Protesting Watts: The Origin of Suffrage Iconoclasm

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Posted 3rd April 2019

Protesting Watts:
The Origin of Suffrage Iconoclasm

Gursimran Oberoi
'Global Watts' Researcher at Watts Gallery
and University of Surrey

On this day, one hundred and six years ago, three suffragettes entered Room 5 in Manchester City Art Gallery and attacked thirteen of the most famous and valuable Victorian paintings. The suffragettes' aim was to challenge the sentencing and imprisonment of their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Among the artworks attacked, G F Watts's Paolo and Francesca (1870), Portrait of The Honourable J L Motley (1861), and The Prayer (1860) suffered the most significant damage. Paolo and Francesca received a circular puncture and The Prayer suffered a large triangular shaped cut as a result of the sharp weapons wielded by the suffragettes. The other artworks attacked included several famous Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthete works; for example, The Shadow of the Cross by Holman Hunt, Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Captive Andromache by Frederic Leighton (President of the Royal Academy).

While Mary Richardson's 1914 attack against the famous Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery is best known as the first suffrage iconoclast attack in history, my research into the international significance and influence of Watts in the twentieth century reveals that the Manchester attack in 1913 was not only the first iconoclast attack in suffrage history but it also garnered international recognition as a result of Watts's celebrity status. At the height of his fame, Watts was known as 'England's Michelangelo' and exhibited as widely as Paris, New York and Melbourne. The archives at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village hold a treasure-trove of material relating to Watts's international fame.

The success of this attack revolutionised suffrage tactics against property and paved the way for future generations of activists, including Richardson, to manipulate the visual arts in the name of Women's Rights. Under the Malicious Damage Act of 1861, suffragettes Lillian Forrester and Evelyn Manesta were sentenced to Holloway Prison for three months and one month respectively while Annie Briggs was acquitted of all charges as she stated she did not participate in the attack. The WSPU honoured Forrester and Manesta for their efforts in promoting the cause.

The total cost of damage to the artworks was estimated at £170 which equates to over £19,000 today. The event's widespread media coverage shows the significant authority Watts and his fellow Victorian artists held over contemporary society and points to the evolving connections between politics and art. As my project 'Global Watts: Allegories for All' demonstrates, the WSPU were not anti-Watts or his art but rather inspired, and used his international reputation to revolutionise their campaign strategies. Following the attack, Christabel Pankhurst in 1915 reframed the association between Watts's art and suffrage militancy when she selected Rider on the White Horse for the cover of the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette. This image of an androgynous figure with a bow in one hand riding forward and overcoming obstacles resonated with suffragettes during their crusade. It serves as a powerful reminder of the universal appeal and longevity of Watts's allegories which transcend time and geographic boundaries.

Image: Suffragettes Annie Briggs, Lillian Forrester and Evelyn Manestra, 1913. Credit unknown.