Seven Inspiring Women Who Studied at the Royal College of Art

Women’s representation is in the news again today  – and rightly so. This Women's History Month we're celebrating influential women who have passed through the doors of the Royal College of Art, shining the spotlight on seven RCA students and graduates who led the way in their fields.

International Women's Day was started by the Suffragettes and first celebrated in 1911, so it seems only right to open with Sylvia Pankhurst’s time at the RCA.

Angel or 'herald' mascot, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst
Angel or 'herald' mascot, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst. Used as the logo of The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)

Sylvia Pankhurst (Student, Decorative Painting, 1906)

Sylvia enrolled at the RCA in 1904. During her second year of study she used her digs in Park Walk, Chelsea, as the west-London base for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She left the College before graduating to become the official artist and designer of the WSPU and was one of the many artists who created designs for the suffrage campaign, including posters, membership cards, badges and banners.Sylvia's 'angel of freedom' emblem was essential to the visual language of the campaign, along with the iconic WSPU colours of purple, green and white.

In 1907, Sylvia prepared an extensive visual survey of women's work and lives in Britain, from textile factory workers in Glasgow to fisherwomen in Scarborough. Her paintings made a powerful argument for improved working conditions and equal pay with men.

Sylvia Pankurst, Old Fashioned Pottery
Old Fashioned Pottery – Transferring the pattern onto the biscuit, Sylvia Pankhurst

In 1910, she created a portrait of Keir Hardie, founder of the UK Labour party and supporter of women's rights and votes for women. She later donated the chalk sketch to the National Portrait Gallery.

After all women over 21 were given the vote in 1928, Sylvia continued to campaign on issues including maternity pay, equal pay and improved childcare facilities – all of which remain relevant today..

Pat Albeck (DesRCA Diploma Textile Design, 1954)

Pat Albeck was a prolific, gifted designer of printed textiles whose knack for flat pattern also took her into design for ceramics, wallpapers and a whole range of merchandise for the National Trust. In 1950, Pat won a scholarship at the RCA to study printed textile design, following four years at Hull College of Arts and Crafts. In 1952, while still studying at the RCA, she was included in Art for the Factory at the Imperial Institute, the first show put on by the College that was entirely devoted to industrial design.

Dress with Pat Albeck print
Dress (left) made using a Pat Albeck print

Pat is credited with inspiring Britain’s love affair with patterned textiles in the home. In the 1960s, she was among the first to create bedlinen with patterns on it, and in the 1970s she began designing tea towels for the National Trust, in the process elevating this formerly purely domestic item to an object of art. Her design – Fruit and Stripe – was chosen by Sir Hugh Casson, then Head of Interior Design at the RCA, for own his office.

Jane Dillon (MDes Furniture Design, 1968. Staff 1994–2004)

Jane Dillon is a British designer and artist who has made significant contributions to furniture and lighting design across America and Europe. While at the RCA she studied under the professorship of David Pye, where she was a contemporary of artists and designers George Hardie, Richard Wentworth, Roger Dean and James Dyson.

At the RCA, Jane designed ‘the movable chair’, a radical, sculptural reduction of a chair to an abstract arrangement of planes that works as a frame of movable parts, to support the body leaning against it in different positions.

Jane Dillon, Chair, 1968
Jane Dillon, Chair, 1968

One of the few female international designers of her generation, Jane’s work encompassed contract and domestic furniture, lighting, textiles and glassware. Between 1968 and 1971 she worked at Olivetti, Milan, under Ettore Sottsass and later founded the studio Charles and Jane Dillon Associates in London with her partner Charles Dillon.

For over 30 years, Jane taught design at the RCA and was made an Honorary Fellow in 2007. Her complete studio archives are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Linda Kitson (MA Graphic Design, 1970. Staff 1979–83)

While at the RCA Kitson was taught by Sir Quentin Blake, and the pair have remained close friends for the past 50 years. Blake recently curated Linda Kitson: Drawings and Projects at the House of Illustration in 2017.

Linda Kitson, 1970
Linda Kitson, 1970

In 1982, Linda Kitson was commissioned by the Artistic Records Committee of the Imperial War Museum as the official war artist for the Falklands Task Force, making her the first woman artist to accompany troops into combat.

She spent three months drawing all aspects of the training and daily life of the troops, producing more than 400 drawings – which she later described as ‘letters home’. Linda made hundreds of drawings in conté crayon, choosing to capture the daily life of the troops and the conditions under which they had to operate, showing all aspects of the conflict except the fighting. On her return to Britain in July 1982, her drawings were exhibited at the Imperial War Museum.

Subsequent ventures – such as to Thailand, where Linda was commissioned to record the filming of David Putnam’s The Killing Fields, a film about the war in Cambodia – produced suites of drawings that had an aspect of reportage. Linda also had successful exhibitions of landscape drawings, generally produced as she describes it, by ‘clinging to the side of a mountain’ in France and Italy.

Sophie Muller (MA Film and Television, 1983)

Credited as being one of the most successful music video directors of all time, Sophie Muller directed her first videos for Annie Lennox and The Eurythmics after graduating from the RCA, and has since established long standing collaborations with artists such as Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé and Blur.

While studying MA Film and Television she won the J Walter Thompson Prize for creativity, and has since gone on to win a number of major awards in the music industry including a Grammy for Best Music Video (Long Form) for her work on the Diva video album by Annie Lennox.

Lubaina Himid (MA Cultural Studies, 1984)

While studying on the MA Cultural Studies programme, Lubaina curated a number of seminal exhibitions, emerging as a keen champion of black women artists. These included Five Black Women at the Africa Centre and Black Woman Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre, both in 1983. Her thesis was titled Young Black Artists in Britain Today. She was one of the first artists involved in the Black Art movement in the 1980s and continues to create activist art that is shown both nationally and internationally.

Lubaina Himid, Naming the Money
Naming the Money, Lubaina Himid 2004
Installation view of Navigation Charts, Spike Island, Bristol, 2017
© Courtesy of the artist, Hollybush Gardens, and National Museums, Liverpool | Photographer: Stuart Whipps
Lubaina’s practice involves making paintings, prints, drawings and installations that celebrate black creativity and the people of the African diaspora, while challenging institutional invisibility. She references the slave industry and its legacies, and addresses the hidden and neglected cultural contribution made by real but forgotten people.

Himid was given an MBE in June 2010 for ‘services to black women's art’ and won the Turner Prize in 2017. She is currently Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis (PhD History & Design, 2003)

Prior to studying at the RCA, Deborah Landis was a film and theatre costume designer. She worked on notable films such as Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) as well as the costumes for Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking music video for Thriller (1983).

Deborah wrote the first doctoral dissertation in the field of film costume design, Scene and Not Heard: The role of costume in the cinematic storytelling process, while at the RCA. Between 2001 and 2007, Landis served two terms as president of the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892, having been a member for more than thirty years.

In 2012 Landis curated the landmark exhibition, Hollywood Costume, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She is the editor-in-chief of the upcoming Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Film and Television Costume Design (2019), and is currently curating an exhibition on science and science fiction opening in 2019 at the Science Museum, London.