The Great British Art Tour: an overlooked talent who broke gender norms

At first glance this work is easily mistaken in our collection’s spaces for one of renowned 20th-century British sculptor Jacob Epstein’s busts. Its creator is in fact the little known American sculptor Sally Ryan.

This sculpture was gifted as part of a selection of 15 of Ryan’s works, presented to the town of Walsall in 1973 by Kathleen Garman (Epstein’s widow) who had grown up locally. We are, as far as we are aware, the only UK public museum collection that features Ryan’s work.

The Garman Ryan collection has 365 objects in total and is presented at the heart of the gallery, in a carefully crafted repository designed by architects Caruso St John. It not only reflects the personal tastes of its two female collectors (interestingly, apart from the works by Ryan there are only two other works by women), but also acts as a biographical legacy. The stories of the people associated with the objects are at its core, and the themes of love, life, loss and dysfunctional families are universal.

Much has been written about the extraordinary Epstein/Garman families but Ryan is a more mysterious, shadowy presence amid the collection. It is suspected that information about Ryan was carefully edited out of the archives before they came to Walsall by the woman who inherited Garman’s papers. (Garman’s companion in later years had reputedly been jealous of their close relationship.)

What is known is that Ryan was the granddaughter of an important American tycoon, Thomas Fortune Ryan (who commissioned a portrait bust of himself by Rodin, which is in the V&A collection). Born in New York, Sally Ryan was said to be somewhat quiet and aloof, though with a dogged determination. Androgynous in appearance, preferring traditionally masculine clothing, and openly gay, she defied the typical gender norms of the time. She was resolute in her determination to pursue an artistic career, and after exhibiting at the Royal Canadian Academy in 1933, moved to Paris to study with Jean Camus, before arriving in London. There, she met Garman and Epstein, who took her under their wing, the latter’s artistic style a great influence on her own. It is incredible to think La Martinique was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London when Ryan was just 18 years of age.

Ryan’s inheritance afforded her many luxuries. She travelled extensively, working between Europe and America. It is generally assumed that the majority of the 19th-century European masterpieces in the Garman Ryan Collection, by artists including Monet, Degas and Constable, were purchased by Ryan.

Ryan took up painting in the 1950s, with flowers, landscapes and portraits as her main subjects. Her declining health meant she had to give up more physically demanding work such as direct carving. She spent her later years in a suite in the Dorchester hotel, Van Gogh’s famous drawing of a desolate prostitute, Sorrow, hanging on her wall. Knowing she had incurable throat cancer, she left all her artworks and a considerable sum of money to Garman in her will.

Gender and sexuality have traditionally often confined artists to the periphery of art history. Today, an artist as talented as Ryan would not be overlooked.

You can see more art from Sally Ryan on Art UK here, and find out more on the New Art Gallery Walsall’s website.

This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.

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