The art of Sylvia Pankhurst

An exhibition of the work of the forgotten Suffragette proves that politics, not art, was where she truly led the way.

Andrew Hirst

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An exhibition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s art and craftwork, currently running at Tate Britain in London, shows that Sylvia – the Suffragette, communist and anti-imperialist writer and campaigner – was actually pretty good. Just, perhaps, not as good as the curator would like to make out. A reprinted letter on display claims that ‘she stands as a radical forerunner to the later aims of the European avant-garde’. This is a lofty claim, to say the least. And while the exhibition is certainly worth a visit, and beguiling for any admirers of the forgotten Pankhurst sister, it only attests to the fact that politics, rather than art, was where Sylvia truly led the way.

To put Pankhurst’s artistic experiments in the early twentieth-century into context, in the same period we have Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter in Germany, fauvists and cubists in France and futurists in Italy. Meanwhile, Britain’s ‘avant-garde’ was made up of the rather more worthy and less experimental arts-and-crafts movement, led by William Morris.

Sylvia’s father, Richard Marsden Pankhurst, was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. He was known as the ‘Red Doctor’ and numerous radical thinkers visited Sylvia’s childhood home, including Morris. The arts-and-crafts influence is clearly evident in an illuminated scroll from 1909. These scrolls were presented to women who endured prison during the fight for women’s suffrage by the Women’s Social and Political Union, the militant campaign group founded by Sylvia’s mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel. In fact, Sylvia’s ‘trumpeting angels’ design, which adorns the scroll, is reminiscent of art nouveau precursor Walter Crane. It became a WSPU motif, clearly appealing to the upper-class women who were the focus of Emmeline and Christabel’s campaigning.

Yet Sylvia’s drawings and paintings from her ‘Northern tour’ in 1907, where she set out to document and bring alive women’s position at work, reveal that – unlike her mother and sister – she had not lost sight of the working class. A political concern with the subject matter was clearly more important to her than artistic form with these works. Given Sylvia’s concern for women’s position, we can call these pictures social realism. But these pictures also have a wooden, simplistic character which is a little disappointing to the eye. In a word, they’re a bit ‘workmanlike’.

The most accomplished works in the exhibition are three portraits from around 1910, depicting young women with headdresses in coloured chalk. They display a better observed but less stiff realism to them, and show more flair in the use of the medium.

Sylvia was evidently improving as an artist before she finally gave up art for politics. She was also maturing as a political thinker, though you would have to look elsewhere than this small exhibition to really discover that. The blurb accompanying the exhibition states, ‘in 1912 she gave up art to devote herself to the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), the organisation she founded to ensure that working-class women were represented in the suffrage campaign’. In fact, the ELFS campaigned for the rights of women and men. (The franchise was not extended to all men until 1918.) Soon after this, Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU for her democratic convictions, internationalism and refusal to bow to her mother and sister’s willingness to ditch the fight for the vote in favour of the First World War effort.

Her understanding of women’s position within capitalism in this period – her realisation that the fight for women’s emancipation was, at its core, a class question – was pretty unique. Her support for Irish freedom, opposition to the First World War, population control and eugenics, and her belief in broader social change and the possibility of abundance for all mark her out as an important twentieth-century heroine. Sylvia’s extraordinary political creativity and uncompromising campaigns played a key role in eventually winning votes for all women in 1928.

This exhibition is worthwhile and makes for an interesting visit. Had Sylvia remained wedded to art instead of devoting herself to politics, we may have seen some pretty good drawings, paintings and designs, but her real innovation lay not in her art but in the political campaigns she led. Her decision to make politics the priority is one we can all be thankful for.

Andrew Hirst is a paintings conservator based in London. He also worked on the WORLDwrite documentary Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible.

BP Spotlight: Sylvia Pankhurst is at Tate Britain until 23 March 2014.

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