A rare watercolour sketch depicting the reality of women’s exclusion from political life 200 years ago will go on display for the first time, in the UK Parliament.
The sketch, attributed to Lady Georgiana Chatterton c.1821, depicts the ventilator, an attic space above the old House of Commons Chamber that women used to observe political debates, after their exclusion from the public galleries in 1778.
It will go on display for the first time in Voice and Vote: “Women’s Place in Parliament” which will open on 27 June 2018. It is on loan to Parliament from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which holds extensive local historic collections relating to the playwright’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon and South Warwickshire, as well as the internationally-designated Shakespeare collections. The exhibition will tell the story of women and parliament through immersive and interactive technologies to help recreate lost historic spaces that were used by women in the Palace of Westminster. It will include key historic objects from Parliamentary collections and significant loans from around the UK.
Amy Galvin-Elliott, a PhD student working on a joint project between Warwick University and the Parliamentary Archives, said: “The discovery of this watercolour of the ventilator is an exciting moment in the telling of the ‘her-story’ of women in Parliament. “It is a rare and unique example of an artwork representing early nineteenth-century women’s experiences of viewing Commons debates from a marginalised space. “The ventilator is a complex symbol of both political subjugation and, paradoxically, the determination and perseverance of women. At a time when we are commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, the ventilator is still a pertinent symbol, and we have much to learn by looking back to it.”
The sketch was discovered after being shared on Twitter. It was recognised as an image of the House of Commons, including the ventilator, by parliamentary archivist Mari Takayanagi. Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist in the Parliamentary Archives, said: "Back in 2015, a researcher called Simon Pickering took lots of photographs of all sorts of documents during research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Later, he was going through them and wondered if this might be the House of Commons. He asked Twitter, and one of my colleagues spotted it. I was thrilled to recognise it as the Ventilator – it was on Christmas Eve too, a wonderful Christmas present!" Simon Pickering discovered it in a sketch book where Lady Georgiana collected a variety of paintings and sketches by both herself and her friends, and it was next to two tickets to Westminster Hall dated 11th July 1821. This was the day of the King’s Speech to the House of Lords. Georgiana would have been 15 at the time, and due to her social status, it is highly likely that she would have attended such an occasion with a chaperone.
The painting shares artistic features with other paintings signed by Georgiana, although the watercolour of the ventilator itself has no signature. The sketch was found tucked in the back of a volume of watercolours by Rebecca Dulcibella Ferrers in the extensive archives of the Baddesley Clinton Estate (1200-1981). The volume has been cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust since 1992, when it was deposited by a member of the Ferrers family.
Rosalyn Sklar, Museums Collections Officer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said: “It is thrilling to be able to share a wonderful piece of history from our collection. The Ventilator watercolour sketch, interesting and characterful in itself, has also been a catalyst for further research and discoveries that can enrich our understanding of the place of women in British political history.” Alongside the sketch two tickets admitting the bearer to view Westminster Hall dated July 11th 1821 were found.
Research conducted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust shows that the Office of Great Chamberlain, which issued the tickets, was at the time held jointly by two women, shedding a further dimension on the ongoing female influence in the circles of power.
Melanie Unwin, Co-curator of the Voice and Vote exhibition, said: “This exciting exhibition should really give the public a sense of the barriers that women had to overcome to participate in democracy. For the first time, we are able to recreate the sounds and atmosphere of those spaces which women were confined to – it is incredible to see how much campaigners and early women MPs achieved despite the limitations placed on them.”