Author(s): Thomasin Sleigh
Ruth Bishops is an independent woman in her mid-30s attempting to shape a place for herself in the art world of London in the 1950s. Always interested in drawing, and encouraged by her aunt, she has attended the Slade Art School thanks to a small inheritance. Her time there is disrupted by the war, but she finishes her in the late 40s, her talents being in writing about art and critiquing her fellows’ work. With a small amount of attention garnered from a book she has written on contemporary art, she gains a position at the Fisher Gallery as a keeper: to catalogue the collection, research, and assist with exhibitions. Here, she finds herself in a role she loves, but also in a patriarchal institution where she has to prove herself over and above her male counterparts and is often relegated to overlooked or plainly ignored when it comes to input and meetings. When a retiring director makes her the English advisor* (partly out of spite for his nemesis) to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, things take an unexpected turn in her rather planned and predictable life. At an exhibition opening she is introduced to an eccentric Russian emigre, Irina Durova, who, on hearing of her role as an advisor, starts to badger Ruth about viewing her work. Eventually, Ruth gives in and arranges to visit Irina’s studio, where she finds a vast array of work spanning several decades. Drawn to two paintings from Irina’s final days in Russia (she migrated to London in 1913), she suggests these to committee at the National Art Gallery, having little hope that they will take her advice. Yet, despite controversy, they do. Irina and Ruth’s relationship develops as they plan the process of getting the works to New Zealand, and surprisingly Irina insists they accompany the works to Wellington. Ruth, who is having difficulties at the Fisher due to petty jealousies and office politics, as well as class and gender prejudices, is happy to have a change of scene, and finds herself on the way to the southern climes. Thomasin Sleigh has written a compelling novel, cleverly blending factual details into this fictional work. The historical references are light-handed, sometimes sharply amusing and fitting, placing this story well in its period. Her prose style is apt: the tone and language feel just right for the time. The two female leads are both convincing: Irina - a hive of conflicting impulses and an off-handedness that points to a deception; and Ruth - a seemingly naive yet highly observant individual who has grit at her core. Yet this is more than a story of two women making their mark on the page, more than a story of two paintings and their meaning: Sleigh is talking about colonisation, immigration, class and gender. As an art writer, she brings insight and knowledge to this interesting period and shows how art can be a catalyst for changing attitudes. Women in the Field, One and Two (a wonderfully playful title) is a novel that is both thoughtful and provocative, a missive about the art world and creative female practice now, as much as it is about the 1950s. Issues of paternalism, prejudice and favouritism still abound. What does it take and what do you give up to be free and creative? As Irina states: “I kept going and I wouldn’t go back. I had to make it work, because...because that was all I could do. I didn’t know that there were special rules, a special game, about whose art gets seen and whose art is remembered.” The most compelling New Zealand novel I have read this year: clever, witty and engaging.
(*the gallery had English advisors until 1972.)