telling) discovery featured in another article printed on the same page. This detailed the findings and conclusions of the Scottish Council for Women’s Trade annual report, with the key discovery being that women were not receiving wages proportionate to their labour.
For more on Jessie Marion King, see here: