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.

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