BP Spotlight: Sylvia Pankhurst
Tate Britain: Display
16 September 20136 April 2014
Free
Part of the series BP Spotlights

This autumn, Tate Britain shines a light on Sylvia Pankhurst and her artistic skills in the fight for women’s rights, designing badges, banners and flyers, and recording the lives of working women

Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960) made a profound impact on the fight for women’s rights as both an artist and a campaigner. Trained at the Manchester Municipal School of Art and the Royal College of Art, she was 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. In 1907 she spent several months touring industrial communities documenting the working and living conditions of women workers. 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.

Pankhurst designed badges, banners and flyers for the WSPU. Her symbolic ‘angel of freedom’ was essential to the visual image of the campaign, alongside the WSPU colours of white, green and purple. 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. Suffragette attacks on artworks are examined in the exhibition Art Under Attack currently at Tate Britain.

This display has been devised by curator Emma Chambers with The Emily Davison Lodge.

Women Workers of England

In 1907 Sylvia Pankhurst toured northern England and Scotland to document the lives 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. These highlighted difficult working conditions and the differential between men’s and women’s wages. 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. 

Designs for the WSPU

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. The most widely used of Pankhurst’s designs was the ‘angel of freedom’ blowing a trumpet. 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.