Largo

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During our visit to Tate Britain a few weeks ago there was an exhibition of works by Alison Wilding, the Lancashire born artist, in Duveen galleries – two long galleries with high barrel-vaulted ceilings, designed specifically for the display of sculpture. It’s a very airy space and I felt that they really enhanced the works on display.

We particularly liked this piece – Largo (2002)

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It’s a simple work – a circular slab of cast cement, like a slice from the bottomof a sphere, with silk and paper roses scattered on the top.

Being displayed in a large, high space it could be viewed from different perspectives. Although the cement base has a circumference of almost 80 inches (just over 2 metres),  it looked tiny, almost lost in the vast space, when viewed from a distance.

Installation shot of Alison Wilding, Display, Duveen galleries, Tate Britain

But there was plenty of detail to see when viewed up close.

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Sylvia Pankhurst at Tate Britain

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While we were at Tate Britain recently we made a particular point of visiting the temporary exhibition devoted to works of art by Sylvia Pankhurst. It was a little hard to locate, tucked away in a gallery in the interior of the the first floor and not particularly well signposted. The exhibition came about because Olivia Plender and Hester Reeve, who work together as “The Emily Davis Lodge” pressurised the Tate to acknowledge someone they believed was an important, but neglected female artist.

Sylvia was one of the three daughters of Emmeline Pankhurst,  a socialist and member of the Independent Labour Party from Manchester who was the founder and leader of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) better known as the Suffragettes. All three sisters, The older Christabel, Sylvia and the youngest, Adela, were active in the movement. But Sylvia became disenchanted with the militant tactics and political stance of the WSPU and split from the organisation in 1913 to work for the Labour Party and  founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which campaigned to ensure that working-class women were represented in the suffrage campaign.

Unlike her mother and older sister she believed in universal suffrage and remained a committed socialist when her mother moved to the right. She was passionate about campaigning to improve the lives of ordinary working class women, not just for votes for wealthier women who owned property (the position adopted by the WSPU).

Sylvia Pankhurst in her studio by Olivia Plender (Image source here)

Sylvia had trained as an artist at the Manchester Municipal School of Art and the Royal College of Art. William Morris was a family friend and she was influenced by artists associated with the “Arts and Crafts” Movement such as Morris and Walter Crane. However she gave up her studies in 1906 to work full-time for the WSPU.

From the works we saw in the exhibition I’d say that she was a talented artist with a lot of promise, but her activism meant that her art was firmly relegated to second place. However, she used her talents for the cause.

The exhibition includes some of Sylvia’s designs for the WSPU including a  the ‘Holloway brooch’, presented to the suffragettes who had been on hunger strike,

Holloway Prison brooch

The Holloway brooch (image source here)

and a banner and a tea set with the Suffragette’s symbol (they wouldn’t have used the word “logo” at the beginning of the 20th Century), the “Angel of Freedom”.

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The WPSU tea set (image source here)

Given my personal background and my work, the most interesting part of the exhibition was the selection of paintings and drawings of working women.

In 1907 she spent several months touring industrial communities documenting the working and living conditions of women workers. Her combination of artworks with written accounts provided a vivid picture of the lives of women workers and made a powerful argument for improvement in working conditions and pay equality with men. (Tate Britain website)

The pictures feature women at work in the potteries in Stoke on Trent, the Leicester shoe-making industry, and a Glasgow cotton mill. The style of these paintings is very much “social realism”, clearly intended to

draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who are critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions. (MOMA website)

I snapped a few of the paintings during our visit (they’re not great pictures – I took them at an angle to minimise the reflections in the cover glass)

There were several featuring women  working in the potteries in Stoke on Trent. In this picture women can be seen “scouring” and stamping the maker’s name on the “biscuit” (the fired but unglazed ware). “Scouring” involved removing flint dust from the biscuit, leading to exposure to crystalline silica which, over a number of years, can lead to the debilitating lung disease, silicosis.

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In this painting the worker is finishing off the edges of unfired plates on a “whirler”. Again she would have been exposed to dust containing respirable crystalline silica.

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The next two pictures (charcoal sketches) show workers in the “dipping shed” where the glaze was applied. Although at this time lead based glazes were still widely used even though alternative glazes were available.

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Workers applying the glazes could have significant lead exposures leading to industrial lead poisoning which can lead to many different symptoms such as anaemia, collic  and peripheral neuritis (where movement in the fingers hands and arms can be affected). Lead is also a teratogen – affecting the unborn child. And many pregnant workers suffered stillbirths and the mental development of surviving children would have most likely been affected.

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According to the gallery’s caption the only reasons fro the continued use of lead based glazes was commercial – i.e. they were cheaper ten the less toxic alternatives. Profits came before the health of the workers. Regulation of lead has reduced the risk considerably in modern industry. The Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 require that

No employer shall use a glaze other than a leadless glaze or a low solubility glaze in the manufacture of pottery. (Regulation 4)

Unfortunately there will always be ruthless employers who will disregard the health of their employees in the pursuit of profit and the Regulations have played an important role in preventing lead poisoning. That’s why it’s important to resist calls for “deregulation”.

There were a number of paintings of women working on cotton processes. Sadly not from my home county of Lancashire, but from a mill in Glasgow

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The caption to this picture tells us of how Sylvia was told of how the workers were made sick by the heat and the “bad air” when they first began working in the mills.

Although there were no pictures to illustrate this in the exhibition, Sylvia visited my home town of Wigan and met with women who worked in the coal mining industry. Writing about the ‘pit-brow lassies’ :

In spite of their great strength and the arduous labours they perform, they are, like most other women workers, very poorly paid… A bankswoman earns from 1s 10d to 2s 4d; whilst a banksman, doing exactly the same work gets from 4s 9d to 5s a day. It is this question of underpayment that is at the root of most of the hardship and suffering.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaking in the East End of London in 1912

(image source here)

Sylvia remained a radical all her life, opposing the First World War, supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, helping Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and led the campaign against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. She was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but was expelled for opposing the leadership (she considered them too right wing). This exhibition revealed another aspect to her life and character.

Henry Moore at Tate Britain

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The day after visiting Tate Modern to see the Klee and Schendel exhibitions, we decided to go along to the original Tate Gallery – these days known as “Tate Britain”. We hadn’t been there for a while and there had been a number of major changes since our last visit. The building has been refurbished and they have rehung the permanent exhibition chronologically – more on that in another post.

Currently they have two rooms devoted to an exhibition of works by Henry Moore with 30 works including maquettes, drawings and large-scale sculptures.

My favourite of all the sculptures on display was his Recumbent Figure 1938
carved from Green Hornton stone. I’d originally seen it at the exhibition of his works held at Leeds City Art Gallery in 2011.

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Most of the other larger works on display were bronzes cast from plaster models.

King and Queen is one of Moore’s most well known works. Two figures sitting on a bench. To me, they look like two ordinary people rather than royalty. Perhaps that’s what they were meant to be.

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King and Queen (1952-3)

Moore wrote about how he created the work

The ’King and Queen’ is rather strange. Like many of my sculptures, I can’t explain exactly how it evolved. Anything can start me off on a sculpture idea, and in this case it was playing with a small piece of modelling wax. …….. Whilst manipulating a piece of this wax, it began to look like a horned, Pan-like, bearded head. Then it grew a crown and I recognised it immediately as the head of a king. I continued and gave it a body. When wax hardens, it is almost as strong as metal. I used special strength to repeat in the body the aristocratic refinement I found in the head. Then I added a second figure to it and it became a ‘King and Queen’. I realise now that it was because I was reading stories to Mary, my six year old daughter, every night, and most of them were about kings and queens and princesses . . .  (source here)

Another couple, this time holding their child.

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Family Group (1949)

Produced for a school in Stevenage, it’s one of a series he produced shortly after WWII, which, according to an article in the Telegraph in 2010

are at once celebrations of the birth of his longed-for only child and, in effect, war memorials, affirmations, after the worst conflict the world had ever seen, of basic, universal human values.

And an old favourite of mine, a familiar figure we’ve seen many times at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, his “Draped Seated Figure” . I don’t know whether the sculpture has been relocated from the YSP, or is another casting, but she wasn’t there last time we visited.

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Draped Seated Figure 1957‑8

“Old Flo” as she was popularly known was originally installed on the Stifford estate in Tower Hamlets in the East End of London with the help of public money in 1962, with Henry Moore contributing by selling her at a minimal price. It was an attempt to make art accessible to ordinary people and stood on the estate until 1997. By then, the estate had been demolished and “Old Flo” was vandalised, smeared with paint. So she was transferred to the YSP who cleaned her up. There’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding the work at the moment as Tower Hamlets Council put it up for sale last year. But there’s been something of an outcry about this to say the least.

Although it is good to see a collection of sculptures in a gallery like this, in some ways I think that the pristine works can appear rather sterile in such a setting. Many sculptures, including Henry Moore’s large scale works, look so much better and appealing when sited outdoors, like they are at the YSP and other similar sculpture parks. You can stand back and look at them as well as get in close.  They may be affected by the elements, but such weathering can actually improve them, allowing them to develop and evolve. And they show different aspects as the light changes during the day, with the changing weather and with the seasons. They can breathe and live rather than be suffocated indoors.

The exhibitions also includes some smaller works and macquettes and some of  his drawings including this one from the series made in the underground stations being used as air raid shelters during WWII

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