Portrait of lead Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst goes on display for the first time in eighty years

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Portrait of lead Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst goes on display for the first time in eighty years
Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright, exhibited 1909. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- A newly acquired portrait of Christabel Pankhurst, a leading Suffragette, has gone on public display for the first time in eighty years, the National Portrait Gallery announced today, Thursday 24 July. The portrait accompanies a new display of photographs and archive material marking 100 years since the campaigners staged their final and most violent protests, including an attack on National Portrait Gallery paintings, just before the outbreak of the First World War.

The striking, full-length portrait of Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright shows the sitter in a flowing green dress and boldly wearing a sash with the distinctive coloured stripes adopted by many Suffragettes – purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope. Depicted in a theatrical pose, and illuminated against a dark background, Pankhurst is portrayed as though she could be marching or speaking passionately on a stage. The artist, Ethel Wright, was a society painter who supported the suffrage cause.

The portrait was first displayed at the radical Women’s Exhibition which was staged in Kensington, London, in 1909. Organised by the Suffragettes, and cleverly promoted as a traditional village fete and a showcase of women’s skills and potential, the real motivation behind the exhibition was to raise funds for the militant group and to raise awareness of their cause. Since then it has only been seen at two small exhibitions in the early 1930s, organised by suffrage societies. The portrait was purchased by prominent Suffragette Una Dugdale Duval in 1909, and has remained with the family until this bequest.

Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, was a primary strategist in the Women’s Social and Political Union, the suffrage organisation founded by her mother to galvanise the campaign for women’s right to vote in the early twentieth century. Despite petitions to parliament demanding women’s enfranchisement, by the first decades of the twentieth century, women still had virtually no influence in the making of policies that would affect their lives. Christabel Pankhurst trained as a lawyer at Manchester University and gained a first-class law degree but, as a woman, was unable to practise as a barrister. Pankhurst used her legal knowledge in speeches and pamphlets to highlight the inequality faced by women and, as an inspirational speaker and astute strategist, she became a figurehead for the militant suffrage movement.

The portrait of Pankhurst will be shown alongside a new display marking one hundred years since key members of the Suffragettes attacked important works of art in the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery to draw attention to their cause. Suffragettes: Deeds not Words explores the events that took place during the final months before the outbreak of the First World War, when, after years of peaceful campaigning, the actions of the Suffragettes escalated to civil disobedience and serious vandalism, including arson and bombing, to get their voices heard.

Showcasing a selection of rare photographs of the Suffragettes campaigning as well as original archive documents, this display will focus on the protagonists of the attacks and the reaction of the police, the press and the National Portrait Gallery itself. Included are photographs of the significant damage to the National Portrait Gallery’s painting of its founder Thomas Carlyle by Millais, attacked by Anne Hunt, and a photograph of damage to the Royal Academy’s portrait of Henry James by Sargent, now in the National Portrait Gallery Collection and on display in the adjacent room.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest at Buckingham Palace; Emily Davison’s funeral procession; and a portrait of Mary Richardson, who was notorious for attacking the ‘Rokeby Venus’ by Diego Velasquez at the National Gallery, are among the other photographs on display. The display also includes surveillance photographs of a number of Suffragettes, which were issued to the National Portrait Gallery by the Criminal Record Bureau in 1914. The attacks ceased at the outbreak of the First World War, when the Suffragettes agreed a truce in favour of the war effort.

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