This is where we’ll update delegates…
CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE AND THE ARTS: Local, National, Transnational
An international, multi-disciplinary public conference
This is where we’ll update delegates…
Who was Mary Watts?
Mary Watts (1849-1938) was a famous name in the field of Arts and Crafts and a celebrated designer for Liberty’s. She was among the first female students to study at the Slade School of Art in London, and she married ‘England’s Michelangelo’ George Frederic Watts in 1886. This was not a traditional marriage but a creative partnership of like-minded artists, symbolists and philanthropists. Mary was a leading member of the Home Arts and Industries Association, which revived handicrafts in an industrial age and involved women at all levels. She believed strongly in ‘art for all’ and the moral potential of art. She set up a clay-modelling class for shoeblacks in the East End and taught Surrey villagers to make terracotta bricks and tiles for her Cemetery Chapel, which is seen as her masterpiece; she later founded her own pottery business. She collaborated creatively with her husband on various artworks and projects during his lifetime. After his death in 1904, she became more politically active in the women’s suffrage movement, which was gaining momentum. This campaign was the calling of her later life, and Mary became a central figure in the local feminist community.
As an artist, how did her work influence the suffrage movement?
Mary Watts’s artwork includes painting, pottery, textiles and illustration. Her artistic output was less directly related to her political activism than other suffrage artists. However, 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’. She used her role as the wife of a world-famous artist, as well as her own status as a successful professional craftswoman, to propel herself into high-profile and presidential roles in the local women’s suffrage community and women’s art organisations. She 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 (e.g. the corset). Art and activism met on the site of her Surrey studio-home and Watts Gallery, which became suffragist meeting grounds. The strong female figures, banners and symbols of freedom that appear in Watts’s art and craftwork engage with early feminist iconography, and show her lifelong preoccupation with the place of women.
What was her local and wider role in the women’s suffrage movement?
Mary Watts was a pioneering Surrey suffragist and a figurehead of non-militant feminism in her community. She believed in evolution rather than revolution, and was liberal and progressive rather than radical and avant-garde. 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. 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 and culminated in London. In the same year she offered G. F. Watts’s allegorical painting Faith (1896) to be reproduced on the cover of the main suffragist journal The Common Cause. Although it is not widely known, leading suffragettes – including the first hunger-striker Marion Wallace Dunlop – lived in the Surrey Hills (particularly Peaslake), where they sourced flints for their infamous window-smashing campaign. Mary played a central role in local suffragist networks but was also part of a much wider women’s movement – in petition and procession.
What sort of social circles Watts move in?
During her marriage to G. F. Watts, Mary developed close friendships with leading artists, writers and thinkers of her day. She was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron and became good friends with writer George Meredith, feminist Josephine Butler, craftswoman Gertrude Jekyll, and Pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn De Morgan. Mary’s newly-published diaries (which I co-transcribed over a century after they were written) record her interactions with Victorian celebrities who came to sit for their portraits to be painted for G. F. Watts’s ‘Hall of Fame’ collection. In later life, she made more connections with women’s rights campaigners. Notably, her diary of 1891 records her attendance at an inspiring lecture by high-profile British philanthropist and feminist Lady Isabel Henry Somerset (niece of Julia Margaret Cameron and cousin of Virginia Woolf’s mother). Mary commended Isabel’s ‘great work’ and ‘strong nature’, while Isabel sought Mary’s advice on clay for her Duxhurst pottery in Surrey, where she established a rehabilitation centre for female alcoholics. In 1913, Isabel was voted by readers of the London Evening News as the woman they would most like as the first female British prime minister. This shows the kind of prestigious and progressive social circles Mary moved in.
Why is it important that we remember/research individuals such as Watts, especially today, on the centenary of the women winning the right to vote?
The 80th anniversary of Mary Watts’s death in 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time. It is also 90 years since the Equal Franchise Act in 1928, which finally gave women the right to vote at age 21 on the same terms as men. This highlights Mary’s largely unrecognised role in the women’s suffrage movement and her contribution to a period of great socio-political transformation. Mary worked in partnerships as well as wider artistic and suffragist networks in order to support gender equality and female liberation in the nineteenth century. Although the Victorian era is often associated with conventionalism and prudishness, it is important to remember that this period gave birth to feminism in the form of the women’s suffrage movement. Researching the lives and works of historically neglected figures like Mary helps us to better understand the roots and founders of feminism. It enables us to reflect on the relationship between the Victorian 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.
Q: Who was Ethel Smyth?
A: Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) was a pioneering composer, author, and suffragette. She challenged traditional notions of the place of women within music composition internationally through her six operas (including Der Wald, The Wreckers, and The Boatswain’s Mate), Mass in D, double concerto for violin and horn, her oratorio The Prison, and many other chamber, orchestral, keyboard, and vocal works. In her later years she developed a secondary career as a writer of memoirs, biographical sketches, and polemical essays on the music profession and the status of women with it, publishing a total of ten books between 1919 and 1940 including her autobiographies Impressions that Remained, As Time Went On…, and What Happened Next, as well as her most overtly feminist text, Female Pipings in Eden. In the early 1910s she pledged two years’ service to the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, having heard a speech delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst, the charismatic leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Smyth became a close friend of Pankhurst, who was once even arrested at Smyth’s house, where she was convalescing in 1913 during the time of the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. She received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durham, Oxford, and St Andrews, and was awarded the DBE in 1922.
Q: How did her music influence her politics and vice versa?
A: Smyth continued to compose while in the service of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, and her music of this period bears the hallmarks of her suffragette activity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her song ‘The March of the Women’, which was quickly taken up by the suffragettes as the much-needed anthem they could call their own. Her song ‘Laggard Dawn’ was in part a commemoration of the suffragettes who died as a result of imprisonment and hunger striking, while her operetta-style ‘1910’ addressed the events of the so-called Black Friday (18 November) of that year, when the police responded to a suffragette protest with violent force. She dedicated the songs ‘Possession’ and ‘On the Road’ to Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, respectively; the latter incorporates a tongue-in-cheek quotation of ‘The March of the Women’ at its close. A more famous quotation of ‘The March of the Women’, as well as ‘1910’, occurs during the overture of The Boatswain’s Mate, the opera Smyth composed upon resuming her compositional career in earnest following her time as a suffragette. In using these songs as the basis for her overture – which would have been expected to present a medley of themes from the opera, rather than tunes that were entirely unrelated to it – Smyth simultaneously broke with musical convention and made a bold political statement.
Q: What was her local significance?
A: Smyth lived the majority of her life in three properties in the Surrey Heath and Woking area, all within ten miles of the University of Surrey. Having spent her formative years in Sidcup (then part of Kent), her family moved in 1867 to Frimhurst in Frimley Green, now known as Frimhurst Family House and home to the charity ATD Fourth World, which supports families in extreme poverty. When she relocated to Germany as an early adult, Frimhurst remained Smyth’s familial home, where she stayed when subsequently visiting her native country. Returning to England permanently in 1889, five years later she moved to a nearby property in Frimley upon the sale of Frimhurst following the death of her father. Now a Toby Carvery and popular drinking establishment, until recently it still bore the name she gave it: One Oak, after the ‘one special oak-tree standing up on a mound just in front of the house’. Then in 1910 she moved again, to Hook Heath, near Woking, adjacent to the golf course – fittingly enough, given her passion for the sport. Her house was built specially with funds donated by one of Smyth’s most important patrons, the American heiress Mary Dodge, and she gave it the name Coign (it has since been renamed Brettanby Cottage, and continues to be privately owned). She remained there until her death in 1944.
Q: What sort of social circles did Smyth move in?
A: Smyth’s remarkable capacity to network widely with luminaries of her time has ensured that she remains a person of interest to many communities both within and beyond music. She moved to Continental Europe in 1877 initially with a view to training at the Leipzig Conservatorium, being based in Germany for over a decade and coming into contact with Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Chaikovsky. Returning to England in the late 1880s, she elicited attention from influential figures including Empress Eugénie (the exiled widow of Napoleon III, then living at Farnborough Hill just a couple of miles from Smyth’s family home), Queen Victoria, and Princesse de Polignac, herself a well-known patron of the arts. Later in her life, she was to find a particularly powerful musical ally in Thomas Beecham, as well as Donald Tovey, who, as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, compared her Mass in D favourably to the Missa Solemnis in the same key by her lifelong favourite composer, Beethoven. Smyth’s works also came to the attention of the conductors Bruno Walter and Adrian Boult, as well as George Bernard Shaw, in his capacity as music critic.
Q: As a composer, author, and suffragette, which of Smyth’s activities were ultimately the most important?
A: History tends to remember Smyth chiefly as a composer, and secondarily as a writer and suffragette. That’s not to say that her activities in these other areas weren’t significant – and certainly not to downplay those achievements, for which she would doubtless be remembered even were it not for her musical career. But she herself acknowledged, in her memoirs, that music was her first ‘string’ and literature her second. It’s important to bear in mind that Smyth broke substantial new ground at a time when it was all but unheard of for a woman – let alone a British one, prior to the ‘musical renaissance’ of the generation that included Elgar and Vaughan Williams – to have successfully pursued an international career in music composition. Famously, in 1903 she became the first female composer to have a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, when her Der Wald was presented there (as The Forest); this was an accomplishment that remained altogether without parallel until the production of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin as recently as December 2016.
Q: Why is it important that we remember individuals such as Smyth, especially today, on the centenary of women being granted the right to vote in the UK?
A: Toronto-based company Opera 5 made an excellent point in writing recently that ‘Not many composers can claim that their work directly affected the rights and freedoms of millions of people’. Many of us have probably never heard of Ethel Smyth as a composer, and even fewer of us will have heard her music. But through her contribution to the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, and through writing the musical anthem that the suffragettes sang loudly and proudly at demonstrations as well as to bolster morale during periods of arrest and imprisonment, she played a significant part in bringing about major political change. That’s why it’s important to continue to remember both Smyth and her involvement with the movement that led to the enfranchisement of over four million women in the UK on 6 February 1918. Smyth was fortunate enough to live to see women receive the vote on equal terms to men in 1928, unlike Emmeline Pankhurst, who tragically had passed away just a couple of weeks previously. It’s rather fitting that Smyth, in her last official act for women’s suffrage, conducted the Metropolitan Police Band in a chorus of ‘The March of the Women’ in 1930 at the unveiling of the statue to Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, where it may still be seen today.