Tate today announced that it will be acquiring four watercolours by the renowned women’s rights campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). These paintings from 1907, which depict women working in mills and potteries, will be the first works by Pankhurst to enter Tate’s collection. The acquisition this year coincides with the centenary of women’s suffrage in 1918, a campaign in which Pankhurst herself played a pivotal role.
Sylvia Pankhurst used her skill as an artist to highlight the fight for women’s rights. She originally trained at the Manchester Municipal School of Art and the Royal College of Art, and went on to design badges, banners and flyers for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group set up by her mother and sister in 1903. In 1907 she spent several months visiting industries in Northern England and Scotland, documenting the poor working conditions and low wages experienced by women. She lived in the communities she studied, creating vivid watercolours and written accounts of the people she met, which were later published in the London Magazine and the WSPU journal Votes for Women. She eventually gave up art in 1912 to dedicate herself fully to the suffrage campaign, founding the East London Federation of Suffragettes to ensure the representation of working-class women in the movement.
Four watercolours are being acquired by Tate with funds provided by the Denise Coates Foundation on the occasion of the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain. They all come from the artist’s 1907 tour of industrial working environments: Two of them were created at the cotton mills in Glasgow, showing workers supervising the complex machinery used to spin cotton fibres into yarn. Pankhurst wrote about “the almost deafening noise of the machinery and the oppressive heat”, which was “so hot and airless that I fainted within an hour.” The other two images were made at the Staffordshire potteries, where she was horrified to discover women earned no more than seven shillings a week while being exposed to hazardous flint dust and fumes from lead glazes. She also observed how women were often restricted to the lower-paid unskilled jobs at the potteries, such as turning the wheel for throwers or treading the lathe for turners: “Each was employed by the man she toiled for – the slave of a slave, I thought!”
Pankhurst’s watercolours of working women represent some of the most important examples of her work as an artist. She wanted these images to help improve conditions and pay for women in her lifetime, but they also have a place in historic British art as rare portraits of working-class women of the period, each captured as an individual in their real environment rather than as a stock figure in a genre scene. The works are being acquired by Tate directly from the artist’s grandchildren, Helen Pankhurst and Alula Pankhurst. They have remained in the artist’s family since they were produced 111 years ago and were rarely exhibited in public until recently. To mark the centenary of women’s suffrage this year they were shown at Manchester Art Gallery in the spring and can currently be seen in Scarborough Art Gallery until 6 January 2019. After joining Tate’s collection they will go on display at Tate Britain in 2020.
Helen Pankhurst said:
The family are delighted that some of Sylvia’s paintings are being acquired by Tate. Sylvia was an artist as well as a champion of working women’s rights, her first passion not as well known as her second. In these beautiful pieces these interests are powerfully combined.
Ann Gallagher, Director of Collection (British Art), Tate said:
These watercolours enable Tate to represent Sylvia Pankhurst in the collection for the first time and to expand the way we represent working women as subjects in art history. At a time when gender pay gaps and women’s rights at work remain urgent topical issues, these images remind us of the role art can play in inspiring social change.