Rose English: Forms, Feminisms and Femininities

1 March – 13 April 2019

There is loosely turned earth, packed tightly into the frame. It is mounded and grooved; grainless but fertile and waiting.

Granularity pervades: it is difficult to decipher where the marked film of 1971 begins and the puckered, ploughed surface of the ground ends. It is shadow play in miniature and then stretched out across a mass of horizontal furrows to an indiscernible horizon. Two people lie, part buried, in that earth. Plumy duvets encase them. I look at those striped covers and back to the furrows.

This is Rose English. with her then partner.

Bed in Field (1971), six images in total, framed and hung in a line, is modest in scale. Much of the work here is – it clings to the walls and wagers you to step closer: anatomies in ceramic with splayed vaginas, baby festooned period interiors in collage (Baroque Ruby 1, 2 & 3, 1973), miniature ballet shoes (Study for a Divertissement: Diana with crinoline and pointe shoes I, 1973) and love-heart-shielded groins (Study for a Divertissement: Diana and porcelain lace veil, 1973). And beyond those renderings of rough ploughed fields, it is all flesh and adornment: veils, lace, porcelain, feathers pervade the work, ‘materials and colours formerly denigrated as “feminine,” are here in the work of English, work that ‘exchanges stylistic derivation for a convincing insight into a potential female culture.[1]

Women. Women in houses in south London, women in ice rinks and swimming pools and dancing between these spaces. Dancing, performing, inhabiting in 1970, 1971, 1972’ assembling as SLAG and WU and WLW, SLWC[2] in spaces of their making; to make things. The ‘unauthored’[3] declaration the personal is political permeated, directly or indirectly, women-only shows in houses and libraries and public spaces, in disused shops, shifting from an early first wave feminist ideas of sexual neutrality[4], to ‘establish a sympathetic environment and a critical forum where work can be developed and understood on its own terms.’[5] Rose English and fellow artists of the early 70s including Kate Walker and Sue Madden performed, shackled in, and breaking through, their personal experience, and their very sense of womanhood and sexuality.

English is best known for performative work, but that medium also absorbed installation, costume and ceramics and was captured through photography and film: moments from performances like Study for a Divertissement: Diana and porcelain lace veil, 1973, are captured in five photographs that present a woman (English?), behind a line of rigid, white and intricate porcelain veils that hinder our view of her and if it were not for the detailed title, would seem like the domestic accoutrement of laundry, innately feminised in time immemorial. Of the original performance for this work, English wrote ‘as the curtain rose the performance area was revealed – hanging in the centre of the space was a lace veil made of porcelain. Behind the veil, on the floor, was a large feather mattress covered in ticking and tied up with a stain ribbon.The veil and the curtain tap into ideas of concealment and revelation, which the work alludes to again and again in the show as a system of communication. Porcelain-covered genitalia and duvet bundled bodies and fragments of form speak of control and intention in terms of self-representation and what one keeps back, for herself. English claims authorship and is subject through this work, in opposition to the pervasive dissection and voyeurism in forms of visual language in history. It is significant therefore that English’s last show at Richard Saltoun was Women Looking at Women in 2018.

The exhibition climaxes in English’s 1988 performance piece Plato’s Chair, played on a large screen in the centre of the gallery. Throughout the hour and a half long narrative-less opera/performance, English assumes various poses and costumes that are historically ‘feminine’ – the sleeping beauty, the pensive quiet woman, most famously the part when she dons a horse’s tail and ears and laps the room to something like a traditional waltz. The nothingness of the event – its culmination in no heroic action or revelation – is just the point: ‘I see that it is problematic to make an entertaining evening out of nothing at all’ English says at one point looking comically concerned. The Artist’s means of resistance is her seeming adherence to and then sudden refusal of the roles assigned to women.

Study for a Divertissement: Diana and Porcelain Lace Veil, 1973

The exhibition is the first part of the gallery’s year-long programme titled 100% Women. And this is noteworthy: English’s work marks a significant moment for the Women’s Movement of the 1970s when ‘the personal is political’ had permeated mainstream consciousness and ruffled feathers but also celebrates English’s personal contribution to the Movement, which at times, has been overlooked.

But the show comes with its own subtext – right now, women sell. So the implicit commodification and sloganisation of art by 100% Women, in its printed matter and cheap tote bags, is depressingly reductive and chimes with the feminism homogonised and printed on t-shirts at Dior and thrown about like buzzwords for the menacing mouth of google, its algorithmic organs stirring our Instagram feeds. Half of the programme, it becomes clear, when I flick through said matter, is made up of ‘online exhibitions’ and so won’t actually appear in this pseudo-public physical space.

The erotic, as Audre Lorde said, ‘has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation’ bred by capitalism. So beyond the propaganda of this programme, the performative and self-reflexive at work in these works – women looking at women, women looking at themselves – is important still, always, now more than ever perhaps, particularly in a world oversaturated by modes of sexualisation bred by a mounting capitalism. There is a bravery in those pink plumes, that pink skin.

Read more on Richard Saltoun’s website.


[1] Lucy Lippard, Projecting a Feminist Criticism, P337

[2]  SLAG (South London Artists’ Group) and WU (Women’s Union) and WLM (Women’s Liberation Workshop), SLWC (South London Women’s Centre)

[3] This phrase arose during second-wave feminism from the late 1960, but nobody wanted to take ownership of this (explain).

[4] Lisa Tickner – Walker, ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Housewife’ p45 Artillery Lane pub

[5] Lisa Tickner – Walker, ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Housewife’ p45 Artillery Lane pub

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