Guest blog: Dr Lucy Ella Rose, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at University of Surrey
The suffrage centenary this year calls for a remembrance of the founders and roots of feminism. The lives of artists Mary and George Watts coincided with the rise of the women’s movement, from its embryonic stage in the mid-nineteenth century to the later phase of militant suffragism preceding the First World War. Mary saw the franchise extended to some women in 1918 and lived to see citizenship rights granted to women on the same terms as men in 1928. Witnessing such advances inevitably impacted the Wattses’ lives and works. For my new book Suffragist Artists in Partnership: Gender, Word and Image (Edinburgh University Press 2017), I conducted extensive research into the Wattses’ relation to early feminism. An exploration of archival materials, artworks and newspaper articles reveals the couple’s little-known contribution to the women’s suffrage campaign, and there seems no better time to celebrate it than now.
Mary Watts was a pioneering Surrey suffragist and a figurehead of non-militant feminism in her community. She was a reformist rather than a radical, and believed in evolution rather than revolution. The women’s suffrage campaign was the calling of her later life. She was made President of the Godalming Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1909 after writing a letter expressing her support for the movement. She not only attended high-profile suffrage meetings but also held them at her Surrey studio-home, where she gave an impassioned newspaper-worthy speech on votes for women, declaring ‘a vote meant a voice’. She was cited in the national press as a prominent participant in suffrage marches and demonstrations, including the ‘Great Suffragist Pilgrimage’ of 1913, which travelled through Guildford and Godalming to London. In the same year she offered her husband’s famous allegorical painting Faith (1896) to be reproduced on the cover of the main suffragist journal The Common Cause.
Mary became Honorary President of the Women’s Guild of Arts, comprised of many suffrage artists, and Vice President of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, standing against restrictive feminine fashions such as the corset. Her support for female empowerment and emancipation is registered in her creation of powerful mother figures, models of strong female saints (including Joan of Arc, the patron saint of the suffragettes), and banners featuring angels rising above the words ‘justice’, ‘liberty’ and ‘unity’. Mary played a central role in local suffragist networks but was also part of a much wider women’s movement – in creative practice, petition and procession.
George Watts painted the portraits of male suffragists George Meredith (1893), Walter Crane (1891) and John Stuart Mill (1873) – who presented the first suffrage petition to Parliament in 1866. His symbolist art appealed to feminist campaigners. Militant suffragette artist Olive Hockin, who like Mary Watts trained at the Slade, kept a print of George’s Love and Death in her Kensington studio; and suffragette Lettice Floyd used a print of George’s She Shall Be Called Woman to decorate a WSPU shop in Newcastle. Nonetheless, in 1913 three of George’s paintings were attacked at Manchester Art Gallery by militant suffragettes. These included Prayer (1867), which may have been interpreted as female deference to patriarchal religion. Leading suffragettes lived in the Surrey Hills, where they sourced flints for their window-smashing campaign. Peaslake was home to the Brackenbury sisters, artists who painted Emmeline Pankhurst’s portrait and led the pantechnicon raid on Parliament in 1908; the Slade-trained artist and militant suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, first of the hunger-strikers; and Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence who started the publication Votes for Women.
The Wattses became celebrities over the course of their lifetimes, and were part of a growing late-Victorian creative feminist community. They formed close friendships with women’s suffrage supporters and social reformers like Evelyn and William De Morgan, Josephine Butler, Gertrude Jekyll and Lady Isabel Henry Somerset. Although the Victorian era is often associated with conventionalism and prudishness, it is important to remember that this period gave birth to feminism. Researching the lives and works of historically neglected figures like Mary Watts helps us to reflect on the relationship between this period and the ongoing fight for gender equality and women’s rights today – in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, the #MeToo campaign, and the BBC pay gap controversy.
Find out more:
To hear more from Dr Lucy Ella Rose, you can join us for our free public event ‘Surrey, Suffrage & the Arts: Past and Present’ on Saturday 19th May, 10am-12.30pm, at Surrey History Centre where she will be telling us more about artist, diarist and suffragist Mary Watts, drawing on her new book Suffragist Artists in Partnership: Gender, Word and Image. Booking information can be found at: https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/heritage-culture-and-recreation/archives-and-history/surrey-history-centre/heritage-events.
You can also visit a new display on ‘Mary Watts: Pioneering Suffragist’ at Watts Gallery Artists’ Village. Visiting information can be found at https://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/. We are delighted to count Watts Gallery as one of our project partners. Over the next few months we will be carrying out an audit to identify material relating to the suffrage movement in the county held by our five local partner museums. Details of these collections and how you can access them will be made available on our Exploring Surrey’s Past website in due course and key items will featured in our travelling exhibition at the end of the project. Watch this space for further details as the project progresses and we continue to piece together Surrey’s suffrage story.