Sylvia Pankhurst at Tate Britain

File:Sylvia Pankhurst 1909.jpeg

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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.