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, becoming an auctioneer for Sotheby’s at the age of 38. The idea of a woman wielding a hammer was so unusual that when papers reported the story, the only other example one of them could find was of a woman conducting the weekly auction at the Mansfield Cattle Market.

Evelyn was the younger daughter of a vicar, William Hagger Barlow, who went on to become 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 of standing up in front of large groups, which was a great asset when she entered the sale room: ‘I knew how to address and hold an audience’, she later reflected. She worked for the Y.W.C.A. between 1915 and 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 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 in the First World War, 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 who was already working there for over a year when Evelyn joined, (Emily) Millicent Sowerby (1883-1977), a Cambridge graduate. 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, she did not include one of herself.

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 an equally exceptional moustache…

Sir (Clement) Anderson Montague-Barlow
by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons
bromide print, circa 1916
© 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 when she broke with nearly 200 years of tradition and made her debut on the rostrum on 22nd July, she created a sensation. Some were expecting dealers to flee in horror but instead they just stood around making exclamations of dismay and concerned comments. Evelyn was unperturbed, conducting the sale with great sang-froid. She later recollected that she had not been particularly nervous about her early auctions: ‘the sale room crowds in those days were not great.. The main thing to do is keep a clear head, refuse 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 made a Director of Sotheby’s, the only woman. She started spending less time with gavel in hand, her time taken up with the responsibilities that came with running the department of prints and pictures.

She oversaw the sales of significant collections, often running two a day between October and July, with overall accountability for preparing the sale catalogues, managing a large team of experts like Millicent who made sure item descriptions were accurate with well-judged 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.

Interviewed in 1927 by Good Housekeeping, she had no regrets about entering ‘the swift stream of commerce.’ She found the work interesting and absorbing and felt that she had gained the respect of her friends. ‘I can go into their homes feeling that they are interested in my existence. Having spent a profitable day, I am better enabled to spend a profitable evening. I appreciate my leisure time much more than when I had more of it.’

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. Evelyn is another DNB Ghost, not even named in her father’s entry but with more and more women now finally being allowed to lead the most prestigious evening sales, perhaps it is time she was given her rightful place in the history of auctioneering.


Sources: Reading Observer 13/2/1915; Larne Times 3/8/1918; Sheffield Independent 5/4/1919; 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

‘Under the Hammer’ – an interview with Miss E Barlow by Andrue Berding in Good Housekeeping May 1927

‘Rare People and Rare Books’ by E. Millicent Sowerby (1967)

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