Sylvia Pankhurst, artist and suffragette

Guest post by Jacqueline Mulhallen

Sylvia – a play about Sylvia Pankhurst written and performed by Jacqueline Mulhallen, directed by William Alderson, and produced by Lynx Theatre and Poetry

Jacqueline Mulhallen as Sylvia Pankhurst. Photo © William Alderson
Jacqueline Mulhallen as Sylvia Pankhurst in ‘Sylvia’ produced by Lynx Theatre and Poetry (1987). Photo © William Alderson

Sylvia Pankhurst is perhaps less well-known than her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel who were the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU),but she did at least as much as they did, and perhaps more, to get votes for women.

Sylvia was a very talented artist who won scholarships to Manchester School of Art and later to study in Venice and at the Royal College of Art, but she gave up her art when the campaign by the WSPU appeared to be losing support because of the programme of violence and arson which they had initiated. Connected with this was the fact that Christabel and Emmeline had shifted their support to well-heeled and aristocratic women, though the campaign had originally been rooted in the Labour movement.

Sylvia believed that the campaign should return to its working class roots, and so she went to Bow and built a mass movement of women and men too in London’s East End. It was a group of women from her East London Federation of Suffragettes who met H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, and persuaded him that their arguments for the vote were “moderate and well-reasoned”.

Sylvia had a long life of political campaigns, but, sadly, she never returned to art. In 1907, when she went on a painting tour of England and Scotland, she was at the peak of her ability. During this tour she painted women at work – chain and nail makers in the Black Country, shoe makers in Leicester, pottery workers in Stoke on Trent, ‘fisher lassies’ in Scarborough, ‘pit brow lassies’ in Wigan, ‘bondagers’ in the Northumberland area and mill workers in Glasgow. These women were earning half the man’s wage for doing the same work, and looking after the children and home as well. Conditions were particularly hard in the Black Country area.

Jacqueline Mulhallen as Sylvia Pankhurst. Photo © William Alderson
Jacqueline Mulhallen as Sylvia Pankhurst in ‘Sylvia’ produced by Lynx Theatre and Poetry (1987). Photo © William Alderson

In 1987 Lynx Theatre and Poetry launched Sylviaa one woman play about this part of Sylvia’s life, which was accompanied by 250 slides of archive photographs and others. The archive photographs included demonstrations and events like Black Friday, important in suffragette history, as well as figures in her story, such as Kier Hardy, Winston Churchill, Annie Kenney, herself and her mother and sister, of course. They also included photographs of the living and working conditions of working people of the time, and of suffragette hunger strikers.

Lynx also commissioned photographs of places where she had lived, such as Venice and the Manchester area, and of her paintings. We are particularly grateful to her son, Richard Pankhurst (who died in February 2017) for giving us access to his collection, and putting us in touch with Molly Cook, who also had a large collection at that time (subsequently sold).

Mosaics in San Marco, Venice. Photo © William Alderson
Mosaics in San Marco, Venice. Photo © William Alderson

As a result, we eventually saw and photographed almost all Sylvia’s known paintings, though the original production did not include them all. In 1991, as part of a continuing policy of research, we bought a 1908 copy of The London Magazine containing an illustrated article by Sylvia about working women. We expected that the illustrations would be simple line drawings, but they turned out to be reproductions of her paintings. Not only that, with our intimate knowledge of her work we realised that only one of them was still extant. The rest were not in either of the collections we had seen. We then began to accompany the play with a talk about these paintings in the hope of finding the originals and others which may also have been sold by Sylvia.

The play had originally been intended for schools, especially to bring their local history to children in the East End. Within a few months schools all over the country – both state schools and private ones – were booking us, as well as museums, art galleries and art centres. We even took the play to Ireland alongside another play. Tens of thousands of children saw it in the five years of touring until 1992 and when it was revived for a schools tour in 1997, and thousands of adults saw it too. We then stopped performing it until 2015.

During this time a number of biographies of Sylvia Pankhurst were written, and more interest was taken in her art. Lynx was constantly being asked to supply copies of our slides for book covers and exhibitions. In 2001 some of her paintings were sold at auction and fetched prices higher than expected. Two of those paintings now hang in the House of Commons. In 2013 they were lent to the Tate Gallery where there was an exhibition of Sylvia’s paintings, and we decided that it was time to revive the play!

We re-launched Sylvia in 2015 in a new version. The actress, who is also the writer, was now nearly 30 years older than when she originally performed the play. She could no longer could she play a young, slim suffragette! But Sylvia herself had lived to be nearly 80 and put on weight because of digestive problems caused by hunger striking. So the performance was re-directed by William Alderson to suit this ‘new’ actress. We also re-wrote the text to include the images from The London Magazine alongside the other paintings, and made some other changes.

Jacqueline Mulhallen as Sylvia Pankhurst Photo © William Alderson
Jacqueline Mulhallen as Sylvia Pankhurst in ‘Sylvia’ produced by Lynx Theatre and Poetry (2017). Photo © William Alderson

The first performance of this new version was at the Camden Crossroads Women’s Centre in Camden, and it was resounding success, selling out two days in advance. The original director, Simone Vause, declared that it was even better than hers! We went on to perform in a barn at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, and at Wortley Hall, the trade union education and conference centre near Sheffield, again to full houses.

Following this we decided to organise a national tour in 2017, which took us from Newcastle to Cranleigh in Surrey, and included Blythe, Wigan, Bolton, Gainsborough, Stoke on Trent, Northampton and Wisbech. Despite the lack of any support from the Arts Council for England, we were able to cover our expenses through generous support from trades councils and union branches, including the NUT and Unite the Union. The audiences loved it, describing the show as ‘amazing’, ‘perfect’, ‘fantastic’, ‘excellent’ and so on. In fact, they loved it so much that they started arranging bookings for us themselves!

What shocked us was that not a single school booked the play, and not a single school organised a group to come and see it, even though the suffragettes are still on the National Curriculum, and some venues, such as the Wigan Museum, had organised daytime performances specifically to make it easy for schools. We cannot help feeling that this change is a serious reflection on the state of education in this country.

Meanwhile we are looking forward to spring 2018, when we will be touring again (dates will appear on our website) and we are still looking for the missing paintings! Come along with your children, and see why Sylvia Pankhurst, artist and suffragette, is someone we should remember and celebrate.

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Interested in suffrage and the theatre? Read our other blogposts: