By Siobhan Brown
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Women at Work and Sylvia Pankhurst

This article is over 8 years, 1 months old
Tate Britain Both until 23 March
Issue 386

Tate Britain reopened in November. The oldest part of the building has been restored, combining some of its most architecturally impressive parts with new elements. New learning studios and archive space follow the opening in May of new galleries to display “the best of British art.”

£45 million has been spent on the overhaul and it’s clear that a lot of the cash has come from big business. One space has been named the Sackler Octagon, while rooms that focus on particular artists or themes are given to us by BP.

Still, two of these Spotlight rooms are well worth seeking out.

The first of the rooms showcases “Women and Work: 1973 – 75”, a study of a Bermondsey metal box factory by artists Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly, to coincide with the Equal Pay Act. They took interviews, archival research and observation to create films and photographs that document the lives of the women working here.

Most of the pieces focus on the monotony of the women’s work. A film shows a woman repeatedly putting lids on tins of paint. Presented alongside a man doing other manual tasks, it seems that this was presented to show that women’s work was more menial than men’s. It seemed to me that both were as monotonous as the other.

A display of the workers’ diaries also reveals that life is a combination of work and domestic drudgery for all. One of the most personal pieces in the room are the black and white photographic portraits of the factory workers.

The room next door, curated by Emma Chambers and the Emily Davidson Lodge, presents the art of Sylvia Pankhurst. The collective put pressure on Tate to recognise Pankhurst as an artist as well as an activist.

In 1907 she spent months travelling Britain to document the lives of women workers through painting. She hoped to strengthen the argument for better pay and working conditions by highlighting the situation of working class women.

“In A Glasgow Cotton Mill: Minding a Pair of Fine Frames” shows a woman involved in a fully industrialised process. Despite this, Pankhurst recognised that the working conditions remained dangerous. She noted that the workers “were all made sick by the heat and bad air”.

She also painted women in the fishing trade in Scarborough and in the Wedgwood factories. Conditions were similar here, with female workers giving birth to stillborn babies as a result of lead poisoning.

It is often said that Pankhurst gave up art for her politics. Really, her art changed direction. Included here is lots of her Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) propaganda. There is a banner from the West Ham branch and the Holloway brooch, designed by Pankhurst in 1909 to give to women as they left prison.

Pankhurst proves herself as a versatile and talented artist determined to present workers in an authentic way. This is worth seeking out amidst all the fanfare surrounding the new galleries.

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