Mary Wollstonecraft

(Mary Wollstonecraft and the Newington Green dissenters 1781 by Red Saunders)

One of the pictures shown in Hidden, the exhibition of photographs at the People’s History Museum in Manchester which recreate scenes from the history of ordinary people’s struggles for democracy, features Mary Wollstonecraft an early radical feminist together with a group of fellow dissenters.

Like many early radicals, Mary isn’t as well known today as she deserves to be (although her portrait is hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London). Yet she was one of the earliest feminists and advocate of the rights of women. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), she argued that women were human beings who were not naturally inferior to men and deserved the same fundamental rights.


Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797) – Source: Wikipedia

There’s a good brief biography on the BBC website here and while browsing on the web I came across an excellent website devoted to Mary.

Hidden from history – at the People’s History Museum

We went along to the People’s History Museum in Manchester. the other day. It started out as the Labour History Museum and was originally located in the East End of London and I remember visiting it when it was there over 20 years ago during a weekend break in London. It later moved up to Manchester and was based in the building on Princes Street where the first TUC meeting was held. Later on it moved across Manchester to a new home on the banks of the Irwell (the border with Salford) when it was renamed.

At the moment, they’re showing Hidden, a temporary exhibition of large scale photographs by Red Saunders, originally shown at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford, whichrecreates great moments in the long struggle for rights and representation in Britain”.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Michael Gove’s proposals for the history curriculum for British schools. According to Gove children in British schools are being "deprived of the inheritance they are entitled to". But the “inheritance” that Gove and others of his way of thinking focuses on kings and queens and other “great men” (almost exclusively men) and the glories of empire. Red Saunders, however, focuses on those events which are “hidden” from a history that is written by the victors. His history is the story of the struggles of ordinary people through the centuries – the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers in the English Civil War, the Swing Riots and the Chartists. And his “great” men AND women are ordinary people, but also thinkers and activists who aren’t usually mentioned in the conventional histories – Thomas Paine and Mary Woolstonecraft.

As described on the PHM website

Each scene is carefully planned and lit, using costumed models in the style of tableaux vivants (living pictures). Together they suggest photographic ‘evidence’ for events that occurred before the widespread adoption of camera technology.

You could easily imaging that these large scale photographs were oil paintings, like those, particularly from the Victorian age, displayed in the Manchester City Art Gallery and the Walker Gallery in Liverpool which depict scenes from history. But none of those “conventional” works feature the events recreated in Red Saunders’ photographs.

My favourites were the rather gruesome picture of the Peasants’ revolt, the gathering addressed by the “hedgerow priest”, John Ball (one of the leaders of the revolt) the Leveller meeting and the Swing Rioters making their way through the long reeds during the night.

The Swing Riots, 1830

Producing the photographs involved a lot of work. There are large numbers of people in many of them, all dressed in period costumes. With a limited budget , together with practical considerations, the photographs weren’t posed and shot in one sitting. They have been “composed” from a number of elements shot at different times and pulled together and edited using Photoshop. Some people may consider this as inauthentic, but I wouldn’t agree. To me, they are a modern equivalent of the paintings I’ve referred to above. And, after all, they would have been produced in a very similar way to Red Saunders’ photographs.

There was some contextual information about how the photographs were produced included in the exhibition, including a video, which is also available to watch on Vimeo.

Hidden History from Roland Denning on Vimeo.

I found the photographs moving, stirring and inspiring. And I expect I’ll be going to have another look before the exhibition finishes on 29 September.