Nonfiction November #NonFicNov23 – Week Two, Choosing Nonfiction

I am excited to be hosting Week 2 of Nonfiction November this week.  The other hosts for Nonfiction November are fellow bloggers Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home), , Heather (Based on a True Story), and Lisa (Hopewell’s Public Library of Life), and Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction).

  • Week 2Dates: 11/6-11/10
    • Host: That would be me, Frances
    • Title: Choosing Nonfiction
    • Description: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you find yourself wandering around bookshops – that is if  you are lucky enough to have access to a real bookshop these days – thinking that you fancy reading something ‘different’ but you’ve no idea what it is?  I used to often feel this way.

We are peddled a relentless diet of best-sellers and known names, books which may or may not answer a need, and nowhere is that feeling stronger than in a high street bookstore.  Where is the opportunity for that quirky discovery with the battered binding?

Since I have discovered the blogosphere and all my bookish friends online, I don’t really have a problem in finding books to read any more, quite the opposite.  But I do miss just wandering around the shelves and picking up a book here or there just to see.

When browsing, I avoid footballers, celebrities and disgruntled royals.   I look for good biography, memoir, art, art history.  I mentioned in my post last week the occasional guilt complex at not reading more widely in other categories.  Probably in 2024 I will try and address that.

In terms of a favoured cover I’m pretty sold on this one which is from my current read, Jackie Wullschlager’s Biography, Monet: The Restless Vision:


I love colour.

I think human beings are attracted to bright colours.  Maybe Monet thought so too.  Here is some colour courtesy of the net.

Geordanna Cordero on Unsplash

I’m also a fan of the new nature writing, usually a blend of authoritative essay style writing on the natural world, combined with autobiographical details from the life of the author

Little Toller Books have an excellent if a somewhat pricey array of these books. Here are three that have caught my eye.

.  My

An allotment is a utopia. It is a green place where anyone can occupy a piece of land, and grow with freedom of expression.

I don’t know whether people that use allotments would agree with that idea, or how you grow with freedom of expression – or without freedom of expression unless you’re entering for Chelsea.  I’m not really a gardener in any way shape or form but my brother in law has worked an allotment plus a garden for decades.  I never quite understood how anyone manages all that work!  I suspect he may not wish to read about the history of them though, so passing swiftly on.

Richard Mabey was maybe one of the first writers to write about mental health and natural world issues combined in his book Nature Cure which I have read.  In my review I wrote:

Mabey’s book is an enlightening read, erudite without being dry, honest to the point of bleakness in parts, without being depressing. It was one of the first in the style which came to be known as the new nature writing, along with naturalist and friend Mark Cocker. These are books which entwine stories of the natural world with the writer’s own biographical tales.

Taking far longer than usual to move out of the house in which he grew up, and aided and abetted by a severe bout of depression, Mabey makes his belated escape to the Norfolk fens where he writes about sheets of water, the Wailing Wood, owls, birds, fens, the yellow star-of-bethlehem and orchids in an ‘ethereal shade of rose’. But his particular interest, like the poet John Clare

Mabey has written many, many books including a biography of the naturalist and author Gilbert White whom wiki credits with ‘shaping the modern attitude of respect for nature’ which seems a rather extraordinary claim.  I didn’t realise there was a modern attitude of respect for nature judging by the ecology crisis we have on our hands.  But I think I will put this one on my TBR.


Does anyone else find themselves drawn to a particular theme or topic?  Style of writing? Titles? Covers? They say you can’t tell a book by one, but hey, a good cover certainly helps.

If you are taking part in Nonfiction November Week 2,  don’t forget to add your link below.  I’ve been so happy to help host this challenge but the only thing I’ve been panicking about is the link party.  Despite the kindness of Rebekah at (She Seeks Nonfiction) and others showing me what to do, my link party looks worryingly unlike anyone else’s.  Therefore please if you have any problems, just leave the link to your post in the comments below.



You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter





Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (French Painter & Portraitist (1755-1852)

History’s Forgotten Artists

“The canon of art history is global, however, with the male Western narrative being so unjustly dominant at the expense of others, it is this that I unpack and challenge.” (Katy Hessel)

When I picked up A Story of Art (Without Men) by Katy Hessel I thought I would find within its 520 pages sad stories of women artists who almost made it if only they could have got the right breaks such as investment in the appropriate art training; or ladies for whom art could only ever be a ‘hobby’ because of those burdens society places upon women which it does not equally place upon men.  I thought in other words it would constitute some sort of lengthy eulogy for lost opportunities and missed vocations.

Not a bit of it.   This book is a celebration, although if you listen carefully it is not without its soundtrack of ground teeth!  Within the covers of this minutely researched book are hundreds of biographical accounts and pictorial reproductions of the work of established artists – many successful and even famous in their own times – who have simply vanished.    They have vanished from the history books, from galleries, from scholarship, from the curatorial mind.

What has caused this extinction?  In one sentence it is this:  Western cultural histories have focused on a single race and gender and ignored the contributions of any who do not fit that mould.    We are not talking here about art criticism –  but rather the exclusion of the woman artist from art history, scholarship and curatorial policy.

What I have particularly enjoyed about this book is Hessel’s refusal to place these artists in the context of their more famous (male) peers.  It is tempting even for the most ardent feminist to consider, for example, Gwen John, as the sister of the more famous Augustus.    But within these pages there are few such references.    Brothers, husbands, lovers, all mysteriously vanish.  None of the artists included in these pages is a muse, a sitter or an inspiration for a better known man.  Instead Hessel has placed her women within the political and social context of their times; within the sphere of influence and the schools of art and thought in which they framed their work.  Exactly as would be done in a compendium of male artists.  By the way,  that compendium of male artists  is effectively the ‘art history bible’ that E.H. Gombrich wrote.  He omitted hundreds of artists simply because of their gender.


So who are we talking about.  There are hundreds of artists – far too many to list – artists from the 17th century through to the 21st.

I strongly advise reading the book.  But here are a few of the new-to-me names:

Judith Leyster, Dutch (1609-1660).  At the age of 24 Leyster was the youngest member of the Haarlem Painters Guild – she was running a studio complete with apprentices and three male pupils by the age of thirty).  Her career declined as a result of marriage, children, and having to manage her husband’s studio.

Rosalba Carriera, Venetian (1673-1757) earned a living painting portraits and miniatures, with an international clientele.

Katsuschika Oi of Japan (1800-1866) earned recognition as an artist of the floating world but lived in the shadow of her famous father, Hokusai.

Emily Mary Osborn, British (1828-1925) A great campaigner for women’s suffrage she used her paintings to critique the constant setbacks experienced by women.

Jacqueline Marval (French) (1866-1932) painted Les Odalisques, which was exhibited in 1902-3. Hessel finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (exhibited 1907) to be ‘strikingly similar in composition’ to Marval’s earlier work.


Hessel points out a number of potential cases of unattributed influence.  For example,  still famous and still at the forefront of the avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama arrived in New York in 1957 with a suitcase full of drawings and “mountains of creative energy stored inside myself”. Her ideas for a sequentially printed wallpaper were created two years before Andy Warhol produced his ‘suspiciously similar’ Cow Wallpaper.

What joy to discover that from the 17th to the 21st century it is possible to travel through an entire history of every nation and every school of art (not only in painting but weaving, photography, sculpture, performance art) without looking at a single work by a man!

And no, that is not revisionist.  That is just rebalancing the scales.  All but a handful of these artists have been forgotten.  Now that Hessel’s book has won Waterstones Book of the Year Award, that sound you can hear is the sound of galleries scrabbling to catch up.  Look out for increasing representation and solo exhibitions in the coming years.


Up next, What July Knew, Emily Koch



Art Herstory: The Story of Art (Without Men), Katy Hessel

Here’s a little test for anyone who wants to try.  Without googling or other reference searches, make a list down one side of a page of names of male artists that you can quickly think of – from any period.   Now on the other side, do the same for female artists.


How did you get on? Much easier to list the guys isn’t it.

My list was Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Manet, Monet, Poussin, Hopper, Lucian Freud, Hockney, Andy Warhol.

The only names of lady artists I could come up with without searching were:  Artemisia Gentileschi;  Frida Kahlo; Vanessa Bell; Gwen John; Celia Paul (the latter only because I happen to have recently read and reviewed her autobiography – not because I knew her work); Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois.

This is why my christmas reading will be a book called The History of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel.

This could be down to my lack of knowledge of the history of art. But I don’t think so.  Hessel was told by some young people that they hadn’t been taught any women artists in school.  Historically perhaps  it is thought there are not many women artists so we don’t need to know about them.  Or perhaps they couldn’t afford the fees or the time to go to art school, and/or couldn’t get away from the kids or the husband long enough to actually produce any work.    Shades of Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. No doubt there is truth in these suppositions.

But it is not that there are or have been no female artists.    Women artists there are and have been a-plenty. Hessel’s book has more than 400 pages and illustrations.  But women artists are not taught in schools;  they do not get solo exhibitions. Their work is not circulated;  their work is not sold.

Hessel writes in her introduction that she was shocked when, in October 2015, she walked into an art fair and realised that out of thousands of artworks ‘not a single one was by a woman’. She asked herself,

“… could I name 20 women artists of the top of my head? Ten pre-1950? Any pre-1850?”

No, came the unsurprising answer.  But Hessel didn’t just shrug and say oh well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.  She started an Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists concentrating on researching female artists working in different mediums from painting to sculpture, photography to textiles.  Which led to the publication of this book.

She writes:

“Women artists make up just 1% of the London’s National Gallery Collection.  It’s first ever major solo exhibition by a historic female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi,” Hessel continues, “was staged only in 2020.”

At the same time, the standard text on art history written by E.H. Gombrich The Story of Art included zero women in its first (1950 edition).  The sixteenth edition includes one.  I suppose you could call that 100% increase.

It is against these overwhelming odds that young female artists must enter – if they are even able to – into their first years in art school and as working artists.

There is some evidence that things are very slowly changing. Maybe Hessel’s book will be part of that change. I hope it will.    Galleries will scrabble to catch the zeitgeist.

The Royal Academy in London is already doing some scrabbling of its own,  with an exhibition called Making Modernism featuring four German modernist artists: Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) and Marianne Werefkin (1860-1896).



Making Modernism as a title for this exhibition was very interesting I thought.  ‘Making’ implies creating something, being in at the start, does it not? Modernism as a philosophy of art has been around since late 19th, early 20th century right?  If these ladies were in at the beginning,  why does it take until December 2022 for this exhibition to appear?    No answer came the stern reply.


Did I enjoy the exhibition.  In a word, yes.  Although this is a more complex question when the very fact of the exhibition is itself a milestone.

Making Modernism is housed in a subsidiary gallery at the back of the Royal Academy premises on Piccadilly.   It is quite a long walk from the front to the back of the building, upstairs and downstairs several times.  The main galleries which are easily accessible from the front of the building, were occupied by another (male) artist,  William Kentridge.

So back to the less main gallery.  There were portraits of women and children although not often in the same canvas. But without the idealisation of the Madonna and child ideology, some of them seemed quite unsparing.   The children all looked stunned – as if they would prefer to be just about anywhere else except where they found themselves.

But I didn’t want to keep thinking about the gender of the artists.  I wanted to consider the works as I would any other exhibition.  If I had gone to Tate Modern to see Cezanne, I wouldn’t be thinking about Cezanne being a man.  That goes without saying.  And part of the trouble is that for centuries, it has gone without saying that artists are men.  We don’t even think about the painting in front of us as a product of the gender of the artist.    We think about tone, light, shade, composition, skill with brushwork, whatever.   But in this exhibition we have no choice but to consider gender.

As author Rachel Cusk writes in her assessment of the exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine: “the choice that a woman artist such as Gabriele Münter had to make was “to adopt male objectivity and hope to ‘pass’ as an honorary man; or to declare her femininity and its themes from the outset.”   She chose the latter.

There is a massive irony in that.   Just as a woman is trying to declare herself as an artist on equal terms (haha) with a man, she has to produce pictures of the domestic sphere in which she is forced to spend much of her time and where sitters are readily available to her.

What then is the solution for woman as artist?  To pick up the fact of femininity and womanhood and run with it?   To wave it in people’s faces with work that is less than comforting.  Perhaps.   It is after all what Tracy Emin did with her unmade bed.

And that is another name on my list of ladies above.