Evelyn Barlow (1880-1962)

Born: Katharine Evelyn Faithfull Barlow

Sector: Retail (Specialised Consumer Services)

The labour shortage during the First World War opened up opportunities for women in a variety of occupations. One woman who unexpectedly ended up with a new job was Evelyn Barlow, who at the age of 38 became an auctioneer for Sotheby’s. The idea of a woman wielding a hammer was so unusual that when papers reported the story, they rounded it off by saying: ‘a woman auctioneer now conducts weekly business at the Mansfield Cattle Market’…

Evelyn was the younger daughter of a vicar, William Hagger Barlow, who went on to be Dean of Peterborough Cathedral. Evelyn worked as her father’s secretary and travelled widely with him, to Palestine, Egypt, Russia, Canada and India. In 1915, she gave a series of lectures on her tour of Russia and Finland, providing valuable experience in standing up in front of large groups. She reflected that this was a great asset when she entered the sale room: ‘I knew how to address and hold an audience.’ She worked for the Y.W.C.A. between from 1915-1917 and it was then that she joined Sotheby’s.

Evelyn Barlow in ‘The Sketch’ 7th August 1918
(c) Illustrated London News / http://www.maryevans.com

The opportunity came through her brother, Montague Barlow (1868-1951). A successful barrister and and businessman, he had joined Sotheby’s in 1907 as one of their directors and was elected as a Conservative MP for Salford South in 1910.

As more and more men went off to fight, and with the directors dealing with many other pulls on their time, Sotheby’s had to resort to hiring women. In 1917, Barlow recruited both his sisters, Evelyn and Margaret but it was Evelyn for whom it became a career.

Barlow’s attitude to women at work is described by another lively woman and Cambridge graduate who was already working there for over a year when Evelyn joined, (Emily) Millicent Sowerby (1883-1977). Her fledgling career as a rare book dealer had been interrupted by the war: recruited by MI5 to go to work for them in Paris for a stint, she had then been approached by Sothebys to take a job as a book cataloguer. Frustratingly, while Millicent’s autobiography includes photographs of three men she worked for, there is not one of her.

Millicent’s chief recollection of her job interview with Montague Barlow was ‘his terror of having to have women on the staff. His great concern was that any women employed by the firm should look as unattractive to the male as possible.’

He went on to explain that, with men the majority of buyers in the salerooms ‘it was important that their attention should not be distracted by elegant females’.

Millicent had to promise to wear an ‘unbecoming blue overall’ to cover her stylish Parisian dress and when once Barlow found her in her office wearing a bright pink jumper over the top, he was extremely consternated. That quirk aside, Millicent was a fan of Montague Barlow, ‘a most exceptional man.’

(With quite an exceptional moustache – he would have embraced Mo-vember..)

Sir (Clement) Anderson Montague-Barlow
by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons
bromide print, circa 1916
NPG Ax39044
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Having women around caused other issues, too: one porter was relegated permanently to the basement because his language was deemed ‘too picturesque’ for ladies’ ears. Perhaps this terror of women disrupting all the workplace rhythms accounts for Barlow being so keen to bring his sisters on board: at least they were a known quantity.

Abiding by the dress code was the least of Evelyn’s problems: on a far more practical level, there was no standard ‘auctioneer training course’ but auctioneers did need a licence, a bit like a driving licence, before they could conduct an auction. After watching and learning for a year, Evelyn obtained hers in 1918 and made her debut on the rostrum on 22nd July. An early auction was of Japanese coins and she later recollected that she had not been particularly nervous about it: ‘the sale room crowds in those days were not great.. The main thing to do is keep a clear head, refuses to be flustered and also to observe closely.’ She was always positive about her job, believing it provided ‘great scope for intelligent women.’

In 1920, the Auctioneers Institute decided to revise their rules to allow the admission of women. Evelyn carried on running auctions and by 1926 she was a Director, the only woman to four men. She started spending less time with gavel in hand, her time taken up with the responsibilities that came with the department of prints and pictures.

She oversaw the sales of significant collections, often two a day between October and July, which included overall accountability for the preparation of the sale catalogues, managing a large team of experts like Millicent who made sure the descriptions were accurate and gave value estimates. She had to stay up to speed with what was going on in the wider market and find out if any private sales were in the offing. She spent a lot of her time with potential buyers and sellers.

By the time Evelyn retired in 1933, still usually referred to as the only woman auctioneer in the country, her knowledge was ‘encyclopaedic’. Known for her calm assurance, London sale rooms were deemed to have lost ‘a keen mind and a gracious personality’.

Evelyn’s departure marked the start of a 43-year hiatus in women wielding the gavel at Sotheby’s. It was not until 1976 that another woman, Libby Howie, stepped onto the rostrum and by then the gap had been so long that Evelyn’s fifteen-year career was a distant memory. Instead 1976 was celebrated as the year when history was made. Perhaps it is therefore not unexpected that Evelyn is another DNB Ghost, not even named in her father’s entry.

By the time it celebrated its 250th anniversary last year, Sotheby’s had a good gender balance across its executive positions. However, the prestigious evening sales there were still a male bastion with, at that point, Helena Newman the only woman at the rostrum for these events since 1990; and here by letting one woman into the boy’s club, Sotheby’s was still doing infinitely better than its competitors. If women are not properly represented in the high-paying jobs, it is not surprising that in 2018 Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham’s reported gender pay gaps ranging from 22% to 37% and it is entirely predictable that Evelyn has been forgotten.

Sources: Reading Observer 13/2/1915; Larne Times 3/8/1918; Sheffield Independent 5/4/1919; ‘Rare People and Rare Books’ by E. Millicent Sowerby (1967) http://www.sothebys.com; ‘Sotheby’s Exhibition reveals long fight for gender equality’ Financial Times 10/3/2019; Penrith Observer 13/4/20; Dundee Courier 7/6/1926; The Sphere 19/6/26; Staffordshire Sentinel 12/8/1930; Peterborough Standard 13/10/1933; The Art Newspaper 5/4/2018; 25/5/2018.

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