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A collection of Sylvia Pankhurst paintings has been bought by the Tate

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Emily Reynolds
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The pictures show women working in mills and potteries

Portraits painted by women’s suffrage leader Sylvia Pankhurst will soon enter the national art collection following a purchase from the Tate gallery. 

The four paintings show women working in mills and potteries in Stoke and Glasgow. 

Ann Gallagher, Tate’s director of collection for British art, said that the pictures will “expand the way we represent working women as subjects in art history”.

“At a time when gender pay gaps and women’s rights at work remain urgent topical issues, these images remind us of the role art can play in inspiring social change,” she said.

And Helen Pankhurst, Sylvia’s granddaughter, described Sylvia as “an artist as well as a champion of working women’s rights, her first passion not as well known as her second”. 

“In these beautiful pieces these interests are powerfully combined,” she says.

Pankhurst, who painted the pictures when she visited the Midlands in 1907, had hoped that the pictures could shine a light on poor working conditions for women, but later focused her efforts on the suffrage movement, which she was involved in with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel.

The mills were “oppressive” in their heat: Pankhurst wrote that the rooms were “so hot and airless that I fainted within an hour”. 

And the potteries’ structure meant that women were forced to work as assistants to men: they were “the slaves of slaves”, Pankhurst said. 

According to the BBC, the paintings were published in the London Magazine and Votes for Women, the journal of the Women’s Social and Political Union. 

Correspondence from Pankhurst was also recently uncovered by academic Sarah Jackson in which she expresses concern about having her phone tapped. 

The activist wrote to the Post Office nearly eighty years ago, concerned that her phone had been tapped by a Harley Street gynaecologist. 

And she’s also been subject to further attention this year, with the Old Vic theatre hosting a hip-hop musical, Sylvia, based on her life. 

Images: Getty

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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