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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: 'Votes for Women' at the National Portrait Gallery

    Amongst the paintings, black and white photographs and postcards at the ‘Votes for Women’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an unusual picture. It’s a photograph of a damaged portrait by Milais of Thomas Carlyle, one of the Gallery’s founders. The portrait was vandalised by Suffragette Anne Hunt who gashed it three times.

    Now the National Portrait Gallery is paying homage to the very women who targeted them in 1914.

    Votes for women is an overview of women’s suffrage movement, of its key figures, factions, actions, opponents and achievements. It marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. The works on display bring to life the history, struggles and motivations underpinning the campaign. But does it focus on the headline grabbing suffragettes over the quietly courageous suffragists?

    Beginning in 1867 the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign was headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a non-violent suffragist. It quickly splintered off though into the militant suffragette movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

    There are documentary style photographs,of Mrs Pankhurst speaking emphatically in front of a large crowd, and of her being arrested for protesting at Buckingham Palace. The photographers’ names aren’t mentioned.

    Also on display are postcards issued by the suffrage movement to reach out to women from across the population and class divide, and boost membership. These show prominent figures looking ‘demure’. They counteracted the press pictures of women protesters appearing deshevelled and dowdy which could discourage people from joining.

    What’s most illuminating is a series of compelling paintings on the back wall including a portrait by painter Ford Madox Brown, a supporter of the votes for Women campaign. It depicts Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her husband and fellow suffragist Henry Fawcett. The painting has a subdued atmosphere, capturing the Fawcett’s gentle, pacifist nature.

    Painter Ethel Wright struggled with the limitations placed on women artists. She joined the suffrage movement as a result. Her luminous, full length portrait of suffragette Christabel Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter) forms the focal point of this exhibition. Pankhurst proudly wears a sash featuring the movement’s colours purple white and green over an elegant light green silk gown. Christabel is about to deliver an impassioned speech. She seems to be driven by a higher purpose. Fearless, empowered even.

    There’s a caricature picture of Herbert Henry Asquith Liberal Prime Minister from 1908-1914 by Sir Leslie Ward, featured in Vanity Fair. Prime Minister Asquith opposed the Votes for Womens Campaign. His refusal to even debate the topic in Parliament provoked the suffragettes. 

    They staged a series of attacks on galleries and museums, including the incident at the National Portrait Gallery. A photograph of Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession refers to the most catastrophic of the Suffragette’s actions.

    Women were granted suffrage in 1918 after the Great War. The implications of this are touched on in a final series of photographs : women entered Parliament (Viscountess Nancy Astor in 1919, Margaret Bondfield in 1929), the election of Britain’s first female Prime Minister in 1979.

    This is a nuanced precis of the suffrage movement. Ford Madox Brown’s powerful painting is a highlight. But there is no mention of the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage (1913), a peaceful protest which is thought to have helped influence the decision in 1918.

    On 24 April 2018 a statue of pioneer suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett was unveiled in Parliament Square. Fawcett’s statue is the first effigy of a women to stand in Parliament Square, alongside those of Gandhi and Churchill.


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