Exhibition: Sylvia Pankhurst: Working Women at the Manchester Art Gallery

There are many influential figures among the Manchester School of Art alumni and Sylvia Pankhurst with suffragette, anti-fascist campaigner and artist all to her name, is certainly no exception. The Sylvia Pankhurst: Working Women exhibition showcases Sylvia’s artistic passion and eye for catching raw emotion through paint and paper, while being a stylish and educational ode to her suffragette legacy. 

Sylvia Pankhurst: Working Women is in celebration of the centenary year for Women’s Suffrage in Britain and captures the working environment and lifestyles of women in 1907 England and Scotland that Sylvia witnessed first hand. As she travelled round documenting what she saw, Sylvia was deciding whether she would pursue her career as an artist or campaign for the right for women to vote and although she chose the latter, her undeniable artistic talent lives on inside the walls of the Manchester Art Gallery today. 

As someone who finds art galleries particularly daunting, going to an exhibition fills me with a slight sense of discomfort, but as I made my way around the capsule collection of Sylvia’s art, I found myself feeling immersed and fascinated with not only Sylvia’s story, but the story of each woman displayed in a simple wooden frame.

The exhibition was a hidden gem in the Manchester Art Gallery, set among decadent and over-the-top work in ‘The Edwardian’ section that immediately awoke the discomfort in me, Working Women had an element of simplicity and I immediately felt a strong affinity to the middle section of the room where it stood. Wood framed the art that hung on a dull-brown wall, aptly capturing the mood of most of the women shown in the panting’s. This paired with Sylvia’s talent of portraying facial expression through her paint brush, made the surrounding art set in lavish gold frames fade into the back of my mind; I was hooked.

One painting that caught my eye was the ‘Untitled: A Red – Head Girl Working in a Pottery’ as the girl looked so young. People always explain art as thought provoking and I’ve never quite resonated with that, but at that moment in time the thought of a young girl working such a mundane job, looking so unfulfilled made me stop and think – something that I did a lot as I wondered from painting to painting.

As I walked around the minimalist display a couple of times, each piece of art naturally transitioning from one to another, I noticed ‘An Old-fashioned Pottery Turning Jasperware’ showed patriarchy in its truest form; a woman standing next to a craftsman, with a face that was struck with fear. This piece stood out to me as the only one that didn’t show a woman in a main role of manual work, but due to the description beneath the painting, I was informed that she was still working as an assistant. By this point I was thankful the gallery had provided such helpful descriptions, as it instantly added depth to my thoughts.

As an art exhibition newbie, I left feeling inspired, reflective and excited for my next trip to a gallery. Sylvia Pankhurst: Working Women is an informative, capsule exhibition that is perfect to mooch around on a Saturday afternoon and is running until the 29th of April 2018 with free entry.