National Portrait Gallery

Rebel Women at the National Portrait Gallery

I’m really familiar with the National Portrait Gallery, London, or so I thought until I was invited to preview their Rebel Women Trail.  Much to my shame and amusement I found a section of the gallery which had escaped me so I am very pleased to highlight it in this blog post.

The Rebel Women Trail is a brilliant way to highlight the number of portraits of women in the permanent collection, perhaps often overlooked.  The portraits in the trail were chosen by a select group of women featuring: Gillian Wearing; Miranda Hart; Liv LIttle; Sara Pascoe; and, Ali Smith.

Join me and enjoy my highlights of the trail around the upper gallery of the National Portrait Gallery:

My favourite of all was the portrait of Mary Seacole, the often overlooked heroine of the Crimean War, where Florence Nightingale gets all the glory. She travelled to the Crimea at her own expense and became a familiar figure at the battlefront taking food, drink and her nursing skills to the injured and dying.   Sadly she was declared bankrupt after the war and although funds were raised by those who knew her work and she wrote a book (the first autobiography by a black woman in Britain) she was dogged by lack of money.  Her statue by St Thomas’s hospital where there is the Florence Nightingale Museum, shows the tribute being paid to her in the 21st century.Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

Dame Laura Knight was self-taught and women were denied access to nude models at the time so this portrait of the model with Laura in shot is a triumph over oppressive practices of early 1900s. She was also the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy in 1936 despite it being in existence since its foundation in 1768!

Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

As a great tennis fan, I was delighted to see Virginia Wade featured as she was such a leading player for so many years and won Wimbledon in 1977, the centenary of Wimbledon and the Queen’s Silver jubilee year.

Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson fought to qualify as a doctor at a time when women were not admitted to the profession and then fought to join the British Medical Association in 1873. She set up treatment areas for women that grew to become the New Hospital for Women which still exists in London although it was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital after her death.  She was also an active suffragist, although not as active as her sister Millicent Fawcett (see below) – what a family!

Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Pankhurst gets a mention here because of her extraordinary campaigning  life which ended in Addis Ababa where I was lucky enough to see her grave and magnificent memorial, so she has a special resonance for me

Sylvia Pankhurst - Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

Marie Stopes changed the world of contraception for women as she founded the first birth control clinic in the UK in 1921 and the Marie Stopes International organisation continues her work.  We can only imagine the battles she had to fight to push her work forward.

Marie Stopes - Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

There are so many more I could pick out but perhaps I will finish with Olive Morris, who I was less familiar with.  She was a hugely influential figure in the campaign against racial injustice in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Her campaign was key in ending  Police’s stop and search activities based solely on suspicion of someone carrying weapons which had dis-proportionally impacted black citizens. Clearly, I need to find out more about her and as any good exhibition will open up new avenues of research I can confirm this one has opened up a good number of interesting areas for further investigation.

Olive Morris - Rebel Women - National Portrait Gallery

As this was a preview visit we were treated to introductory talks by the curators and rather wonderfully to talks by some contemporary rebel women.  We heard from Jenny Beavan, a world leading movie costume designer who grabbed the headlines  and broke the mould when she won an Oscar for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road and accepted the award in an outfit straight out of the film not wearing traditional Oscar dress.  She treated us with stories about that event and was keen to point out that she has worked on period dramas as well although it was clear that outfit had changed her life.

Another speaker from the world of film was the inspirational Lorna Tucker, a director, who had taken the hardest route to success after leaving school aged 14.  She has just directed Westwood,  about Vivienne Westwood, a 4 year project during which had been a tough time, including the subject herself.  Lorna was  describing the power of ‘no’ in the face of those who seem to have all the power- a great rebel women whose rallying cry was the power of women sticking together.

For more information about the National Portrait Gallery and their Rebel Women Trail check their website:

I continued my Rebel Women morning by visiting the new statue in Parliament Square, the first of a woman.  Millicent Fawcett, a key figure in the campaign for women’s vote, has finally appeared in front of Parliament where her struggles helped women win the vote (but not all women) 100 years ago.

Millicent Fawcett

Full disclosure: I was invited to a preview visit of the Rebel Women Trail but it is free to enter as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. The sponsors kindly supported the preview and are supporting the whole Rebel Women season and they are MGallery by Sofitel, more info here.

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