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As a young artist at the turn of the 20th century, Sylvia Pankhurst battled discrimination in the institutional art world, while also developing strong political commitments

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Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), ix, 178pp.

In 1898 Sylvia was left devastated when her father, the person to whom she was closer than anyone else, died suddenly. Adding to her pain was the fact that her mother and older sister were abroad and Sylvia, aged 16 and left in charge, was filled with intense self-reproach for not having called her mother home sooner. Left with no income they had to move to a smaller house and sell their possessions, for which purpose they invited Richard Pankhurst’s friend and admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites, Charles Rowley, to advise on the value of their paintings. Sylvia remembered that Rowley was more struck by her own drawings  ‘and said I was more promising than the pictures’. They sent Sylvia’s work to the Municipal School of Art which won her a free studentship there. Although relishing the chance to develop as an artist she soon found herself confronted with political dilemmas. After the coronation of Edward VII in 1901, Sylvia, along with other art students, was commissioned to illustrate a page in an illuminated address to greet the King on his visit to Manchester. The profoundly republican Sylvia fulfilled the commission before going among the welcoming crowds to sell Keir Hardie’s pamphlet on unemployment titled ‘Open Letter to the King’.

In 1899 Britain plunged into another war, this time the Boer War in South Africa. The government and the press helped to whip up a tide of patriotic fervour which even some left-wing organisations were unable to resist. In 1900 Emmeline Pankhurst left the Fabian Society in protest at their refusal to oppose the war. At this time Sylvia attended a lecture given by Walter Crane at the School of Art during which he drew Britannia’s trident and made the critical comment ‘Let her be as careful to respect the liberties of others as she is in safeguarding her own’, which Sylvia reported for the school’s magazine. Another student who demonstrated her patriotism by dressing in khaki, demanded the removal of the article ‘declaring that she would follow me home and break our windows’. The Pankhurst family suffered considerable victimisation during the Boer War. Adela and Harry, who were both still at school, made their antiwar views known, for which Harry was beaten unconscious and Adela was hit in the face by a book thrown by another student, an action that was left unreproached by the teacher.

In 1902 Sylvia’s exceptional artistic talents were recognized when she was awarded a number of prizes including the Proctor Travelling Studentship, the highest prize awarded by the School of Art, which enabled her to study abroad. Sylvia chose Venice where she spent months copying the city’s dazzling mosaics as well as going into the streets to paint the ordinary Venetians – a precursor to her later studies of working people. She also flouted convention by asking to be admitted to the Academia delle Belle Arti’s life-drawing class where there were no women students. Although directed to work alone in the antique room, Sylvia was not so easily disarmed: ‘I guessed that I should never get into the life class if I waited to be sent there, and next day I simply walked in.’

From then on she took the class alongside the male students.

After her return to Britain in the spring of 1903 Sylvia was to experience far worse discrimination at the hands of the British artistic establishment. She came top of the list of those who entered for a National Scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1904 but soon found that however talented the women students were they were not treated as equals by the College. In fact discrimination against women was institutionalised:

The attitude of the all-male staff of the college was chauvinistic and patronising. They assumed that all women students would automatically become teachers, and not professional artists. Since most graduates, male or female, tended to earn their living initially by teaching, women graduates could only take up the posts still available after all the male graduates had taken their pick.
Although there were three hundred students, the accommodation they occupied (above part of the V&A) was very restricted. At some classes, such as life drawing, the men were allowed to take their places first, and only as many women students as could be fitted in would make up the class.

sylvia pankhurst

On arrival Sylvia was ‘informed by the students that there was great discrimination against women students in the award of prizes and scholarships obtainable at the college’. Sylvia had already become something of a spokesperson for the students, going to the Principal to inform him of the widespread resentment over the extensive and compulsory focus on architecture.
Rebellious women students were not taken kindly to and she was ‘ordered furiously from the room. Thereafter, whenever I met the Principal in the corridor, we glared at each other, like two savage dogs.’

Not one to let this deter her from taking up the issue of the scholarships, Sylvia had her old family friend Keir Hardie raise this as a question in Parliament. The answer that scholarships were awarded on a ratio of one woman to 13 men confirmed the long suspected discrimination. Despite her confidence in speaking up, Sylvia was personally very shy and she seems to have made only one real friend at the College, Amy Browning, a fellow rebellious student who had her own conflicts with the management. But by this time the shy and distant art student was living a double life – outside college she was helping to lead a new, militant protest movement.

This article is an extract from the chapter Art and Conflict, pp.13-16

Katherine Connelly

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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