For International Women’s Day we wanted to take the time to highlight some of the amazing women artists in our collection. Rowena asked colleagues across the gallery for their favourite pieces in our collection by women artists, and here’s what they came up with!
Home of the Brave? No.2, Janis Jefferies (Mixed media, 1986)
‘This piece is one of my favourites that is on display at the moment. I love the use of embroidery, which has historically been associated with a delicate femininity, to highlight the resiliency of the women activists at Greenham Common in the 1980s.’ – Rowena, Visitor Team
This work by feminist artist Janis Jefferies pays homage to the resilience of the so-called peace women who protested against the siting of nuclear missiles at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire in the 1980s and 90s. It is evocative, in its scale, of the textile mementos that were left at the perimeter fence of the camp. The use of domestic textiles is employed to emphasise that the nuclear threat is being addressed from a specifically female perspective.
Janis Jefferies is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. She is an artist, writer and curator, Research Fellow at the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles which she established in 2002.
A Mountain Valley, Margaret Pilkington (Woodblock print, 1924)
‘Margaret Pilkington was our first female director, although it was an honorary posting and she was therefore unpaid. She was hugely committed to the Whitworth, and an accomplished artist in her own right’ – John, Visitor Team
Margaret Pilkington (1891-1974) was a skilled wood-engraver but is better remembered as a champion of the arts and crafts. She was honorary director of the Whitworth from 1936 until 1959 and was the leading figure in the Red Rose Guild of Designer Craftsmen. Margaret Pilkington also held strong social commitments, reflected primarily in her work with girls’ clubs in Manchester, but also in her pioneering views in relation to public access to galleries. She was actively involved in many aspects of Manchester’s social and intellectual scene; she was a Justice of the Peace for Manchester from 1945 and a member of the Manchester Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches from the late 1940s. She was the first woman to be president of either the Manchester Luncheon Club (1963-1964) or the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1964-1965).
Margaret Pilkington was born at Pendleton near Manchester on 25 November 1891 into an affluent family. From an early age, Margaret showed a talent for and enjoyment of art. Her wood engravings demonstrate a skilled use of contrast between black and white, light and shade. Although Margaret Pilkington continued with her painting, drawing and wood engraving throughout her life, she put a lot of her efforts into organization within the arts. In 1920 she organized an exhibition at Houldsworth Hall that marked the beginnings of the Red Rose Guild, exhibiting with the Society of Wood Engravers. She became a member of the Society the following year, was honorary secretary from 1924 and chairman from 1952 until 1967. A founder member and honorary secretary of the Red Rose Guild, she was appointed chairman in 1926. Margaret was also a member of the Manchester City Art Galleries from 1925 and was president of the North West Federation of Museums and Art Galleries from 1945.
In 1925 Margaret Pilkington was invited to join the council of the Whitworth (officially known as the Whitworth Institute), beginning what was to be a life-long involvement with the gallery. She was honorary director from 1936 to 1959. At the outbreak of the Second World War she oversaw the decision to move many of the gallery’s art treasures to storage in the National Library of Wales. She then helped to set up a rest centre at the Whitworth for those who had been made homeless by the air raids, personally looking after people there.
Roberta Multiples Gather at De Young Exhibition in Front of Construction Chart Seen from Behind, Lynn Hershman Leeson (Photograph, 1978)
‘Created in 1978, when women were becoming more assertive about their identities, the subject of the photograph still runs true today, 42 years later. As three different, yet seemingly cloned, women look collectively at an image of the fictionalised Roberta Breitmore with her face carved up ready for transformation. It’s as if it’s a snapshot from social media today, dominated by people who pout and twist their faces to show themselves at their best and construct their personas. For me it’s a reminder for me to keep my daughter safe and informed about the value of being true to herself.’ – Denise, Learning and Engagement Team
Lynn Hershman Leeson is an American artist and filmmaker. She is widely recognized for her innovative work investigating issues that are now recognized as key to the workings of society: the relationship between humans and technology, identity, surveillance, and the use of media as a tool of empowerment against censorship and political repression. In 1973, Hershman Leeson began a private performance as the fictional character, Roberta Breitmore. Breitmore’s first act was to arrive by bus in San Francisco and check into the Dante Hotel. In the following years, she undertook real-life activities such as opening a bank account, obtaining credit cards, renting an apartment, seeing a psychiatrist, and becoming involved in trendy occupations, such as EST and Weight Watchers. Her activities were documented in 144 drawings and surveillance photographs, as well as other artifacts, including checks, credit cards, and a driver’s license. During the fourth year of the performance, Breitmore multiplied into four other people appearing in her guise.
Untitled, Pearl Alcock (Pastel drawing, undated)
‘Pearl Alcock was an incredible untrained artist who moved to Brixton from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. I love how vibrant and colourful all of her works are!’ – Adam, Visitor Team
Pearl Alcock (1934-2006) was an exceptional colourist who worked with oil paint, pencils, crayons, felt tips and acrylics. Pearl’s paintings can be categorised as narrative portraits, usually without titles; flowers and more intuitive, as she called them ‘Mood Pictures’, which are abstract and atmospheric. Birds, like yellow canaries are often recurring in her works. Sometimes she would paint or draw Caribbean landscapes entirely from memory. She usually painted at night as she loved silence, sitting in her chair and smoking roll-up cigarettes.
Born in 1934 in Jamaica, she was a one of seven children from a very poor family. In 1959, she left her marriage and move to UK when she was 25. She held a number of factory jobs, later opening a boutique in Brixton followed by cafe and an illegal shebeen run in her basement. She started painting when she was on the dole in 1985, after her local dress shop in Brixton failed and the shebeen was closed following the Brixton riots. She began to draw as she could not afford a birthday card for a friend, so decided instead to paint one. She said- ‘I went mad scribbling on anything I laid my hands on’, she explains, ‘friends admired what I had done and began to bring me materials to use, that is how I started’.
She exhibited during her lifetime at the New Art Exchange (Nottingham, UK) and 198 Gallery (Brixton, UK). She was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Whitworth in 2019.
Untitled, Lee Godie (Drawing, undated)
“‘Untitled’ by Lee Godie is amongst my top artists currently on display. Her portraits are full of character and totally unique which really emphasises Godie’s charisma. Godie drew people whilst she was living on the streets of Chicago, drawing strangers on scraps of canvas, I like how in this piece she’s utilised the whole length of her canvas littering it with figures.” – Rosy, Visitor Team
Lee Godie (née Jamot Emily Godie) (1908-1994) was an American artist, whose work entered the Whitworth’s collection as part of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection gift in 2010.
At the age of 60, the flamboyant Lee Godie was seen to be selling her art on the steps of the Institute of Art, Chicago, in 1968. Employing watercolour, pencil, tempera, Biro and crayon from her black portfolio bag, she applied her media to canvas, poster-board, sheets of paper, and window blinds salvaged from skips. On occasion, she would stitch together a book or triptych. She drew female busts of herself, her friends, passers-by and the famous in a style she called Impressionist, claiming to outperform Cezanne. Unlike many outsider artists, the bohemian Godie possessed a rich theatricality and sense of her own worth as a persona and an artist. She would sell her work only to those she liked. Godie also liked to photograph herself in the city’s photo-booths, assuming different characters, drawing on her face and dressing accordingly, then attaching these passport-sized self-portraits as ‘signatures’ to her sold paintings. Early works sold for just a few dollars, but towards the end of her life, she was selling work for thousands of dollars.
Godie had a seemingly tragic life, in which she bore four children, two of them dying as infants, which appears to have caused her to reinvent her life. She lived in hostels or primarily homeless outside on the street, preferring total independence, and building a life beyond the former constraints of her earlier years, so that she could enjoy, mixing with people in a way that she could control. Bonnie Blank, her daughter, rediscovered her via the Wall Street Journal, and became her legal guardian, moving her into care in 1991 after a diagnosis of dementia.
Posthumously her work has been acquired by major public galleries in the US such as the Institute of Art (Chicago), Museum of American Folk Art (New York), the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington DC).
On the Quay, Dame Laura Knight (Drawing, 1921)
‘I have always been a great fan of Laura Knight. She was the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy and was the official War artist at the Nuremburg Trials. She also painted circuses in the 1920s, and when in Nuremburg went for an evening picnic with some clowns she had painted in Blackpool. The British and American military officers who were escorting here were blown away, and the next day she went back to the courtroom to continue painting these terrible men on trial. This is another work from an extraordinary career. She spent a lot of time in Cornwall in her early life and career, which is where this piece is set. She loved its impressive and dramatic landscape.’ – Dave, Visitor Team
Dame Laura Knight, (née Johnson), (1877 – 1970) was an English artist who worked in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint. Knight was a painter in the figurative, realist tradition and who embraced English Impressionism. In her long career, Knight was among the most successful and popular painters in Britain. Her success in the male-dominated British art establishment paved the way for greater status and recognition for women artists.
In 1929 she was created a Dame, and in 1936 became the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy. Her large retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1965 was the first for a woman. Knight was known for painting amidst the world of the theatre and ballet in London, and for being a war artist during the Second World War. She was also greatly interested in, and inspired by, marginalised communities and individuals, including traveller communities and circus performers.
Elisabeth Frink, Harbinger Bird IV (Bronze sculpture, 1961)
‘This sculpture is possibly my favourite thing in the whole collection (although this is a hard decision to make!) I love the way it is both menacing and disturbing, but also strangely comical.’ – Jo, Development Team
Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) was a British sculptor and printmaker known for her preoccupation with naturalistic forms and subject matter. With a lifelong interest in the work of Alberto Giacometti, her range of subject matter included men, birds, dogs, cats, horses, and religious figures. Frink’s work was often built up from layers of broken and distressed plaster placed on top of a wire armature, which would then be cast in bronze. She would model her subject, cast it in plaster and then carve the plaster before it was cast in bronze. This way she achieved a rougher surface that echoed the themes that underpinned her work – what she described as ‘[the] subtle combination of sensuality and strength with vulnerability’. As a recognition of her contributions to arts and culture, Frink was one of five women selected to be featured on British postage stamps in 1996.
Untitled, Judith Scott
Within our collection, we have many untitled works by Judith Scott, a deaf American woman with Down Syndrome, best known for her textile art; and bright, tightly woven nests of colour, made up of heavy fibres tenderly wrapped around ordinary, day-to-day objects. Like many disabled people, she faced many forms of discrimination over the course of her life, as she was institutionalised from the age of seven, secluded from the world for most of her childhood and adult life. Due to a lack of understanding, her deafness was not diagnosed and she was mistaken as being “uneducable” for many years. The state institution she was kept in was of poor condition, and it took 35 years for her to be permitted to leave that space. Her sister, Joyce, encouraged her to look into making art, and in her mid-40s, she began her work in fibre art. After her first exhibition in 1999, her work and her name became internationally renowned, with themes of pairing, the twisted human body, and cocoons and metamorphosis existing throughout.
We recognise both Scott’s life and her contribution to the artistic world, as an outsider artist with an unbelievable talent and connection to textile artwork, and as a disabled woman who was denied access to society due to misunderstanding and bigotry. These factors should be key to our understanding of art and of people from marginalised groups in our cultural and everyday spaces.
Various textiles, Unknown Artists (Pictured: Greek Bed Curtain, 1700-1724)
‘What about all the unknown women who created most of our embroidery collection? Their names do not survive and yet they have left us such a heritage. One of my favourites is this bed curtain which a young girl and female relatives would have made as part of her dowry and would have adorned her marriage bed.’ – Ann, Collections Team
The Whitworth’s textiles collection is one of the most comprehensive in the country, and includes an incredible array of objects. From medieval tapestries, to 20th century woven sculptures, to fragments of ancient clothes: if we don’t have it all, we do at least have most of it! However, many of the works in our collection were made not as fine art objects but as parts of everyday life. Unfortunately, this means that more often than not, the people who brought these pieces into the gallery’s collection were not able to name the artists and makers. This International Womens’ Day, and every day, we recognise and appreciate the skill and creativity of the unnamed women across the world who contributed to our collection.