The UK’s favourite ever artist: the female reboot

30 July 2019

Tove Jansson

A wander round any major art gallery in the world will quickly indicate the male dominance of art history, yet despite the many, many books about “women in art” attempting to address the imbalance, the British public is apparently none the wiser.

A recent YouGov survey conducted for Homes & Antiques magazine named Banksy as the UK’s favourite artist of all time, and while much of the media reaction focused on his controversial top spot above the likes of Monet, Picasso, Constable and Van Gogh, one notable fact gleamed out – there wasn’t a single woman on the list.

So, in an attempt to tip the scales in the other direction, we asked ten people from the UK creative industry to nominate their favourite ever female artist, from any time or place, and tell us why their work and practice is so important to them. While this list is by no means comprehensive (with Frida Kahlo and Yayoi Kusama among the artists strangely missing) these names are so instantly recognisable and widely influential, it serves to remind us how ridiculous their omission from YouGov’s original list actually was.

Tove Jansson

Lizzy Stewart, illustrator

If Tove Jansson was a man she’d be celebrated as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. I can think of few others who turned their hand to so many creative endeavours: painting, illustration, children’s stories, cartooning, novels and short stories, and excelled at every single one of them. Looking through Tove’s output you wonder how on earth one person managed to get so. much. done (spending 30 years on a remote Finnish Island with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä as the only other human might have helped). Jansson’s work brims with sensitivity and humour. She was righteous, bold and experimental and, most importantly for me as a children’s illustrator, she created the most unique imaginary world for children, a world that teaches us so much more about our own.

Anni Albers

Rachel Smith, creative partner at brand design agency & SMITH

Anni Albers’ Tate retrospective last year really opened up my eyes to her fascinating world of graphic and conceptual textile design. This isn’t just textile design, it’s art through the medium of thread. She took the Bauhaus’ more “feminine” discipline of weaving to lofty creative heights. Geometry, pattern and grids. A soundproof and light-reflective fabric that was creative in its concept but simple in its look secured her a Bauhaus Diploma – and showed that this wasn’t just for decoration. It had function and purpose when needed. 

With her desire to take thread everywhere, she showed me in a few hours just how far you can push what you might at first think is a restricted medium. Not a bad lesson to keep in mind. 

Georgia O’Keeffe

Sarah Williams, founder of arts consultancy Soho Curious & Co

While she started her career supported by partner Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe affirmed herself as one of America’s greatest female artists without him. She carved out an entirely new life for herself on the other side of the country in the mid 1900s – a brave thing to do at the time. She made her surroundings such a crucial part of her work that New Mexico became known as “O’Keeffe country”. I love how fiercely independent she was. “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” She was the first woman with a full retrospective at MoMA in New York. She was on the cover of Life magazine, something no other US female artist had achieved. She was bold, yet delicate, fierce yet considered and an incredibly modern woman for her time. What’s not to love about her?


Hilma af Klint: Group X No.1, Alterpiece (1915)
Courtesy The Hilma Af Klint Foundation

Hilma af Klint

Ellie Ghafouri, junior designer at design studio ShopTalk

I find Hilma incredibly compelling. She was so convinced she was ahead of her time that she specified in her will that her abstract paintings were to remain unseen for the next 20 years. With work dated as early as 1906, she does predate some of the pioneers in abstractionism. Her art is full of wonder; you can tell it comes from a sense of purpose. There are hidden meanings, intricate details and a mysticism to get lost in. I’m particularly in awe of her colour palette as she manages to create a harmonious contrast between soft hues and bright colours.

Camille Walala

Luke Woodhouse, creative director at Ragged Edge

Every day I cycle past the Splice building on Old Street with its giant Camille Walala mural. It’s a breath of fresh air in the traffic and I’ll never get tired of seeing it.

I first found Camille’s work outside Protein Studio, and each pop-up of hers I’ve visited is a graphic playground – a palate cleanser for the eyes. At art college I remember wondering why everyone considered the Memphis Movement to be so important in art history. Why was it loved by so many people?

Camille’s work moves this conversation forward. She’s inspired by an eclectic mix of references and has crafted a unique aesthetic called “tribal pop”. A perfect description and so refreshing. The wall of colour in its analogue form is a real antidote to sitting in front of screens all week.

The Singh Twins

Neil Sheakey, digital design director at design agency Uniform

The Singh Twins’ exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool was exceptional – the exquisite detail blended with the politically laced commentary on heritage and identity makes their paintings a joy to explore. The detail in their work is something that can truly only be fully appreciated in person. The Singh Twins bring to life some uncomfortable truths about the history of the British Empire and the impact it had culturally and economically on the Indian continent. It is this mix of beautiful handcrafted detail with difficult political messages that makes their work so powerful.

Charlotte Perriand

Charlie Smith, creative director at design studio Charlie Smith Design

I’m always inspired by creatives in other fields and in disciplines that feel very different from graphic design. I thought back to an exhibition that has always stuck with me and which I found totally inspiring: Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999), the French architect and designer, at the Centre Pompidou in 2005.

She is up there with Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé, but, whilst being one of the most important designers of the 20th century, is much less well-known than her male contemporaries. Thankfully she has been rediscovered in recent years. For a female designer during that time to have had such a long and successful career, as well as designing some truly beautiful chairs and interiors, is certainly an inspiration. 


Sister Corita Kent: Copyright of Corita Art Centre

Sister Corita Kent

Leigh Chandler, creative director and partner at brand design agency Vault49

I was immediately captivated when I came across the work of Sister Corita Kent. The way she combined powerful messages and bold colours in such a spirited way is simply hypnotic.

But over and above the work itself, her selflessness, her dedication to her students, her relentless pursuit of innovative creative processes and teaching, and her unwavering commitment to making art for the masses – the reason she chose silkscreen printing as her method – was something I felt an immediate affinity to.

The way she was able to capture a feeling of optimism and joy, while also using her work to deliver powerful political messages that instantly connect with people, is truly inspirational. As both a nun and a woman making art in the 20th century, she was in many ways cast to the margins of the different movements she was a part of, but I feel it’s time to really recognise what she contributed to the world.

Pina Bausch

The team at Moth animation studio

“It is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience. One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator.” Pina Bausch

We had always individually admired Pina Bausch as an artist, but we had the joy of seeing one of her most celebrated pieces, The Rite of Spring, together, at Sadler’s Wells back in 2017, when the English National Ballet was the first ever British company to perform the piece, after her death in 2009.

The initial reason for our visit was our slight obsession with Igor Stravinsky and The Rite, but we were soon taken aback by the incredibly powerful and emotive piece that Pina had staged so perfectly in response to Igor’s music. The piece was so raw, painful, and exhausting, even, to watch. We all agreed it was one of the most impactful performances we had seen, and has since taken us back to the theatre to exposed us to more of her work.

Pina’s work combines everything that speaks to us, as filmmakers; her dancers are vulnerable, exposing human behaviour in all its complexity and beauty. She creates the most poetic discourse between her performers and the sets they live in, carefully choosing props that serve a very specific purpose in supporting the narrative. She has a genius sense of humour, a brave eye and voice, whose impact still echoes nowadays, and a fascinating interest in the human psyche, relationships and gender dynamics.

Most of all, Pina was the epitome of collaboration. She had a wonderful way of working with her dancers, where she would ask them a lot of questions prior to starting the work. Questions around their past, memories or dislikes would give her the answers upon which they could develop gestures, dialogues and scenes even, so that the dancer would feel secure in going deep within themselves.

Zaha Hadid

Mark Davis, creative director and co-founder at branding agency me&dave

Architect, artist, sculptor, visionary creator of arguably the world’s most original and distinctive structures, Zaha designed utterly beautiful buildings, organic morphing masses that stretch the limits of concrete steel and glass. I think architecture is often overlooked as art yet Zaha’s work manages to balance function with the most expressive of urban forms – a welcome relief to so much ‘vanilla’ city architecture.

Coined the ‘Queen of Curve’, Zaha’s work includes the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, Beijing’s new airport terminal, the Guangzhou Opera House and, a personal favourite that I saw whilst walking the High Line in New York recently, 520 West 28th. The building’s architecture is made up of soaring continuous looping lines that reach up to the sky – distinctively Zaha Hadid. 

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output.

Jenny is currently on maternity leave.

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