I have been invited to guide a Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette Walk in the East End for the National Portrait Gallery. Had Sylvia not become the great suffragist and human rights campaigner, she may well have become one of the greatest artists of her time. She was a very talented painter and designer and won several awards in her early adult years. This included the ‘Best Woman Student’ prize at Manchester School of Art when she was 19, and 3 years later she was able to start organising the London operation of her mother Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), because she had gained a scholarship to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. This college only gave two scholarships a year, and Sylvia finished top in the whole country in their scholarship exam. And she used her art skills throughout the Suffragette campaign to give it an impressive visual identity.
The National Portrait Gallery’s request for a walk is part of their Creative Connections project which is a 4-year campaign connecting young people with contemporary artists to create a series of new art works inspired by the Gallery’s collection. The spotlight for the first year is on the East End. Young people from Mile End (from where my Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette Walk starts) have been discovering 8 inspirational individuals in the Gallery’s collection with connection to their local area. These include artists such as Rachel Whiteread (first woman to win the Turner Prize, for ‘House’ which was a house in Mile End) and the great human rights campaigner Gandhi (on the Suffragette Walk we see where Gandhi chose to stay in Bow when visiting London, a stone’s throw from where Sylvia made some of her great speeches). And Sylvia, who was both great artist and great human rights campaigner of course, is another of the 8 inspirational people chosen. Creative Connections runs from June 10th to September 8th but Suffragette Walks in Bow take place all year round.