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An exhibition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s painting is a timely opportunity to discover the committed art of a figure more famous for her political campaigning, finds Jacqueline Mulhallen

Sylvia Pankhurst painting

'The Chainmaker', from page 300 of 'Women Workers of England'. Caption: 'As soon as the iron is red-hot, she cuts off the length required for a link, and then beats it into shape.'

Sylvia Pankhurst was not only the subject of a new biography this autumn, Katherine Connelly's, Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, she also figures as an artist on exhibition at the Tate Gallery.

Sylvia was never honoured with an exhibition during her lifetime. She was never established, and, as she said herself, she gave up her ‘work as an artist at 27 years of age when I was just becoming efficient from the technical point of view’ [1]. Some of her paintings have been included in such exhibitions as the Barbican’s Edwardian Exhibition (1987) but this is the first time since 1982 that Sylvia has had an exhibition to herself!

The Tate has only devoted one room to the works, and has limited its exhibits almost exclusively to the paintings in the possession of Sylvia’s family; her son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter have lent their own paintings. Among these, the paintings are chiefly those of the ‘Women Workers of England’; her early street scenes of Venice and her sketches of women dancing, which appear to be the last ones she made before giving up her art, are not included.

The paintings that are included in the exhibition are of women working in the potteries in Stoke on Trent, the Leicester shoe-making industry, in the Glasgow cotton mill where Sylvia was allowed to paint, and one of the ‘fisher lassies’ Sylvia painted in Scarborough. These women toured the coast and followed the fishing fleet, and Sylvia said that they were much healthier than the other women she painted, as they worked out of doors. She thought the same of the ‘pitbrow lassies’ who worked above ground in the mining industry, remarking that ‘they were almost stronger than the men’[2]. But in general Sylvia grieved at how poor, how badly paid, how overworked these women were, usually having to look after their children and homes as well as working for sometimes a third of the wages of the men in the industry.

Her paintings show women unselfconscious, concentrating on the task in hand, seemingly unaware of the artist. At the same time, Sylvia has captured real individuals in these portraits and their expressions reflect their personalities. Sylvia’s work also showed an authentic background of the working environment. I have compared some of the paintings to photographs of women workers in the potteries and at the pit brow, and the details were accurate. Also, someone who worked in the cotton mills as a boy told me that he saw the same accuracy in her paintings of cotton mills.

Sylvia painted these pictures to accompany some articles she wrote about women’s working conditions, some for Votes for Women, the magazine published by the Women’s Social and Political union (WSPU), or the ‘suffragettes’ as they were known. One of the articles was published in The London Magazine, 1908, and this was accompanied by illustrations, one in colour. When I came across a copy of this rare magazine in 1991, I realised that out of seven of the illustrations, only one was known about. It is really a great find because two of the paintings are of pit brow lassies in Wigan, and two are of women nail and chain makers in the Black Country district, Cradley Heath. We would have no record of Sylvia’s work there were it not for the survival of this magazine. The current exhibition has a facsimile of the article and pictures but does not draw attention to the uniqueness of this record. It would be a wonderful thing if the originals were ever found.

In 1982, to mark the centenary of her birth, Sylvia’s son, Dr. Richard Pankhurst, organised an exhibition of her paintings at the Museum of Labour History, then in Poplar. He was amazed to find that there was another collection of paintings as well as his own, belonging to a woman whose grandfather had owned the building Sylvia had rented as the Women’s Hall in Bow during the First World War. Sylvia had not always had the money for the rent, and, in the time-honoured way of an artist, gave her landlord a painting in lieu.

When he died in the 1950s they may well have been thrown out had it not been for his grand-daughter who begged to keep them. Sadly, she herself could not keep them and in 2001 they were sold. Only three of these paintings were in the Tate Gallery exhibition. As the focus of the exhibition was on Sylvia’s paintings of women workers, it is a great pity that more of them could not have been shown as it would not have been difficult to locate them.

Nevertheless, it is a good opportunity to see some of Sylvia’s paintings of working women collected together, and if you did not know that Sylvia was an artist and are interested in seeing paintings of working women just over one hundred years ago, you should visit the Tate. The exhibition also includes some of Sylvia’s designs for the WSPU: a decorated address and the ‘Holloway brooch’, presented to the suffragettes who had been on hunger strike, and a banner and a tea set with the motif of a trumpeting angel. This is a bright and amusing little figure which could be seen as attempting to rouse women from their slumber. But I think that the ‘Women Workers of England’, as Sylvia entitled her article, are the figures which will haunt your memory.

Exhibition: BP Spotlight: Sylvia Pankhurst, Tate Britain: Display, 16 September 2013 –23 March 2014, Admission Free

Notes

[1] Quoted in Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst Artist and Crusader, Paddington Press, 1979, p.218

[2] ‘Votes for Women’, quoted in Sylvia Pankhurst Artist and Crusader,p.79

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