Women in Print: Two New Volumes Examining Women’s Impact on Print Culture


Rose Roberto

Rose Roberto is a part-time Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Teaching Resources Librarian at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK. Her masters in library and information science is from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her PhD in history of the book is from the University of Reading. Her current research examines the intersection of visual culture and educational publishing, and the hidden histories related to race, gender and class embedded in the material culture of the transnational book trade during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She was series editor for the Art Researches’ Guides ’to different cities in the UK and Ireland (2011–2017), and a contributor to the award-winning Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Vol. 2 (Finkelstein, 2020), and Circulation and Control: Artistic Culture and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century (Delamaire and Slauter, 2021). She is a Fellow of the HEA. 

Back in September 2018, when I should have been concentrating on finalizing my PhD thesis due two weeks later, I participated in a conference held at the University of Birmingham entitled, ‘Women in Print.’ The event saw scholars present research on historical women and their impact on the printing and publishing trades, as well as on print culture in general.  Unfortunately, the majority of women we discussed had names that are not well-known today because subsequent narratives of them in the historical record either neglected and undervalued their work, or deliberately obscured them. Most of us who attended this conference were impressed by the level of scholarship that had been conducted, and plans were made the following year to publish Women in Print, a collection of essays in two related volumes. In 2022, these volumes were issued as part of the ‘Printing History and Culture’ series published by Peter Lang.

Women in Print 2: Production, Distribution and Consumption and Women in Print 1: Design and Identities

The first volume co-edited by Artemis Alexiou (York St John University) and myself, will be of particular interest for members of the Romantic Illustration Network. Women in Print 1: Design and Identities contains eleven chapters incorporating case studies of design aspects of a printed work, or more broadly about design issues related to the business of publishing. It also contains chapters focused on specific individuals and their career as female artists, compositors, editors, engravers, photographers, printers, publishers, scribes, stationers, typesetters, widows-in-business, and writers. It offers an examination of women as active participants and contributors in the many and varied aspects of design and print culture, including the production of illustrations, typefaces, periodical layouts, photographic prints and bound works. Several of the women profiled in this volume lived and worked during the Romantic period, roughly between 1750 and  1850. This volume covers the visual material that they produced.

The second related volume, Women in Print 2: Production, Distribution and Consumption contains chapters covering professional relationships between two or more women or a business network in which aspects of their roles in production, distribution and consumption of the printing trade are explored and further analysed. It was co-edited by Caroline Archer-Parré of Birmingham City University and Christine Moog of the Parsons School of Design in New York. Series editor John Hinks is also credited because of his work organising the conference and guiding the manuscripts through delays, mainly caused by two years of a world-wide pandemic, to publication.

My own chapter, ‘Working Women: Female Contributors to Chambers’s Encyclopaedia’ appears as Chapter 6 in this related volume. My search for women authors through time and through archives (spanning Philadelphia to Edinburgh, and London to Manchester) led me to discover some twenty-five female encyclopaedia contributors. As well as considering these women, my chapter traces the evolving process throughout the 1800s whereby the status of women as professionals in various fields developed. Like museums, encyclopaedia are heavily curated through a selection of topics, encapsulating a specific time, place and world-view. They also reflect evidence of particular narratives of history, science and culture. Since the Scottish publishing firm, W. & R. Chambers was significant, their edited works and attitudes are good indicators of the status quo for publishers of the time. 

Various volumes from both the first and second editions of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia at Chetham’s Library, Manchester. Photo by Rose Roberto.

Although I could not cover all twenty-five contributors in my chapter, ‘Working Women’ does highlight the writings of six authors found in different editions of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, first published between 1859 to 1868, and 1888 through 1892.  Three encyclopaedia entry authors, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), and Carrie Burnham Kilgore (1838-1909), are well-known in their fields of nursing and mathematics, and as advocates for women’s rights and women’s higher education, respectively. Three other writers are from an earlier period and are less-known, but made a living from their writing. Isa Craig Knox (1831-1903) is considered a late, minor Romantic period poet;  Lucy Cumming Smith (1818-1881) and Elise Otté (1818-1903) both translated history and literature and were published authors. My chapter briefly summarises the lives of these six women and their relationship with publishers, notably the relationship with the Chambers publishing firm. I highlight how they were commissioned to write encyclopaedia entries and contrast the fact that Craig Knox, Cumming Smith, and Otté were hired more on account of their writing and translating skills, whereas Garrett Fawcett, Kilgore and Nightingale were commissioned for their subject expertise. Clearly both groups of women were all capable writers and subject experts, but their commissions expose how publishers had different priorities and criteria with regards to employing women at the beginning of the nineteenth century and towards its close.

The chapter also reflects my fascination with the social networks each woman developed throughout her life. In the case of Nightingale, her professional relationship with Sir Douglas Galton (1822-1899) was the reason that W. & R. Chambers had contact with her. There are numerous stories of women and their work in both volumes of Women in Print. The volumes provide a fresh perspective on well and lesser-known women, spotlighting their individual involvement with the printing and publishing trade. Volume one makes an effort to discuss gender, class, and sexuality as a means of expanding knowledge and understanding of intersectional design practices, whilst volume two’s essays focus on women involved in on the business side of publishing, namely as producers and distributors operating through extensive business networks.  It also examines women’s consumption of printed material.

Together, these collections of essays show that women were always present and have been actively involved in numerous fields across print culture. While most histories until the last forty to fifty years often treat women’s histories ‘as outstanding anomalies’ in cultural and professional fields dominated by men, the aim of the scholarship here is to approach the lives of women – and writing about their lives – as part of a process which reveals complex individual histories. (1) We hope you take the opportunity to read Women in Print and will encourage your library to purchase the volumes. 


The second blog post in this series is by Hannah Lyons, Assistant Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. Hannah shares excerpts from her chapter on the print and publishing life of Letitia Byrne, another wonderful contribution to Women In Print Volume 1. The piece can be read here: https://romanticillustrationnetwork.com/2023/01/25/women-printmakers-in-the-eighteenth-century-exploring-the-print-and-publishing-life-of-letitia-byrne-in-women-in-print/

(1) Alexiou and Roberto, “Introduction” in Women In Print 1 (2022, p.3)

Women Printmakers in the Eighteenth Century: exploring the print and publishing life of Letitia Byrne in Women in Print

Hannah Lyons

Hannah Lyons is Assistant Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. She undertook her MA at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York, and her PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her thesis was titled: ‘“exercising the ART as a TRADE”: Professional Women Printmakers in London, 1750-1850’. Previously she has worked at Tate Britain and Christ Church Picture Gallery, University of Oxford.

This post contains excerpts from Hannah’s chapter ‘Letitia Byrne (1779-1849) and the “prejudice against employing women as engravers”’ in Women in Print 1: Design and Identities.

In the West End of London, running north between Oxford Street and Great Portland Street, lies the half-mile stretch known as Great Titchfield Street. Now thronged with expensive restaurants, media companies, and the occasional, historic garment store, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Great Titchfield Street was the home to several artists families. Among the residents were the Scheemakers’ (sculptors, at No.18); the Bartolozzis’ (printmakers and printsellers, at No.81), the Rigauds’ (painters, at No.101), and, of particular interest to me, the Byrne family of engravers (at No.85). (1)

I was 2.5 miles from Great Titchfield Street, in the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the V&A in South Kensington, when I first encountered the Byrne family. I was a few months into my PhD research, sifting through solander box after solander box with only a 1970s typewritten list of object references as a guide, when I came across this print, clearly signed ‘Etched by Letitia Byrne’. The print was a fine topographical etching, made by a highly capable hand, after a drawing by the painter, George Samuel (fl.1785-1823).

Letitia Byrne, after George Samuel, A Cross at Clearwell, Gloucestershire, engraving with etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, E.609-1966.

As I outline in my chapter published in Women in Print 1: Design and Identities, co-edited by Rose Roberto and Artemis Alexiou, I was quick to realise that Letitia Byrne’s extensive career (which I discovered spanned over fifty years), has been poorly documented. The information that I began to garner about her role and status within the burgeoning British art world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was primarily obtained through historical accounts that focus on her male relatives: her father, William Byrne (1743-1805), and her younger brother, John Byrne (1786-1847).

Indeed, despite the vast literature that exists on print culture, there are very few publications dedicated to those women – like Letitia Byrne – who worked in this historically male preserve, usually via familial and workshop networks, particularly those practicing in Britain in the long eighteenth century. (2) In recent years, as members of the Romantic Illustration Network will be aware, specialists have acknowledged that men and women played significant roles in the print trade. Antony Griffiths explains when discussing his methodology for his seminal book, The Print Before Photography (2016): ‘I have also abbreviated by referring to engravers, artists, and collectors as “he” rather than “he or she”, which would be more accurate.’ (3)

Aligned with, but separate from this, is the treatment of women printmakers in feminist art historical scholarship. Although feminist scholars have made important and significant progress in reconstructing the careers and output of women artists, this attention has largely focused on women working in media typically held in higher regard than print, such as painting and sculpture. The output of women artists such as Letitia Byrne, who made their living creating ‘reproductive’ prints, has been overlooked in favour of recovering and reconstructing the lives of women who created ‘original’ works of art. Women printmakers who made reproductive prints, then, have been triply marginalised in art historical scholarship because of their gender, their choice of media, and their seemingly uncreative work.

As outlined in Rose Roberto’s recent RIN blog, writing a chapter for Women in Print allowed me to dive deeper into Letitia Byrne’s lifecycle and examine her role and status in the British art world, as well as her prolific output. What I discovered was that Byrne lived as a young girl on Great Titchfield Street, where she was trained by her father, the engraver, William Byrne. William was one of those British printmakers who had witnessed and participated in London’s transition from a market of continental imports and artistic obscurity in the early half of the eighteenth century, to its dominance of the international print market, becoming the most important centre for the production of new prints. It was in the traditional setting of his family home-cum-workshop that William taught all his five children (four girls and one boy) the techniques of etching and engraving.

By 1795, aged only fourteen or fifteen years old, Letitia Byrne was co-authoring prints with her father. She started exhibiting topographical and landscape watercolours at the Royal Academy of Arts, and she undertook engraving commissions from larger print publishers such as Cadell and Davies. My chapter covers her career, from the circulation of her prints to her personal and professional connections with artists and patrons. As Roberta and Alexiou point out in their Introduction, my chapter uses Letitia Byrne as a lens onto ‘the practical realities of living in a male-centered society … revealing the difficult decisions the female members had to make when assuming leadership and wage earning roles.’ (4)

Letitia Byrne, after John Byrne, Frogmore, Windsor, engraving with etching, published by WB Cooke, 9 Soho Square, and John Byrne, 54 Upper John Street, Soho. London October 1 1823. © Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 700903.

For those of you who are interested in reading more about Byrne’s overlooked but extensive output, do consult Women in Print, where several other fascinating case studies of women’s multilayered engagement with print culture can be found. And for those of you in London who would like to see some of Byrne’s exquisite prints in the flesh, ‘Print and Prejudice: Women Printmakers, 1700-1930’ is a free display currently at the V&A drawn from my PhD research: Print and Prejudice: Women Printmakers, 1700 – 1930 – Display at South Kensington · V&A (vam.ac.uk) (open until 1 May 2023). Spanning more than two centuries, this display highlights around 80 prints made by 18 different women printmakers, all from the museum’s collection. It reveals the diverse challenges and opportunities that these women faced. And crucially, it hopefully communicates to the general public how these artists shared in the long struggle for status in an art world that has too often seen print as a secondary, primarily reproductive medium.

Though the marketing title evokes the famous work of a rather well-known woman author, it is also a reference to Letitia Byrne’s complaint that she experienced: ‘a prejudice against employing female engravers.’ (5) It is hoped that this chapter, and the concurrent display, can bring Letitia Byrne’s life and work to both familiar and unfamiliar audiences.

Installation image of ‘Print and Prejudice: Women Printmakers, 1700-1930’ at the V&A, South Kensington (1 November 2022 – 1 May 2023). © Hannah Lyons.

(1) Chapter 23 – Great Titchfield Street’ in Philip Temple and Andrew Saint, eds., South-East Marylebone (New Haven: Published for the Bartlett School of Architecture by Yale University Press, 2017), p.36.  

(2) An important exception is David Alexander’s work on this subject.

(3) Antony Griffiths, The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking, 1550-1820 (London: The British Museum Press, 2016), p.12.

(4) Rose Roberto and Alexi Alexiou, eds., Women in Print: Design and Identities, Volume 1 (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2022), p.5.

(5) Joseph Farington, Diary, 19 January 1819.