The aim of International Women’s Day 2015 on Sunday 8th March is to encourage effective action for advancing and recognising women. This year’s theme is Make it Happen, which echoes the spirit of the militant suffragette’s motto of a hundred-years’ earlier, ‘Deeds not Words’; a call-to-action for disenfranchised British women. Two portraits of leading militant suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst by Georgina Brackenbury and her daughter Dame Christabel Pankhurst, painted by Ethel Wright, are currently on display in the twentieth-century galleries. The portrait of Dame Christabel was bequeathed in 2011 by the daughter of the prominent suffragette Una Dugdale Duval who had acquired the portrait soon after it was completed in 1908. It shows Christabel in the throes of oratory; wearing the purple, green and white sash of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903.
The Pankhursts and their achievements are well-known today, but what of the far less well-known painter Ethel Wright, who made this unique image? Contemporary art periodicals reveal that Wright enjoyed modest success as a fashionable ‘lady artist’ in the 1880s and 90s, regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy , and known for her paintings of pierrots. Her portrait was included in ‘The Year’s Art’ in 1896, as part of a feature on ‘the more celebrated Lady Artists of the present time.’ In exhibition, Wright’s work was more often presented or critiqued in the context of ‘women’s work’. Frustration with the limitations imposed on women’s artistic output and ambition may have led Wright to the suffrage movement. Her portrait of Christabel was exhibited at a large exhibition organised by Pankhurst’s WSPU in 1909, and embodies the ‘awakened spirit’ of women that was identified in the catalogue for that exhibition. Wright continued her association with the suffrage movement whilst continuing to exhibit annually at the Royal Academy until 1927.