Cai Lyons

Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies
Doctoral researcher

Contact details

PhD Title: ‘The Wandering Artist’: pan-European modernism(s) in the career of Mary Swanzy (1882-1978), c1900-1947.
Supervisor: Dr Francesca Berry and Dr Gregory Salter
PhD History of Art


  • BA (University College Dublin)
  • MLIS (University College Dublin)
  • MA (University of Birmingham)


Cai Lyons is the Haywood Art History Doctoral Scholar in the Department of Art History, Curating, and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham. Their doctoral research focuses on the artist Mary Swanzy to ask how a woman artist positioned herself as a professional working artist in the contexts of early twentieth-century pan-European modernism(s). Cai has been published in Ad Alta: Birmingham Journal of Literature and the Midlands Art Papers, and written for The Modernist Review. Awarded a scholarship to travel to New Zealand, Cai will present a paper at the Australasian Modernist Studies Network Conference in December 2022.


  • Historical Concepts in the History of Art (2019/2020, 2021/2022)


Mary Swanzy was an artist who participated in the exchange of artistic concerns and modernist aesthetic idioms from the turn of the twentieth century until her death in 1978. She and her artwork journeyed between Dublin, London, and Paris, all pivotal locations of international, pan-European artistic exchange. However, the specifics of these journeys and their impact on her career have remained frustratingly vague or even inaccurate. Swanzy’s place in Irish visual art, as with her place in wider continental European modernism, has always been subjected to the discourses surrounding the topics of gender, religion, social class, colonialism, and national identity.

The two questions at the heart of this thesis are, firstly, how does a woman artist, with unsteady and shifting identities, position herself as a working professional artist? And, secondly, how does her artwork, shown in a range of locations and entangled with global knowledge production, cultural exchanges, and artistic practices, act as manifestations of pan-European modernisms? The later leads to theorising Swanzy and her career as a specific case study in the ‘uneven, geo-historical distribution of modernisms’ (Brooker and Thacker, 2005: 3). A prolific and peripatetic artist, scholarship concerning Swanzy’s career and exhibition history between 1900 and 1947 has hitherto remained fragmented. Thus, this thesis also accounts for the neglected specificities of both, contextualising them as part of the network and geography of pan-European modernisms to demonstrate the porous borders and transnational exchange of modernist aesthetic idioms.

Research interests: 

  • Pan-European modernisms
  • Geographies of art
  • Feminist art history
  • Mobilities and travel
  • Postcolonial theory
  • Irish art history
  • Irish visual culture
  • Professionalism
  • Twentieth-century art
  • Twentieth-century visual culture

Other activities

Conference papers:

  • 'Lea Bondi Jaray (1880-1969) in the mirror of Mary Swanzy (1882-1978)', Association for Art History Conference (online), 14-17 April 2021.
  • ‘A Radical Encounter? The careers of Mary Swanzy and Jessica Dismorr', Radical Women Symposium, Pallant House Gallery, 7-8 February 2020.
  • 'Mary Swanzy’s Travels: Mapping Out Belonging from Displacement', Galway Centre for Irish Studies Conference, NUI Galway, 7-8 June 2019.
  • 'De-Centralising Literary Modernism: The Modernist Exhibition in Ireland, 1905-1945', Modernist Studies Ireland Conference, NUI Galway, 17-18 May 2019.


  • ‘‘hibiscus in your dark hair’: the body and identity in Mary Swanzy’s Nude Study, Samoa (1924)’, Association for Art History’s Doctoral and Early Career Research Network Conference, 17 November 2022.
  • ‘‘hibiscus in your dark hair’: Mary Swanzy in American Samoa', Australasian Modernist Studies Network Conference, University of Auckland, 12-14 December 2022.



  • Lyons, C. (2019/20) ‘Alicia Foster’s Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries (2019)’, Ad Alta: The Birmingham Journal of Literature, XI, pp. 67-79.


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