AGNES MILLER PARKER: ARTIST IN FOCUS
‘that clever couple from scotland who believe in cubist methods’
hugh macdiarmid (1892-1978) on miller parker and mccance
Agnes Miller Parker’s seemingly innocent still life brings to the fore concerns and debates around women’s rights of the time. Whether it points to the artist’s relationship with her husband, fellow Vorticist William McCance (1894-1970), is conjecture. What we can be certain of however, is that Miller Parker was unequivocally a female anomaly of her time, as an independent thinker who was unafraid to reject societal norms and conventions of womanhood.
The Uncivilised Cat was painted in 1930, either when Miller Parker and McCance left their life in London, or upon their move to Gregynog, in the Welsh town of Powys. The still life captures the animal’s restlessness and alarm. It has landed upon the open pages of Marie Stopes’ Love’s Creation, and is just visible to the viewer. Published in 1928, the year women obtained the right to vote, Stopes works through several debates which affected both her personal and public life as a woman: sexual relations, the link between the arts and sciences, and the quest for female sexual fulfilment. The pound note on which the cat’s claw is protectively placed acknowledges the female plight for financial freedom. A toppled vase of Calla lilies and a broken Venus statuette draw attention to the story of Venus, Roman goddess of love, seeing lilies for the first time. Jealous of their beauty, she cursed them by placing a large yellow pistil in the middle. The Calla lily, in this context, represents the lust and sexuality that Miller Parker suggests a woman can never have.
The spine of the green book indistinctly reads Good-Bye to All That (1929), an autobiography by Robert Graves. "It was my bitter leave-taking of England" he wrote, “where I had recently broken a good many conventions". Good-Bye to All That describes the passing of an old order following the cataclysm of the First World War; the subsequent disillusionment of the glories of patriotism,combined with the gradual increased interest in atheism, feminism and socialism in a post-war British society, all signify monumental fissures in British collective thought. These rifts undoubtedly impacted both Miller Parker’s personal and artistic outlook; The Uncivilised Cat exudes this uncertainty, particularly in its rejection of the Victorian tropes of womanhood as ‘The Angel of The Home’.
Miller Parker's early paintings, often executed in tempera such as ours, reflect the artistic ethos of the short-lived group, the Vorticists, who were active in London in the 1920s. Miller Parker and her husband, Glasgow School of Art contemporary William McCance, moved there in 1920. They were among the few Scottish artists to engage with Modernism, and were described by poet and polemicist, Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) as ‘that clever couple from Scotland who believe in Cubist methods’.
Miller Parker’s decision to marry McCance in 1918 is a significant one. They were in the early stages of their relationship during The First World War, when McCance was court martialled for failing to turn up to duty when he was conscripted. Despite the huge social stigma that was attached to conscientious objectors during this period, McCance’s internment at Wormwood Scrubs Prison and in a Home Office work camp did not deter her; they were married a year prior to his release from the work camp. These would have been significant disrupting factors in their lives; the social opprobrium she must have been subject to suggests that she was both in agreement with his position as a ‘conchie’, but also had the steel to withstand it and continue her life with him by her side.
The artist William Roberts lodged briefly at their Earls' Court home; his influence upon Miller Parker's painting was significant throughout the 1920s, and it easy to see Robert’s influence in her sculpturally volumetric figures. The Horse Fair (1928; National Galleries of Scotland ), is one of Parker’s most ambitious paintings. Human and animal participants are simplified and wryly observed in a work which used to belong to her friend, the writer Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999). Painted in the same year, The School Room shows an art class at Maltman's Green School in Gerrard's Cross, where Agnes Miller Parker taught from 1920 - 1923. During this period, McCance mainly painted and experimented in his work; the imbalance in their working lives was to be a recurring theme. Miller Parker made do with painting by night, McCance by day.
By 1925, the couple became part of the Chiswick Group, which included the Mitchisons, Blair Hughes Stanton (1902-1981) and his wife, Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983). While Miller Parker had taught herself the rudiments of wood-engraving, it was Hughes-Stanton and Hermes who encouraged and refined her talent. In 1928, both couples had a major joint exhibition of their painting and sculpture at St George's Gallery, London. Their modernism unsettled one uncomprehending critic, who observed that 'eccentricity ran riot with rather lamentable results!' (Studio, 95, 1928, 344).
In spite of this, both couples continued to intertwine the personal with the professional, moving to the Gregynog Press, in Powys, Wales, in 1930. The press was dedicated to producing fine books in limited editions. McCance was to be the controller and the others artist-illustrators. The Fables of Esope (1932) and XXI Welsh Gypsy Folk-Tales (1933), illustrated by Miller Parker’s engravings, are among the finest of the period. Paradoxically, Miller Parker felt many of the books hardly needed 'decoration': 'so many of the jobs that I get to do I feel ought not to have been illustrated. [Thomas] Hardy describes so well that illustrations seem to be superfluous' (Rogerson, Agnes Miller Parker: Wood Engraver, 46).
After the successes of the 1930s, finances were precarious. Thanks to the triumphs of her engravings, Miller Parker's work was more widely recognised than that of her husband. This undoubtedly gave rise to further tensions in her relationship with McCance. Personal correspondence with friends suggest that he became increasingly lazy and selfish in the years prior to the breakdown of their marriage. (Agnes Miller Parker inventory, Manuscripts Division, National Library of Scotland). This increasing unhappiness culminated in 1955, when Miller Parker made the decision to leave her husband. Divorce at this time was highly stigmatised, heightened by the reality that she took the decision to break away from the institution of marriage, and the traditional role of womanhood as a wife. Finalised in 1963, the divorce drew Miller Parker back to Scotland, where she settled in Arran.
She never remarried; in this retrospective light, we could interpret The Uncivilised Cat as a visual reinforcement of Miller Parker’s desire for independence, both professionally as a woman artist, and personally as a liberal believer in women’s rights and female sexuality.
CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP TO RECEIVE THE FINE ART SOCIETY'S JOURNAL