International Women’s day might be over, but Women’s History Month continues right through March; what better time to appreciate the influential individuals who have come before us? Across the weekend following IWD, a selection of talks and events organised by National Museums Liverpool took place. In addition to the exhibitions put together for International Women’s Day and the other events going on throughout the city, these talks focused on some inspiring individuals, some of whom have been forgotten in the 21st century.
The International Slavery Museum
The International Slavery Museum kicked off International Women’s Day with a talk in the Maritime Archives and Library about an archive in their collection which logged the slaves at a sugar plantation in Jamaica (Roslin Castle plantation, 1791-1813). The slaves are cruelly listed alongside the livestock with the log used to keep track of the ‘increases’ and ‘decreases’ of slaves per year, with births, deaths and purchases listed in an inhumane fashion. Despite the impersonal nature of this catalogue, it has enabled the archivists at the museum to track the lives of individuals by name. This talk focused on the life of one slave ‘Bell’ who was purchased in 1791 along with her three children: Dye, Jessy and Nelly whilst pregnant with a fourth, Fate. In this plantation 80% of the women worked in the field compared to 60% of men; Bell was made to work in the Great House but her daughters were gradually put to manual labour work in the field. Bell became pregnant with presumably one of her master’s children, Sophia, and suffered much hardship through her life with Sophia and Fate both dying in childhood. The catalogue then shows that Bell herself died in 1801, just a month before her daughter, Dye delivered a son who also died in infanthood. This archive was fascinating to see; it is basically an inventory which highlights the awful conditions and circumstances of slaves in plantations. Bell is an interesting study to show the treatment of women as by following her life, the museum staff have tried to present her as an individual as opposed to a statistic as so common in history. This talk highlighted the importance of remembering all individuals on International Women’s Day, including those we have never learnt about.
Following this speech, the Poet Empress Jai also gave two talks at the International Slavery Museum about two incredible individuals: Nanny of the Maroons, and Mary Seacole. Nanny of the Maroons is a Jamaican National Hero who escaped from slavery and led the Jamaican Maroons (descendants from Western Africa) in the 18th Century. Her forces waged a successful war against British colonialists for over a decade. Nanny Maroon has been credited with freeing more than 1000 slaves over a 30 year period, with many attributing her leadership skills to her Obeah powers (beliefs based on an African-derived religion). Mary Seacole was a Jamaican nurse who cared for British soldiers during the Crimean wars. Often compared to Florence Nightingale, Seacole was incredibly influential in her own right even after being denied access to the frontline in London due to racial prejudices. Seacole fought to help and travelled to Crimea to be allowed to practice as a nurse. Unfortunately, at the war’s conclusion, Seacole returned to the UK destitute and bankrupt; her story was shared and money was raised by the British public to care for her, providing her with much-deserved recognition. These talks highlighted the significance of remembering these two women and allowed Empress Jai to share her thoughts on the subject of women and race.
Walker Art Gallery
The Walker Art Gallery also decided to focus on two individuals in their collection for the ‘Women artists in the Walker’ talk. Jessie Petheram, a Tomlinson assistant curator, and Kate O’Donoghue, a National Gallery curatorial trainee spoke about the lives and work of Anne Holt and Elisabetta Sirani respectively.
Elisabetta Sirani (1638-65) was extremely famous in her lifetime in both her native Italy and all across Europe. The daughter of a respected artist, Sirani was professionally trained as a child and was producing skilled art by the age of 17. Artists were often trained through painting the male nude figure, and as this was seen as improper for a woman, female artists were rare. Sirani, however, was not only famous as an artist, but even took over her father’s workshop at the age of 24 when he fell suddenly ill; Sirani was both a business woman and an artist and quickly became the talk of the continent. Sirani continued to train other female students in her craft. Sirani’s untimely death at the age of 27 was met with an outpouring of grief, with her eulogy dubbing her ‘the prodigy of art, the glory of the female sex, the gem of Italy, the sun of Europe.’ Despite the adoration of Sirani, she has since fallen into almost obscurity; with the efforts of the Walker, her work is gradually having a resurgence of popularity.
Anne Holt (1821-85) was not famous for her art like Sirani, but has rather always been sidelined. Anne was part of the famous Liverpool Holt family; the Holt family are known for defining the Liverpool we know today, with members of the family having been mayors, politicians, philanthropists, and prominent traders. Anne, however, had almost been erased from the family’s history, with many historians referring to George Holt Sr.’s ‘5 sons’, ignoring Anne, the eldest child. Her journals and watercolours have since been uncovered and the staff at the Walker have been trying to bring the memory of Anne back into Liverpool’s history. Many of Anne’s watercolours are landscapes (often of the Lake District where the family had a holiday home) and of flowers. The paintings are intricately detailed and quite beautiful. She was never a professional, like Sirani, and watercolours were not treated as ‘serious’ art at this time; comparing the art of both Holt and Sirani is a useful way of looking at the different aspects of art, both for professional recognition, and for pleasure.
The art of these women are unfortunately not always available to the public as they are paper drawings which are very fragile. However International Women’s Day was an apt opportunity for the curators to put their work on display, and they hope that in the future they will be able to present their work, and the work of many other artists, in the future. There are plans to digitise more works in the coming years so that people may view them more often. The Walker Art Gallery has a great history of supporting and collecting the work of women artists.
Museum of Liverpool
The Museum of Liverpool took a slightly different approach. On Saturday 9th, the creator of the GirlsFansZine was at the museum speaking to female football fans, and sharing their stories. This magazine hopes to acknowledge these fans who have for so long been ignored with images of ‘laddy’ football fans taking prominence. In particular, the magazine’s founder, Jacqui McAssey hopes to uncover the stories of slightly older fans, who have followed their clubs throughout their lives. The project is ongoing and further information can be found on their website here.
Victoria Gallery and Museum
Not strictly related to the National Museums Liverpool, the University’s own gallery also focused on the work of influential individuals on International Women’s Day. Firstly the current exhibition for Women’s History Month features the art of many women, some of whom have connections to Liverpool. On International Women’s Day, the VG&M had two tours of this exhibition (She’s Eclectic – running from January to April 2019); the exhibition contains both the work of some famous artists, such as Bridget Riley, as well as other up-and-coming artists. The website describes the collection by explaining that ‘Some are local, some are international. It’s an eclectic mix.’
Another of the exhibitions in the VG&M, focuses on Eleanor Rathbone – ‘An Independent Woman’; this is a fascinating exhibition and well worth checking out. Rathbone was an incredibly important woman who became an Independent MP and was a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights as a suffragist who was particularly known for her role in implementing the Family Allowance Act. The exhibition highlights the prominence of Eleanor Rathbone through a collection of news articles and letters she sent and received, including one from Winston Churchill. Although most of us now know her most for her namesake building, Rathbone was undoubtedly one of Liverpool’s most influential figures in the 20th century. On International Women’s Day, Janet Wolff gave a talk on this inspirational figure, whilst sharing moments from her own family’s history. The VG&M’s other current special exhibitions are on the Women of the Holt family, and Jasmir Creed’s Dystopolis and are all worth a visit.