An unexpected life

Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Blog, Living today, Nostalgia | 2 comments

Margaret Waite, Academie Julian, Paris 1911

Margaret Waite, Academie Julian, Paris 1911

This Sunday was International Women’s Day, and Amy Bluett has written a series of articles for the Royal Academy of Arts on the struggle of women to achieve equality in the RA. While two women, Angelika Kauffman and Mary Moser, were among the founders of the institution in 1768, it was not until 1860 that Laura Hertford was admitted – and then by accident – to the RA Schools after submitting drawings with only her initials, L.H.

Bluett writes that Hertford’s admission was later referred to as “The invasion” in G. D. Leslie’s The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (1914) but, in the following ten years, another 34 female students were admitted into the RA Schools. Once in place, they had to fight for the right to receive the same training and facilities as their male counterparts, who by this time were benefiting from the pioneering integration of life drawing into arts education, as modelled by the European academies during the 17th century.

The very idea that women could even be artists was being hotly debated by John Ruskin (the validity of his opinion on women is a different matter) and other critics in a number of journals at that time. Women’s place in society was still perceived as passive and their behaviour governed by emotion. They had been excluded from the practice of drawing from the nude figure since the time of the founding Academicians. It was not until 1893, after twenty years of petitioning, that women were actually admitted to life classes.

This struck a huge chord with me as my grandmother, Margaret Waite, was born in 1893 and in 1911 at the tender age of 18, shocked her family rigid by leaving the Edwardian confines of Kent county society to go to Paris and art school. She was admitted to a ladies-only class at the Academie Julian, which was a progressive art school, founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, a painter and administrator. Margaret joined the school during its golden era, when it attracted the most talented students and teachers and many graduates went on to become some of the greatest modern artists of the late 19th and early 20th century.   She is photographed here in her class, among her fellow students, about to draw a man wearing only a loin cloth. Her family, who were not in any way interested in art, thought it utterly shocking. While there, she came across an international group of like-minded women and thoughts of an artistic life in Paris beckoned. She travelled throughout Europe visiting friends she’d met in Paris and learnt to speak French fluently. However, only three years later, the First World War broke out and Margaret returned to the family home. Not being one to sit and knit socks for the soldiers, she signed up immediately and joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY).

The FANY was founded in 1907 by Captain Edward Baker. His idea was that women who joined it would not only be first-aid specialists, but would also have skills that would allow them to get to casualties on the battlefield itself.  That vision was realised because FANY members were sent to battlefronts in both World War One and World War Two.

The original members of FANY were trained in cavalry work, signalling and camping out. In order to join the FANYs in 1914, Margaret had to supply her own horse and groom. She was soon taught to drive the first vehicles and ferried badly wounded soldiers from the front line to field hospitals. She, along with only one other FANY, was decorated with the order of Leopold II by the Belgian government for their bravery. The family at home were unimpressed and thought she was showing off. According to family lore, she was forced to leave the FANY and return home because the groomsman who had gone to war with her was now needed to help on the family farm. Back in Tonbridge, she nursed at the local hospital and there met a wounded Belgian soldier, fell in love with him, and married him shortly afterwards.

She later left her husband and brought her three children back to Kent to be cared for by her family. She was not ever going to be the ideal example of motherhood.

The Second World War found her working in London in South Kensington for the Free French under General de Gaulle. No amount of bombing fazed or deterred her.

She was adored as a grandmother by her grandchildren, probably because she felt she didn’t have to feel responsible for them and so could be relaxed with us. She would spend six months a year with friends in France which, as a child growing up, I felt was rather a nice way to spend one’s life. She even learnt to knit and made jumpers galore. She died aged 87 following a life that no one could have dreamt would have existed back in 1893.




  1. What an inspiration!

  2. Were your grandmothers middle initials ER ? …

    I have a watercolour by Margaret ER Waite

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