Margaret Harrison

Homeworkers

1977

Artist
Margaret Harrison born 1940
Medium
Acrylic paint, printed paper, linen, graphite, woollen scarf, 3 metal brooches, household glove, 29 plastic buttons and wool on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 2200 x 2440 mm
support: 305 x 2440 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2011
Reference
T13631

Not on display

Summary

Homeworkers 1977 is the central piece of a multidisciplinary project that comprised photographs, interviews, news clippings and a large canvas documenting the situation of non-unionised women doing manual work at home. A painting in two parts, Homeworkers comprises a title canvas with the words ‘HOMEWORK HOMEWORKERS’ stencilled on it in blue and black, and a main canvas on which the artist has applied many different mediums such as acrylic, graphite and collage. The information on the main canvas is organised horizontally in a series of rows that juxtapose a case study of the home-worker Mrs McGilvrey – with whom Harrison worked very closely for a two year period, and who worked assembling tax forms – with newspaper clippings and historical data on the workers’ movement. The words ‘women’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘discrimination’ are stencilled in black and red on top of a row of seven hands drawn in different colours, which symbolise the manual work involved in piece work. Below this, a series of advertisements for women’s products – mostly make-up products from glossy magazines – are glued to the surface of the canvas. Between the advertisements the artist has written significant dates in employment history, such as ‘1972 Contracts of Employments Acts’, ‘1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Acts’ or ‘1974 Health and Safety at Work Act’. Below this are stitched a number of pieces of clothing and accessories such as gloves, brooches, buttons and safety pins and, next to them, the artist has scribbled their selling price, together with the amount of hours that the workers invest in their production and the money they are paid for their work. Finally, there is a long sheet of paper glued across the bottom of the canvas with the title ‘A Homeworker: A Royal Charity and A Government Department’: a manifesto demanding improved conditions for home-workers.

For a period of two years, between 1975 and 1977, Harrison worked with the National Campaign for Homeworkers in London and, in particular, with Helen Eadie, a Trade Union officer campaigning to unionise home-workers. She followed the work of two piece workers Mrs McGilvrey – a case study of whom is included in the canvas – and Mrs Brewster, a button carder whose practice is included in the documentation section, together with a series of images from the turn of the nineteenth century, and quotes from other home-workers who were interviewed by the artist. By assembling all these elements together, Harrison built a picture of the working conditions for women at a time in which many low-paid jobs had moved into the domestic realm, and when outsourcing and the movement of capital was increasingly used as a means of manipulating workers and for quelling the workers’ movement.

Harrison advocated political action and strong political discourse as the only effective means of fighting for workers’ and women’s rights. In order to affect the political discourse more directly, her research on Homeworkers was initiated when the Equal Pay Act came into force in the United Kingdom in December 1975. Harrison had begun to engage with feminist action in the late 1960s. In 1970 she formed ‘London Women’s Liberation Art Group’ offering working women the chance to develop and learn art skills. A year later, she organised an exhibition exposing the exploitative use of women by the press and, in 1972, she joined the Artist’s Union and became active in setting up the Women’s Workshop, being elected to the Secretariat. The following year she began to work with artists Mary Kelly (born 1941) and Kay Fido Hunt (1933–2001) on the collective work Women and Work 1973–5 (Tate T07797). This led to her work on Homeworkers, when she realised that women were disappearing from workplace jobs while working at home was on the rise.

Together with Anonymous Was a Woman 1977 (reproduced in Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery 1980, p.8) and Rape 1978 (Arts Council Collection), Homeworkers represents Harrison’s main concern at the time, which was to experiment with social and political subject matter through the use of painting where form and content were one and the same thing. She was also reacting against contemporaneous painting styles such as abstract expressionism, which she considered to be lacking in content. ‘What many of us have been trying to do,’ she explained, ‘is to tackle some of the serious issues of the 1970s, and we feel that we have opened up the area … that the 60s were superficial and decorative and left us with very little to go on.’ (Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery 1980, p.14.)

Homeworkers was first exhibited at Battersea Art Centre, London in 1978, alongside Anonymous Was a Woman and Rape. The work was exhibited accompanied by photographs and documentary material, but has since been shown on its own as a painting in its own right.

Further reading
Margaret Harrison, Work for Cumberland and Recent Work, exhibition catalogue, Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle 1980.
Lucy R. Lippard, Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change, New York 1984, pp.83 and 132, reproduced p.133.

Carmen Juliá
May 2011

Display caption

Harrison advocated action and strong political discourse as the only effective means of fighting for workers’ and women’s rights. She began to research Homeworkers when the Equal Pay Act came into force in the UK in December 1975. Harrison worked with the National Campaign for Homeworkers in London for two years and interviewed several piece workers. The canvas includes items such as gloves, brooches, buttons and safety pins, flanked by their selling price, their production time and the money paid to their makers. The seven hands painted at the top symbolise the manual toil involved in piece work.

Gallery label, August 2013

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