Black feminist activists, pop artists and suffragists all feature in the Rebel Women Trail at the National Portrait Gallery. Stylist went along to find out more.
Stroll through the corridors of London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and you’ll likely be struck by the abundance of paintings of white men. While the world-famous institution has made strides to increase the diversity of the faces hanging on its walls in recent years, it’s impossible to visit without being reminded that portraiture is political: that for centuries, men were painted because of their power or fame, while women were largely reduced to passive anonymous objects.
However, a new initiative hopes to challenge the view of the gallery’s subjects as pale, male and stale. The Rebel Women Trail, which launched this week, provides guests to the NPG with a map of 19 artworks depicting trailblazing British women, from Queen Elizabeth I to the groundbreaking queer writer Radclyffe Hall and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dorothy Hodgkin.
The trail is part of the gallery’s Rebel Women season, a year-long series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the first women in Britain getting the vote. Ten of the portraits have been chosen by notable contemporary women, including comedian Sara Pascoe, the Everyday Sexism Project’s Laura Bates and artist Gillian Wearing, who created the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.
Some of the works on the trail are traditional pieces that seem newly relevant once you learn more about their subject, such as the 1895 portrait of Josephine Butler, a Victorian suffragist who helped establish refuges for homeless women and campaigned against laws that discriminated against sex workers. Others, like the striking stained-glass self-portrait by pop artist Pauline Boty, are much more unusual.
“We wanted to show people by going on the trail, from the earliest parts of the gallery right down to the contemporary, that actually the walls are populated with the most extraordinary women in British history,” curator Rosie Broadley said at the trail’s launch.
At first glance, not all of the women highlighted by the trail seem like rebels. (When you think of a maverick, you probably don’t think of children’s author Beatrix Potter, whose portrait was selected by comedian Miranda Hart.) But, says Broadley, all were pioneers in their own way.
“It’s about looking at who pushed against boundaries or defied rigid expectations of them within their own time period, within their own life,” she said.
“I think what’s really interesting about these women is the completely different struggles that they had to overcome. They have been chosen because they had such amazingly diverse stories, and that’s what makes the trail so fascinating.”
One of Broadley’s favourite works on the trail is the 1869 portrait of British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, which was chosen by the Right Reverend Sarah Mulally, the first female Bishop of London. Seacole tended to British soldiers in the Crimean War, and the painting shows her as an elderly woman gazing out of the frame, her chin held at a proud angle, military medals glinting on her chest.
“There’s something so brilliant about how assertive she is about the fact she’s done something very important,” Broadley said. “She was a patriot and she’s so proud of that… I think it epitomises the Rebel Women Trail.”
Seacole’s story is taught in schools, but asking modern women to choose their favourite portraits also led to many lesser-known figures being given their chance in the spotlight. Case in point: a gorgeous monochrome photograph of Olive Morris (pictured top), an activist who was instrumental in the black feminist movement in Seventies Britain. Morris’ portrait had been languishing in the NPG archives until Liv Little, the founder and editor of gal-dem, asked to have it featured on the Rebel Women Trail. It now hangs in room 32 of the gallery.
“We don’t show photographs all the time because they’re light-sensitive and there are all sorts of museum rules about them, so [the photograph of Morris] wasn’t on display,” explained Broadley. “She wasn’t someone I knew very much about, so the fact that Liv Little identified her gave us the opportunity to actually put her on the wall and learn more about her.”
Broadley hopes people will leave the Rebel Women Trail feeling moved and inspired. Most importantly, though, she wants visitors to be struck by the fact that not all the women on the trail were famous in their own lifetimes – yet all of them made a lasting impact on British society.
“Mary Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women in the 18th century. She was a trailblazer and an amazing woman, but she had a tragic life story, and some of the things she advocated [for] didn’t happen until the 20th century,” she said.
“The National Portrait Gallery really demonstrates that there is no one image of success. All these women are different and amazing in their own ways, and I think that’s what people will come away with: that you can make an impact in your own special way.”
Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.
Images: Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery