Sylvia Pankhurst

A young Sylvia Self portrait in chalk circa 1907-10

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born 5th May 1882 in Manchester, she was an artist, a campaigner for the suffragette movement, a socialist and later a prominent left communist and activist in the cause of anti-fascism.

Pankhurst was the second of three daughters born to Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst who both became founding members of the Independent Labour Party and lobbied for women’s rights. Her father died when she was just sixteen. Sylvia, who dropped her forename Estelle, and her sisters, Christabel and Adela, attended Manchester High School for Girls, and all three became suffragists.

The Pankhurst home in Manchester (now the Pankhurst Centre)

Pankhurst studied at the Manchester School of Art and, in 1902, was awarded the Proctor Travelling Studentship residing in Venice for most of the scholarship. Pankhurst was the only woman in the life class at the Venice Accaddemia.  Out on the streets of Venice she made studies and paintings of people in everyday life.  Her studies in Venice were cut short when her mother became ill.

Street scene in Venice, watercolour

She returned to Manchester in 1903 where her mother and Cristobel founded the Women’s Social & Political Union. The Independent Labour Party had dedicated the Pankhurst Hall in Manchester to the memory of her father, the social club there being for men only. This was the spark that fuelled her desire to combat the lack of gender equality in the art profession with few art scholarships available to women. In this cause she enlisted the help of Keir Hardie, then leader of the Labour party, with whom she had begun a serious intellectual and intimate relationship.

Portrait of Keir Hardie

Pankhurst became the official artist and designer for the Women’s Social & Political Union – the movement started by her mother – designing badges, banners, and flyers. Her symbolic ‘angel of freedom’ was essential to the campaign alongside the WSPU colours of white, green and purple.

Angel of Freedom Women’s Social & Political Union Members Card

In 1907, travelling across Britain, she made realistic paintings for the Working Women In Britain project displaying the monotonous work done by women in mills and factories. In Glasgow she wrote about “the almost deafening noise of the machinery and the oppressive heat, the mill was “so hot and airless that I fainted within an hour”.

The Britain Women at Work Project. Glasgow Spinning Mill. Staffordshire Potteries. Portrait of a young woman.

She was imprisoned in 1913 and was subjected to force feeding. She made sketches that were distributed to the press on her release exposing her harsh treatment in jail.

Once the war started, struggling to balance her artistic and political work, she gave up art to devote herself to the East London Federation of Suffragettes – the organisation she founded to ensure that working-class women were represented and to pursue “a better world for humanity”.  

 During a lull in Suffragette activity Pankhurst visited Oberammergau, Southern Germany, a town renowned for its production of the Passion Play. It’s most likely that the pictures above represent scenes from the Passion Play, referencing Pankhurst’s watercolours and pencil studies of the various actors in the play.

Sylvia became estranged from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel in January 1914 after their organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), disapproved of her emphasis on building a campaign that centrally involved working class women, telling her that the new East London Federation of the WSPU must become a separate organisation.

Sylvia Pankhurst memorial mural in Bow East End of London

Towards the end of the war she began a thirty-year relationship with Italian printer and anarchist Silvio Corio. She gave birth to her first child, Richard, at the age of forty-five, refusing to marry. Her mother never spoke to her again after discovering she had given birth to a child out of wedlock.

She became heavily involved in the campaign supporting Ethiopia against the encroachment of fascist Italy in 1935. She permanently moved to Addis Ababa aged seventy-four and died there in 1960.

Pankhurst received a state funeral in Ethiopia at which Haile Selassie named her an “honorary Ethiopian”. She was buried in front of Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral – the only non-Ethiopian among the graves of famous Ethiopian patriots of the Italian war.

Graham Bennison, February 2021 |

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