Championing female artists

Opinion - Books Monday, 16 September 2019

Where are all the books about female artists, Harriet Olsen wondered? So she set up her own press

Setting up a new publishing house to champion female artists was an idea I'd been mulling over for a while. I noticed in bookshops how many more books there were about male artists than female artists, and made a point of counting them in each shop I visited. Sometimes there weren't any female artists represented at all; when there were, the books were usually about Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe, or sometimes Barbara Hepworth. Where were the others?

I thought back to when I started looking through art books as a keen art student, when all those books had been about men. Studies supported my perception of the imbalance, and there were reports in the press about gender imbalances in our national collections of art.

I was inspired by the histories of Virago and Persephone Books, and considered that as well as championing female artists who had been forgotten or side-lined, I could at the same time champion the writing of female art historians. Pushing the idea further, when it came to designing the series (now called Modern Women Artists) I chose to work with a female book designer and, in turn, asked her to source fonts designed by female typographers.

Since I was setting up this press around my day job (as head of publishing at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester) with a young family, and since I would be working alongside other women who were also juggling "real" jobs, childcare, elder care, etc, we would need to accept from the get-go that this wasn't going to be a 9-5 kind of business model. This was going to necessitate an all-the-hours-in-between business model. Working in this way, what we've achieved is an extraordinary network of supportive women who all believe in the project and all want to see it succeed. What started out as just an idea has quickly become a reality, created on the smallest of shoe-string budgets and around the rest of our daily lives.

I wanted a name for the press that reflected the artists we would be writing about, all of whom are British or came to work in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. An eiderdown quilt seemed like a quintessentially British object which would have been contemporaneous with this period, and as I looked into its origin, I read that when they were first made these quilts were stuffed with only the feathers taken from the breasts of female eider ducks, prized for their insulating qualities and originally destined to line the nests for the birds' young. That it was the female duck feathers which were taken, only to be stuffed inside a quilt and then relegated into the domestic space, seemed like an apt metaphor for how female artists in history have been treated: present, but essentially hidden from view.

Despite working in museum publishing for over a decade, I have experienced a few steep learning curves while setting up on my own. As a small press I'm responsible for everything that might help our books to succeed (although working with a good PR and a distributor like Central Books certainly helps). And despite being naturally introverted (isn't that true of all publishers? It's not our names on the book covers for good reason...), I've said yes to any opportunity to promote Eiderdown Books, including public speaking.

For anyone else thinking about starting a new press, I would absolutely recommend it - the independent publishers I have met so far have been welcoming, generous with their time, and very supportive. But I would pass on the same words of that a more established independent press said to me when Eiderdown Books was still just an idea: you need to be prepared to be in it for the long haul; and it won't make you your millions overnight.

Harriet Olsen is the founder of newly launched Eiderdown Books. The publisher's first five titles are about Sylvia Pankhurst, Laura Knight, Lee Miller, Frances Hodgkins, and Marlow Moss.

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