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There’s Nothing Corny About the Maids

Updated: May 25, 2023

An Interview with Francesca Rowse

By Amanda-Jane Reynolds


Francesca Rowse 'Maids' photography series. © Francesca Rowse

In today’s Britain, most people can agree that traditional gender roles are outdated and no longer have a place in contemporary life. But women have had to prove themselves to be plenty capable throughout history. Women who instantly come to mind are the mathematician and mechanical computer programmer Ada Lovelace, feminist artist Gwen John, and the grafting women within the Suffragettes movement throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women throughout the centuries have remained somewhat unnoticed, yet displayed great academia, creativity, and independence. Cornish artist Francesca Rowse is using photography and curational endeavours to highlight the truth about contemporary and historical Cornwall, its outdated gender roles and a sense of living in limbo.

Rowse was born and raised in Cornwall, England, and like many Cornish girls felt the overwhelming gentrification of her home county. Rowse is the first in her family of fishermen and farmers to attend university and chase a career in the arts. Growing up in a male-dominated region, Rowse couldn’t help but question her purpose within local society. Her photographic series ‘Maids’ has simultaneously empowered the young women of Cornwall, whilst revealing the off-season bleak reality of a rural, coastal town. Rowse hopes to expand her projects to introduce opportunities to Cornish women beyond the traditional female roles.

Her contemporary curation celebrates new ideas of regional identities, rejecting white cube, highbrow gallery spaces and presents new ideas to transform creative spaces into places of celebration and community. Places for everyone to experience, despite their circumstance; pink walls, bejewelled doors, pop princess playlists, tattoos and piercings, you feel like you are walking into a 2003 bedroom full of glittering dreams. Rowse subtly confronts contemporary issues and struggles for women, especially in rural towns, whilst weaving in historical archive images to bridge the gap between the modern Cornish maid and their historical counterparts.

I had the opportunity to speak with Francesca Rowse about her creative practice, photographic series ‘Maids’and curatorial opportunities.

A-J: Could you tell us a bit about ‘Maids’ and where your inspiration for the photographic series began?

FR: I just did it. I can't pinpoint any direct inspiration other than lived experience. I felt a sense of disconnect between myself and my home county, so I turned to creativity to explore my identity and what it means to be Cornish, as well as what it means aesthetically to be female.

Francesca Rowse 'Maids' photography series. © Francesca Rowse

A-J: With an educational background in Fine Arts, you have mentioned that you had to convince your parents that following this path was a good decision. Why do you think this is a typical reaction to those pursuing a creative career?

FR: I can't comment for other people but for me, it came from living in a rural community that doesn't have access to the art world. If you can't see it, you can't be it.

A-J: Your work seems to harbour a kitsch approach, which you have described to be a way of gaining control by encapsulating femininity, whilst also utilising it to suit the benefits of our ‘sisters’. This has resulted in you being named as the creator of ‘the Cornish bimbo look’, which is playfully contradictive and slanderous. How have you responded to misogynistic views and comments through your work?

FR: Why is it that as soon as we start enjoying our appearance and celebrating femininity, it's seen as negative? Like the John Berger quote, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and called the painting ‘Vanity’”.

I haven’t experienced a huge amount of misogynistic views and comments through my work, which is really positive, but when there are misogynistic comments, I find it really funny and frankly embarrassing for them. All the spaces I am making are for women, by women, to take back what people think we should be ashamed of and make it ours again. So, when these ideas are used against me and my work negatively, it just confirms what my work is saying.

Francesca Rowse 'Maids' photography series. © Francesca Rowse

A-J: You recognise a similarity between the art world and Cornwall being a traditionally male-dominated hierarchy. What are your personal experiences with male-dominated industries and how are you hoping to push the boundaries for femme presence within these places?

FR: Growing up, my personal experience has been that everything is run by men! Cornwall is traditionally dominated by fishing and farming industries, and my family is full of fishermen and farmers, so I was in the thick of it.

Seeing men as heroic and women being secondary was the norm for a very long time until I started to learn about feminism. I quickly learnt that art history, and at times, art spaces, were also dominated by and presented through the male gaze.

I was challenged the other day at a symposium by someone questioning why we have to point out an exhibition as being a ‘women's exhibition’ or ‘women-led’, why should it matter about gender? I hear this. But I think for so long we have fought to get female artists recognised and heard in art spaces, so why now would we shed our gender? It's almost like, you can show but do you have to say you are a woman? What's wrong with being female in your artwork? Often it is important to acknowledge the fact that the space is about women for women, exploring and supporting themes and experiences that bring women together.

A-J: Cornwall’s current economic status is another concern that you have voiced alongside the outdated gender role traditions. Cornwall blossoms as a tourist destination in the summer months but for the rest of the year can become bleak, with many struggling with unemployment and poverty. How does ‘MAIDS’ respond to this issue?

FR: It is a HUGE issue, and sadly one that isn't widely spoken about. The images tell the truth. I photograph the girls in and around their homes, showing their dreams alongside the reality of our lives. The backgrounds aren't found to make a narrative but are the backdrop to our life. And I think this is striking to people that only know the idealised Cornwall.

'Cornish Maids' exhibition curated by Francesca Rowse at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, 10th February 2023. Image by Steve Tanner, @stevetanner

A-J: Your photographic series ‘Maids’ has developed into ‘Cornish Maids’, where you are now working collaboratively to build and widen this community of rural and creative women. How do you hope ‘Cornish Maids’ will change and improve Cornish culture?

FR: It has been a natural growth from ‘Maids’ to ‘Cornish Maids’, and it is now a world for women in Cornwall. ‘Cornish Maids’ is making change. ‘Maids’ is my photographic project, whilst ‘Cornish Maids’ is my curational project and the space has already raised profiles of female artists.

I curate traditional, clinical galleries into a place of energy, celebration and interaction. Bringing in people from marginalised communities across Cornwall, I open the doors and welcome people that would have never been to a gallery before.

A-J: Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are clear idols in your vision of ultimate femininity from the 2000s. Could you tell us why these women and what is the significance of the Y2K epoch?

FR: The pop culture references are to create an initial visual that is recognisable, which overlays marginalised rural communities. In my opinion, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are the epitome of unapologetic femininity. They are so clever to have manipulated the controversial visual of the ‘bimbo aesthetic’ to build a brand and visual world. Y2K for me is nostalgic, despite it being a world that I was so far from, but now, I'm making up for it.

The world I have built is an expression of my own dreams and exploration of identity, and I am now endlessly blown away that the response has been so huge. I love sharing it, creating a world for women and girls where we can celebrate ourselves.

Piercings by No Divide Piercing & Tattoo at 'Cornish Maids' exhibition opening, curated by Francesca Rowse at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, 10th February 2023. Image by Steve Tanner, @stevetanner

A-J: You recently worked with Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange curating their current exhibition ‘We Are Floating in Space’, where you brought in bespoke ‘Cornish Princess’ transfer tattoos and piercing booths. This is an intriguing way to appeal to younger demographics and build a sense of community, creating a more fun, friendly environment compared to the more uptight feeling from typical galleries. Why do you feel it is important that you alter the environment for your exhibitions, and what effect have you seen on visitors from doing so?

FR: Growing up I never went to exhibitions, and honestly, I'm still the same. They make me feel uncomfortable. I don't feel like I belong there. The highbrow feeling is unnecessary and archaic. Let's make these spaces something to enjoy. The art is beautiful and a visual experience, so why don't we follow this up with the actual space? The transfer tattoos and piercing booth is to make a welcoming and fun space.

Francesca Rowse 'Maids' photography series. © Francesca Rowse

A-J: You have expressed an interest in historical references and incorporating archives into your curation and exhibitions. Do you feel it is important to reflect on our past when imagining our future?

FR: There is a huge blind spot in Cornish archives about women. Cornish archives tend to be dominated by men with very few images of women and many male-focused items.

I am reconsidering and building an archive for the ‘Cornish woman’ that we can all relate to.

A-J: Congratulations on ‘Maids’ being selected as a runner-up to be shown at the Royal West Academy, with the exhibition to also be shown in London and Bristol later in the year. These will be great platforms to showcase your photographic portfolio and its intentions of celebrating femmes, regardless of their roots. What do you hope these exhibitions will offer ‘Maids’ and your future as an artist and curator?

FR: I know all the work has come through me but honestly it is about representing Cornwall and the unrecognised girls and women. I hope it raises the voices of women in Cornwall and helps to rebuild a new Cornish cultural identity that we recognise and connect with.

'Cornish Maids' exhibition curated by Francesca Rowse at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, 10th February 2023. Image by Steve Tanner, @stevetanner

A-J: What can we expect to see from yourself and ‘Cornish Maids’ in the coming years?

FR: A lot. It's become something I never imagined it would be, and I'm excited because it's something very special that will keep growing.

A-J: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your artistic and curational practice with us. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?

FR: Make something from your heart that truly matters to you.

It is clear that Rowse has an important message to spread regarding female empowerment, using inspiration from the past and present to fuel the Cornish femme future. Rowse’s unique eye for photography, playful Y2K-inspired styling, and relaxed approach to curating embodies her unmistakable passion to celebrate femininity and the opportunities available to women.

Whether you agree or not with Rowse’s idea on the true representation of femininity, she uses her personal experience to produce a raw and impactful portrayal. With the success in voicing her important message, she has her eyes set on exciting projects that will only make herself, Cornish women and ‘Maids’ harder to ignore.

“Everyone is starting to listen and we are only getting louder” – Fran Rowse, 2023.



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