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Sylvia Pankhurst at the Tate Britain


sylvia pankhurst, angel freedom, working women, Tate BritainSylvia Pankhurst made a profound impact on the fight for women’s rights as both an artist and a campaigner.

A display about Sylvia Pankhurst at London’s Tate Britian, devised by curator Emma Chambers with The Emily Davison Lodge as part of the Tate’s Spotlight series is up and running – until 23 March.

Sylvia Pankhurst trained at the Manchester Municipal School of Art where she won a host of awards before gaining a 2-year scholarship to the Royal College of Art – with the distinction of having the highest grades of any candidate.

She went on to be a key figure in the work of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) set up with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel in 1903, using her artistic skills to further the cause.

Pankhurst’s lifelong interest was in the rights of working women, and she used her artistic skills in the fight for women’s rights, designing badges, banners and flyers, and recording the lives of working women.

In 1907 she spent several months touring industrial communities documenting the working and living conditions of women workers.

Living in the communities she studied, she painted and wrote about industrial processes and the women who performed them.

Working in gouache, which she found ideal for working quickly under factory conditions, her studies of women at work were unusual for the time in their unsentimental observation and their focus on individual workers.

Pankhurst’s detailed account of working conditions and wages was published as an illustrated article ‘Women Workers of England’ in the London Magazine in November 1908, and as a series of articles on individual trades in the WSPU journal Votes for Women between 1908 and 1911.

Her combination of artworks with written accounts provided a vivid picture of the lives of women workers and made a powerful argument for improvement in working conditions and pay equality with men.

Writing about the ‘pit-brow lassies’ of Wigan Pankhurst said: ‘In spite of their great strength and the arduous labours they perform, they are, like most other women workers, very poorly paid…

‘A bankswoman earns from 1s 10d to 2s 4d; whilst a banksman, doing exactly the same work gets from 4s 9d to 5s a day.

‘It is this question of underpayment that is at the root of most of the hardship and suffering.’

Pankhurst’s designs for the WSPU quickly evolved from depicting women workers in a socialist realist style, as seen on an early membership card which reflects the origins of the WSPU in the Manchester labour movement.

She began to develop more symbolic representations of the organisation’s ideals and values, designing several key images which were extensively used on printed materials, banners, badges and crockery.

All of these were executed in the WSPU colours of purple, white and green, introduced by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in 1908 and symbolising dignity, purity and hope.

Pankhurst designed badges, banners and flyers for the WSPU. Her most widely used work was her symbolic ‘angel of freedom’ blowing a trumpet, which became an essential element of the visual image of the campaign, alongside the WSPU colours of white, green and purple.

Others included a woman breaking free from prison gates, stepping over broken chains and carrying a ‘votes for women’ streamer, and a woman sowing the seeds of emancipation.

As the suffrage campaign intensified she struggled to balance her artistic and political work, and in 1912 she gave up art to devote herself to the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the organisation she founded to ensure that working-class women were represented in the suffrage campaign.

Pankhurst was one of many women artists involved in creating designs for the suffrage campaign and active in militant protest. She was imprisoned many times and endured weeks and months of hunger, thirst and sleep strikes in Holloway Prison.

She wrote several books, including a book calling on the reform of maternity care, Save the Mothers, published in 1930, a history of the struggle for the vote, The Suffrage Movement, published in 1931 and an account of her war experiences in the East End, The Home Front published in 1932.

She was active in politics throughout her life. She moved to Ethiopia in 1956, where she helped to found the Social Service Society and edited a monthly periodical, the Ethiopia Observer, and died in Addis Ababa, on 27 September 1960.

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