Saturday 26 September marks the centenary of the death of the Socialist hero and Labour Party pioneer Kier Hardie, a selection of portraits of whom can be seen in our current display Keir Hardie: Radical, Socialist, Feminist, from now until December 15 2015.
From humble beginnings, Hardie became the first ever leader of the Labour Party in parliament and went on to radically alter the landscape of British Politics. He was attached to issues and values still relevant today, crusading passionately against poverty, promoting social welfare and insisting on women’s liberation. Through his close and intimate friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the leading figures in the campaign to establish votes for women, he became deeply involved in promoting the cause of women's suffrage. At the time of Hardie’s death, a hundred ago, Pankhurst described him in the Woman's Dreadnought as 'the greatest human being of our time', a view that would be shared by generations of Socialists to come.
Our display includes two portraits of Hardie by Sylvia Pankhurst, who trained as an artist, donated to the Gallery by the artist herself in 1956 along with a number of related letters, one of which is illustrated and transcribed below. Writing from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she had settled, Pankhurst expressed her concern for the preservation of the more finished portrait, and the importance of honouring Hardie and his legacy.
I am conscious that this is only a sketch and was purely a preliminary study to assist me to do a painting, which circumstances subsequently rendered impossible. I should not have ventured to offer it to the National Portrait Gallery save for the fact that I believe you have no other portrait of Keir Hardie, whose place in history is of importance. Unfortunately, as you have indicated to me and as I know to be the case, this drawing is fugitive and therefore the least disturbance to it the better.
I understand that Elsa Fraenkel and sir richard winstedt have received a promise for it to be exhibited at an exhibition in December. Since the promise has been gived and when I was written to I only replied I did not think you would be willing to lend it. I do not wish to refuse to lend the drawing for that one exhibition – indeed I have given it to the National Portrait Gallery under your care and the drawing is out of my hands. I have actually no title to intervene.
However, I think you will agree with me that as it is the only portrait – sketch though it is – of Keir Hardie, it should not be lent on other occasions in view of the fugitive nature of the medium. It is only because I think it does give an idea of the kind of man Keir Hardie was and because you have no other representation of him. That I venture to make this suggestion to you.
I should feel highly honoured that you had accepted my old drawing, only that I recognise the acceptance was not for any merit save its subject.
E. Sylvia Pankhurst