Tate acquires Sylvia Pankhurst paintings

Tate is to acquire four paintings by the Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) depicting the working conditions of women in the north.

The watercolours along with Pankhurst’s notes on the subjects are being obtained from her grandchildren, Helen Pankhurst and Alula Pankhurst, with the help of the Denise Coates Foundation.

 Image: Sylvia Pankhurst, In a Glasgow Cotton Spinning Mill: Changing the Bobbin 1907.

Although she trained at Manchester Municipal School of Art and the Royal College of Art and used her skill to highlight the fight for women’s rights, she gave up art in 1912 to concentrate on women’s ‘suffrage, eventually achieved in 1918.

 In 1907 she lived in the working communities and the North West and Scotland documenting women’s poor working conditions and low wages. She painted vivid watercolours and wrote accounts of the people she met, which were later published in the London Magazine.

Two of the four coming to the Tate show worked in Glasgow cotton mills 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 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!” 

 “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” said Ann Gallagher, director of Tate;s British art collection. “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.”

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”.


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