Suffrage and the Arts

Suffrage and the Arts HD

This book (a paperback edition of a hardback) collects essays by specialists on the relationship between the arts and the movement for female suffrage in Great Britain in the 1890-1914 period. (In this review “suffrage” will used a term applied specifically only to the movement for women’s enfranchisement in Great Britain.) There were a number of organisations supporting the suffrage movement, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Freedom League, Women’s Tax Resistance League, Women’s Liberal Federation and others. This collection focuses on the role of the arts and artists in the movement.

The production of pro-suffrage arts and crafts spanned the gamut of professional-level material made by skilled specialists to homemade folk craft. Some prominent supporters were artists and designers and they could produce and sell wares directly to their moneyed peers. Illustrated are tea sets, badges, brooches, banners and posters made for the cause, as well as some material opposing suffrage. The material was sold to demonstrate solidarity and also to raise money for the cause. To aid recognition, the movement developed a combination of colour: pale green, purple and white.

“Although the majority of artistic women did benefit from privileges due to their race and class, we wish to move away from the tendency to celebrate ‘exceptional’ London-based female painters, to instead reference a wider array of voices from across the country, particularly from those working in the applied arts, who often desperately needed to generate an income.” This is in line with the feminist Marxist critique, which holds to an aversion of discusses society in terms of individuals, instead viewing history as the movement of masses. There is a fear of falling into a seeming trap of admiring exceptional achievement.

The suffrage movement was seen – in its manifestations among the artistically inclined middle- and upper-class families – as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The attachment to socialism, collectivism and the moral value of craftwork (for individual, guild and society) translated naturally into the collective action, class solidarity and craftwork in support of women’s emancipation. Authors deprecate “the work of ‘great’ men […] William Morris [and] John Ruskin”. However much the authors dislike veneration for men and exceptional individuals, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement did not appear like morning dew; it was thought, discussed, explicated and propagated by Morris and Ruskin, among others.

Despite the active participation of some members, women’s arts societies remained aloof to the subject of the suffrage campaign, seeming in a wish to remain independent. Had the societies become seen as tied to activism, it would have impaired the perception of the societies working to promote art because of its quality and instead of promoting art due to its political content. (This is in direct contrast to the artivism of today, which measures art by its political/social utility.) Zoe Thomas’s essay describes how internal debate raged between the political radicals and those committed to maintaining group neutrality. As the women’s societies were locked into disengaged stances, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded. The atelier was opened in 1909, producing posters, banners (used in public gatherings), postcards, curtains, book covers and other items. The Suffrage Atelier admitted male artists.

Other essays discuss the interior design work of prominent campaigners Agnes Garrett (1845-1935), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who used their work and social prominence to lobby for enfranchisement. The production of goods specifically aimed at pro-suffrage consumers is covered in Elizabeth Crawford’s text. Makers (many of them women) created newsletters (Votes for Women, The Common Cause, The Vote, The Suffragette), jewellery, leather goods, embroidered goods and clothing. Other pieces cover suffragette badges and portraits of suffragists. Oil paintings and drawings of prominent figures in the movement emphasise the resolution and composure of subjects; they were displayed and reproduced as a counter to the news photographs and negative cartoons which appeared in the press. Other essays consider the responses to the male supporters of male suffragists, the responses of Scottish and Irish women to the campaign in the light of nationalist sentiments in their nations and the representations of force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.

The discussion of suffragette attacks on art provides details and background on these public events. The underlying rationalisation was that because the demands of a lobby had not been met that collateral damage to cultural goods – some owned by the general public – was a proportionate response. It was a campaign of cultural terrorism. Feminists have recently written approvingly of these attacks as an expression of opposition to gender roles and class subjugation. Krista Cowman’s essay is clear and broadly neutral, which compliments the readers’ independence of thought on that matter. Her essay is more informative than the essay in the recent Tate catalogue on iconoclasm.

Overall, this book is a handy primer for the scholarship and debates regarding the suffragette movement in relation to the arts in the Edwardian period. The ample source notes, bibliographies and index will assist historians, academics and students. The illustrations are well chosen and complement the text. This paperback edition makes the welcome and affordable alternative to the rather expensive hardback edition.

 

Miranda Garrett, Zoe Thomas (eds.), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, paperback, 281pp, 16pp col./30 mono illus., $34.95, ISBN 978 1 35012867 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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