Jessie Newbery – A charmingly gentle artist & a strong backbone

Jessie Newbery 4
Image courtesy of GSA Archives (GSAA/DIR/5/38/7/4)

Jessie Wylie Newbery (1864–1948) was born in Paisley, near Glasgow, on 28 May 1864, one of the four children of William Rowat and his wife, Margaret Downie Hill. William Rowat was a shawl manufacturer and later tea importer who had strong views about women receiving an education. She attended a private school in Paisley before progressing to a boarding school in Edinburgh.[1] Like her father, Jessie had a very  independent nature and at the age of eighteen she went on a cultural trip to Italy, where she became interested in mosaics, textiles, pottery, and ‘peasant crafts’. Throughout her life she collected textiles from Italy, Russia and the Balkans. In 1884 she enrolled as a student at the Glasgow School of Art until 1888.[2] Ten years later she became head of the school’s department of embroidery, which she had established earlier.

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Victoria & Albert Museum (CIRC.189-1953)

Although Needlework classes were already being taught in the school’s premises at 3 Rose street, it was arguably Jessie’s influence which made the department exceptional and set it apart from all the other Art Schools. In 1894 she re-organised the classes, with Jessie teaching one afternoon class and two evening classes in design, and she began a radical course in ‘Art Needlework’ which created a whole new aesthetic and associated teaching standards. She introduced examples of historic embroidery including 15th century embroideries and 17th century textiles as she believed that such examples would allow the students to understand the intricate techniques and how to implement them.


As Liz Arthur states in ‘Glasgow Girls’ Women in Art and Design 1880-1920’, Jessie ‘created  new aesthetic standards for embroidery through honest simplicity of design and good craftsmanship, which resulted in highly acclaimed work of a very distinctive character.’[3] She was forceful in her belief that embroidery was an art form available to all social classes and could be worked on just as well on cheap fabrics or expensive ones.  Like her husband Fra, she supported and expressed the Art and Crafts ethos that everyday objects should be beautiful and this is perhaps why particularly in the early years, her students produced an array of utilitarian objects including cushions, bags and table cloths  – all using simple stitches appropriate to the initial design of the object and it’s materials.

Fra and Anne Macbeth
Ann Macbeth with Fra Newbery. Image taken from GSA Archives 

In 1899 when GSA’s administration was taken over by the Scottish Education Department the embroidery classes were expanded to include further training for school teachers. Saturday classes in embroidery for both primary and secondary school teachers were established and after 3 years the attendees were eligible for a certificate in proficiency.

The Glasgow Society of Lady Artists’ Club House at 5 Blythswood Square, Glasgow.

Jessie was also influential in helping to change society’s perception of female designers and artists. She was a member of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists which was established in 1882 by eight female students of the GSA who desired for their work, as artists and designers, to be taken seriously as professionals. Encouraged by the establishment of the London Society of Female Artists who were established in 1855[4], and supported by Robert Greenless (1820-1894), the Director of GSA at the time, to start their own society, as women were excluded from all male run established and esteemed art societies, not only in Glasgow but throughout Scotland. Societies such as Glasgow Art Club, although being founded in 1867, only allowed women to join in 1983 and the Scottish Arts Club, based in Edinburgh, only allowed women entry in 1982 thus preventing women from networking and developing important relationships through such social means for over a hundred years.

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Banner designed and executed by Jessie Newbery & Ann Macbeth. Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum (LOAN:BRITISH ASSOC.1-2004)

She was also a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose Scottish branch was established in Glasgow in 1906. This is why in many of Jessie’s designs especially created with Ann Macbeth use the green and purple colours associated with the Suffrage movement.

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Banner designed and executed by Jessie Newbery & Ann Macbeth. Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum (LOAN:BRITISH ASSOC.1-2004)

Ann MacBeth, who was noted as Newbery’s ‘most talented and subsequently most influential student’[5] was invited to join the department, at first to assist with the Saturday classes but after 1904 she was placed in charge. MacBeth along with Margaret Swanson would go on to have a big impact in promoting needlework to the wider community and in particular the younger generation as they published Educational Needlecraft in 1911.

The book emphasised the practical aspects of embroidery without losing sight of originality or creativity. The aim was to develop craftsmanship in parallel with the child/novice improving co-ordination and eyesight without removing that element of freeing creativity. Arthur notes that this way of teaching needlework was so successful in schools that it was used in the Scottish primary education system into the 1950’s.

Jessie Newbery 3
Jessie & Fra in Dorset taken from a family album. Courtesy of the GSA Archives (GSAA/DIR/5/38/7)

Jessie’s role in shaping so many young people’s lives; her role in elevating embroidery to an artform; improving the standard in the school’s curriculum and her involvement in various bodies and societies  who championed women, cannot, and should not be forgotten. I think her friend and colleague De Courcy Lewthwaite Dewar summed up Jessie very well when she stated she was a ‘charmingly gentle artist and a strong backbone’ regarding driving the curriculum forward and creating space for female designers[7] She definitely deserves to be celebrated not only in Paisley but throughout the whole of Scotland.


[1] Liz Arthur, Glasgow Girls: Artists and Designers, 1890-1930 (Kirkcudbright: Kirkcudbright 2000 Ltd, 2010). pp 80

[2] Arthur. pp 80

[3] Liz Arthur, ‘Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920’, n.d., 147 158.

[4] Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth-Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure (Ashgate, 2000). pp 31

[5] Liz Arthur, ‘Ann Macbeth’, in Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920, n.d., 152–58.

[6] Jude Burkhauser, Glasgow Girls Women in the Art School 1880-1920 (Department of Historical and Critical Studies, Glasgow School of Art, 1988). Pp 54

[7] Burkhauser. pp 151

For more information see The Glasgow School of Art Website and The Victoria & Albert Museum website.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Eilene Lyon says:

    I love stories about accomplished women such as Jessie. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure she must be an inspiration for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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