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Portrait Gallery Events: Week One

January 17, 2012

Portrait Gallery Insights: Out of the Shadows.

6pm. Thursday 12 Jan.

30 minute talk

Although women appear across the Portrait Gallery in various contexts, Out of the Shadows charts the tipping point of changes in society and attitudes towards women’s roles. With Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman still riding high in the bestseller charts – what better place to start learning how things were than delving behind the canvas of this new exhibition.

We meet in the great hall (fully booked with 15 people only as the exhibtion is quite small). Sarah Saunders, Deputy Head of Education at NGS, leads the group up to the far side of the top floor where Out of the Shadows is situated. Seated on portable stools, Sarah outlines the nature of the exhibition – drawing the group’s attention to a series of photos projected onto one central wall of the space. The 19th century and a few early 20th century cabinet cards (50 in all) highlight the unlikelihood of women being a person of note; simply as very few of them have names or families attributed to them. They face Queen Victoria who, as Sarah explains, was somewhat a paradoxical female monarch, not believing in votes for women.

Queen Victoria and Caroline Norton

The 30 minute talk whittles through a menagerie of information that does not fit onto the wall texts. We learn why Queen Victoria is placed next to Caroline Norton –  Norton was trapped in an abusive marriage unable to petition for divorce so canvassed the Queen about divorce rights for women. Also about Mary Somerville who sits next to Charlotte Nasmyth. Somerville, one of the premier scientists of the 19th century was banned by her parents from indulging her love of maths and astronomy as a child and threatened with a straitjacket. Nasmyth however was uniquely provided with the same education as her brothers and encouraged to hone her craft as an artist.

The portraits on display in Out of the Shadowsare of women whose lives span the late 18th to the early 20th century and the names are not unfamiliar – Carlyle, Burns, Nasmyth. This corner of the Portrait Gallery reflects a period of huge change; Flora Drummond the suffragette’s ‘general’ with her purple, white and green sash sits alongside 1840s photos of the Newhaven Fishwives, not just traders but accountants for their husbands, fathers and brothers.

Bust of Susan Edmonstone Ferrier

Supplementing the information on the walls and elaborating with readings from Clementina Stirling’s memoirs Mystifications and the correspondence of Jane Baillie Welsh Carlyle (which show huge similarities to today’s cynical social columnists,) Sarah deftly runs the quiet audience through the characters in the exhibition and why they belong on the walls of the Portrait Gallery.

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