As a new exhibition about women's suffrage opens, Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline, explains why it made her chuckle and recalls the truly damaging tactics of her ancestors.
One hundred years ago, the National Portrait Gallery was issued surveillance photographs of suffragettes, including my great-grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst, by the Criminal Records Bureau. It was hoped that, as a result, staff would be able to recognise women planning to attack the gallery’s artworks in their campaign of political protest. Such concerns were justified: on March 10 1914 Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus, hanging just a few steps away in the National Gallery, with a small axe. She was also arrested for arson, vandalising the Home Office and bombing a railway station.
Now the internal warning memos and surveillance images of my great-grandmother and her fellow campaigners are themselves part of a fascinating exhibition at the NPG, entitled “Suffragettes: Deeds not Words”. I must confess that I chuckled on first seeing the display. What a wonderful irony it is that the Gallery is now positively promoting those whom it once looked out for in fear. Trouble makers have, over time, become worthy of tribute.
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