If Valhalla exists in Britain, then it can be found in St Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament. A neo-classical gallery designed by Charles Barry in 1842, it is lined with statues of venerable men and framed by famous scenes from British history. To stand in its centre, on its intricately pattered encaustic floor, beneath the 29-metre-high ceiling, is to experience a strident, opulent lesson in male imperial power – one so commanding it might well compel a radical act of defiance from those it disregards. Such an action was taken by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1913 when, while waiting for the labour MP Keir Hardie, she threw a lump of concrete at one of the pictures.
It was not the first time the Hall had been the site of direct action by the suffragettes (others had chained themselves to the sculptures) but this defiant deed had been executed in response to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to ‘strike the enemy through their property’. The leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had become increasingly militant, initiating a wave of assaults on shop fronts and artworks. Thirteen attacks were made on Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery; John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry James on display at the Royal Academy was hacked at with a meat cleaver; and, most notoriously, in 1914, Diego Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647) at the National Gallery was slashed with a meat cleaver. That paintings came in for such a beating is perhaps not as surprising as first appears given that many of the suffragettes were artists. As Elizabeth Crawford explains in Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists (2018), it was the very experience of training as an artist – where they faced discrimination in relation to scholarships, travel grants and life drawing classes – that radicalized these women into joining the movement in the first place.
In short, 19th-century women could study fine art, but not expect to make a living from it. And one of the reasons why dates to a curious historical anomaly. According to the historian Irene Cockcroft, author of New Dawn Women (2005), in the later part of the 1800s Britain had a spinster problem: there was a surplus of young, unmarried women from all socio-economic backgrounds. A combination of emigration – three men emigrated to every woman – and an inclination by men to marry late, resulted in 1.5 million unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 40. At the same time, the Arts and Crafts Movement was prospering. William Morris employed women in the ‘domestic arts’ of embroidery, tapestry and illustration and these skills came to be seen as respectable professions. Art schools were encouraged to admit young women with the aim of teaching them a skill that could be used to earn a living and thus solve a potential crisis.
But the Arts and Crafts Movement was also political and its enlightened socialist attitudes began to permeate the art institutions and the small, female-run collectives that operated on the peripheries of the artistic establishment. Students discussed politics and read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and a women’s debating society was established in 1864. This learning brought into existence a cohesive and radically simple idea: if fine art was closed to women, then the domestic arts must be subverted to their advantage and used to gain female emancipation.
In total, there were about 100 artists associated with the Suffrage movement although not all were women – the Bloomsbury painter Duncan Grant was responsible for the famous poster Handicapped (1909), depicting a woman battling the waves with sculls while a bright young man glides by with the wind in his sail. According to Crawford, many belonged to one of two groups: The Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL) or the Suffrage Atelier (SA), and both were heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. The ASL was founded in 1907 and began by making embroidered banners for marches and demonstrations. The fiercely intelligent Slade graduate Mary Lowndes described, with a persuasive clarity, the importance of these banners in promoting the suffragette message in an article in 1909 for the magazine The Englishwoman. She wrote: ‘It is not a placard. A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half show and half conceal a device you long to unravel: you do not want to read it, you want to worship it.’ These banners, many of which are now held by The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, were an essential part of the WSPU’s campaign. As Government measures for controlling women became tighter – with the forced feeding of hunger-strike suffrage campaign prisoners and the ‘Cat and Mouse’ legislation (in which prisoners on hunger-strike would be released and then re-arrested again) – these banners were used to commemorate the victories and sacrifices of fellow campaigners and raise public support. Later the ASL designed merchandise including suffrage jewellery and tea sets to help finance the cause.
The SA was formed two years later in 1909 with the intention of publishing propaganda cartoons, postcards, posters and pamphlets to be distributed at meetings. These were often humorous and highlighted the absurdity of their situation. Emily Harding Andrews’ poster Convicts, Lunatics and Women! Have No Vote for Parliament (c.1910) depicts an elegant female graduate behind bars saying ‘It is time I got out of this place. Where shall I find the key?’. The SA’s messages were strong and urgent, often cheaply printed in wood or lino-cut. Both groups exploited religious symbolism and cited powerful women from history like Joan of Arc, to promote the idea that suffrage was consistent with virtue, saintliness and honour.
Much of the activity conducted by these two organizations centred on Chelsea, a borough populated by London’s demi-monde. It was here, in a febrile and cerebral atmosphere, that the suffrage artists encountered members of the European avant-garde who subsequently became their supporters. For the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the suffragettes shared a common goal, a desire to destroy the symbols of patriarchal power. ‘In this campaign for liberation, our best allies are the suffragettes’ he stated in his 1911 book Le Futurisme. In fact, their militant tactics were so inspiring he made universal suffrage a key demand in the Fascist Manifesto, which he co-authored in 1919. Even the prickly and misanthropic Vorticist Wyndham Lewis was a champion, writing in 1914 for the first edition of the short-lived magazine Blast: ‘We admire your energy. You and artists are the only things […] left in England with a little life left in them.’ Today, these supporters are used to legitimize the suffragettes’ avant-garde credibility in relation to their attacks on property, yet the art the movement produced is still overlooked or dismissed as little more than political propaganda.
It was something the contemporary artists Olivia Plender and Hester Reeve (operating under the name The Emily Davidson Lodge) confronted on curating an exhibition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s art at Tate Britain in 2013. Sylvia was one of the most prolific artists of the suffrage movement and she considered art a vital tool in the Votes of Women campaign. She was responsible for the Boadicea-like ‘Angel of Freedom’ motif, which appeared on the first cover of the WSPU newspaper Votes for Women in 1908 and became the ubiquitous symbol of women’s suffrage. Around the same time she also created the iconic image of a young woman emerging from a prison gate, stepping over her broken chains accompanied by a flock of doves. But Sylvia was also a socialist, who believed in putting her art at the service of the poor. She toured Britain’s industrial heartlands, making paintings of working class women labouring in factories. These pictures, which documented the harsh realities and the women’s subordination to the men, were published in the London Magazine in 1908 and are credited, according to The Emily Davidson Lodge, with forcing a change in the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Asquith’s mind ‘when he realised just how many British women constituted the nation’s workforce.’ Like many of the artists associated with the suffrage movement, few of Pankhurst’s pictures survive. After decades of bitter struggle, voting rights were finally granted to a section of women in 1918, with full rights being granted in 1928. But the professional artists who had found a voice through the women’s suffrage movement, were subsequently silenced by a male dominated art world. Few are regarded today and much of their work has disappeared. Property bequeathed to libraries and institutions, like that of the landscape painter Bertha Newcombe, cannot be traced, although occasionally works do come to light. In 1916 Cambridge University Library discovered a rare and valuable collection of suffrage posters wrapped in brown paper which had been sent to the University in 1910 by Dr Marion Phillips, a leading figure in the movement.
That Pankhurst and other artists of the suffrage movement have been overlooked in the history of art is partly a result of misogyny, but also because of a conservative idea that art is a sphere separate from politics. The Emily Davidson Lodge argue that Pankhurst and her colleagues ‘did not so much abandon art for political action, as substitute one form of artistic representation for another’. That much of this was achieved through the prism of the Arts and Crafts Movement reveals not only how influential this society was, but also how canny the artists were at using the aesthetics open to them. The history of modern art, particularly in relation to Feminist art, is littered with the carcases of collectives who worked outside of the mainstream, eventually disappearing altogether in an art world still in thrall to the individual artist. Yet, it is certain that these highly-educated, subversive women did much to change the landscape of art, influencing later, second-wave feminist artists – from See Red, the 1970s Feminist poster collective; to the Pattern and Decoration Movement and Femmage. Pankhurst’s rock was hurled in frustration at an injustice, but it forced society to confront the cosy relationship between the state, the elite, capitalism and the art establishment – and it still reverberates today.
Main Image: Women’s suffrage activists, 1907–22. Courtesy: Mary Lowndes Album, The Women’s Library, London School of Economics