Why I’m Talking About Tea Towels: Ruth Adams and Surrealism

Not much is known about the Tyneside-raised and Cornwall-based artist Ruth Adams (1893-1948). However, her works within the Laing Art Gallery’s collection raise questions in relation to Surrealism and what it means for the wider feminist art historical literature.

My mother and I always joke that we have never bought ourselves tea towels. Instead, we receive them as gifts and occasionally purchase them for each other. They are passed between us as pieces of fabric that both serve an aesthetic and utilitarian purpose (a bee-printed tea towel is my current favourite).

As a reader, you may be wondering how the mundane tea towel relates to Surrealism: an artistic movement most associated with the imaginative psycho-sexual dramas depicted by bold artistic personalities such as Salvador Dalí. The central aim of Surrealism, as articulated by André Breton in his Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), was to ‘resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality’. Surrealism expressed the unconscious mind through imagery which, most of the time, looked bizarre and irrational.

Fig. 1: Ruth Adams, Tea Towels (1945). Bodycolour, watercolour, pencil and crayon on paper, 45.2 x 44.3 cm. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

It is within this genre that Ruth Adams’ Tea Towels (1945) [Fig. 1] can most fruitfully be conceived. The artist’s decision to depict tea towels in intense portraiture-form is certainly unconventional. Moreover, its presentation borders on the irrational: its careful shading imbues the object with movement, making the tea towels appear to slither across the page. Tea Towels is a lesser-known piece within the Laing Art Gallery collection, and not much is known about Adams. However, since setting my eyes upon the artwork a couple of months ago, I cannot stop reflecting upon the wider questions it raises in relation to feminist art history.

Womanhouse installation in Los Angeles
Fig. 2: Robin Weltsch, Kitchen (1972) and Vicki Hodgett, Eggs to Breast (1972). Both part of the Womanhouse project. Los Angeles, California. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.M.43.1. Photo by Lloyd Hamrol.

Those versed in feminist art history would likely pinpoint its major beginnings to the 1970s. It was in this decade in America that Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro made femininity the subject of art through Womanhouse (1971-72) [Fig. 2]. The all-female group of students, as part of the Feminist Art Program (FAP) in California, were given a house within which they were encouraged to express their own interests, settings aside judgments of what was or what not trivial to express through art.[1] Whereas art history had traditionally upheld hierarchical notions of subject matter – with History painting taking the most prestigious spot – for the group of students working on the FAP anything was of equal value. Shortly before Womanhouse, Mierle Ukeles had created and performed Maintenance Art. She published the manifesto for this piece in 1969 within which she advocated that the forced separation of the identities mother and artist was no longer acceptable.[2] Following on from this, she photographed herself doing domestic tasks. Both projects aimed to express the female perspective on a highly publicised scale.

Fig. 3: Mierle Ukeles, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside (1973). Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Part of Maintenance Art Performance Series, 1973-74.

The Womanhouse project and Ukeles’ Maintenance Art are well-cited in the feminist art historical literature as innovative. Chicago concluded that her own project had ‘definitely opened the way for a more explicit female imagery’.[3] The feminist art movement has been most frequently situated in the 1970s with the glamour and radical nature of various groups working in America. However, Adams’ Tea Towels comprises a counternarrative that women expressed their experiences and focused upon ‘trivial’ and mundane subject-matter well before the more overt political movement. The tea towel represents the theme of domesticity in a way which creatively shifted the viewer’s gaze from that of a male – like many of the artists most famously associated with Surrealism – to one that was more ambiguous. 

The curious existence of Tea Towels in the Laing archive draws attention to the often-overlooked subversive practices of women artists. During her life, the British Surrealist movement recognised her form of subversion and threat to their own male-centred group. Adams was present at a meeting of British Surrealists in Soho, 1940. However, she was later expelled from the group for being ‘expendable’, whilst Ithell Colquhoun also suffered the same fate for being ‘too occult’.[4] The reasoning behind Adams’ expulsion resonates with the traditional perception within art history of her subject matter. In a genre which dealt with male desire, the choice to portray tea towels, for example, stood out as mundane.

As often in political matters, the ones who speak the loudest can overshadow the voices that came before them. Take, for example, the striking exhibition titles elles@centrepompidou and WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. These techniques resonate with a wider model of capitalism which requires things to sell, and why not? Products must move. However, these techniques can often conceal the silent people working away to forge their own vision of significance in the world. The regional collections contain a wealth of resources that can challenge the gazes and more mainstream narratives that we are fed from blockbuster exhibitions.

Fig. 4: Ruth Adams, Trewithal Farm (date unknown). Oil on canvas, 61.1 x 45.7 cm. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Adams’ work is not well-known, nor has she received recognition for the truly inventive compositions she produced. During her lifetime she did attract some acclaim, exhibiting with the Newlyn Society of Artists and having a solo exhibition at the Passmore Edward’s Art Gallery in 1942. However, her early and tragic death in 1948 foreshortened her career.

Other highlights by her in the Laing collection include the surreal primitive Trewithal Farm (date unknown) [Fig. 4] and the beautifully composed abstract Daloua (1946) [Fig. 5]. Both offer a voice deemed ‘expendable’ by the British surrealists, yet significant for their ability to depict a vision grounded in the Cornish setting that Adams called her home. In a Guardian newspaper article published in October 2017, Judy Chicago claimed ‘In the 1960s, I was the only visible woman artist’.[5] A bold claim to make. Adams’ work has certainly been invisible for a long time, and it is time that she finally attracts the attention she deserves.

Fig. 5: Ruth Adams, Daloua (1946). Ink, pencil, and watercolour on paper, 61.6 x 48.6 cm. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

[1] Paula Harper, ‘The First Feminist Art Program’ in Jill Fields (ed.), Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program, and the Collective Visions of Women Artists (New York: Routledge, 2012), 90.

[2] Andrea Liss, Feminist art and the maternal (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 52.

[3] Judy Chicago, ‘Feminist Art Education’ in Jill Fields (ed.), Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program, and the Collective Visions of Women Artists (New York: Routledge, 2012), 106.

[4] Becky Gee, ‘Watercolour at War: Ruth Adams’, Women of Tyneside, Tyne & Wear Museums (November 30, 2018) [https://womenoftyneside.wordpress.com/2018/11/30/watercolour-at-war-ruth-adams/, accessed 23/06/2021].

[5] Nadja Sayej, ‘Judy Chicago: “In the 1960s, I was the only visible woman artist’”, The Guardian, theguardian.com (20 October 2017) [https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/20/judy-chicago-the-dinner-party-history-in-the-making, accessed 23/06/2021].

See Becky Gee, ‘Watercolour at War: Ruth Adams’, Women of Tyneside (TWAM), 30 Nov 2018 [https://womenoftyneside.wordpress.com/2018/11/30/watercolour-at-war-ruth-adams/] for more information about the artist.

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