Rebel Women Trail, National Portrait Gallery, throughout 2018

Posted by on September 3, 2018 in Art, Blog, Exhibition, History, Politics | 4 comments

Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen/damesnet

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is a particular favourite of Dame Louella, and it is to her that I owe the tip that sent me off to Trafalgar Square last week.

Rebel Women is a season of events at the NPG throughout 2018 to mark the centenary of some women getting the vote in Britain.  The season reflects on the suffrage movement but also focuses on pioneering women throughout history and on the contemporary relevance of the ongoing battle for equality.

The Rebel Women trail is one aspect of the NPG’s focus.  It features ten paintings or sculptures of women selected by a number of contemporary female writers and artists.

Some of the women featured in the trail are well known to all of us; others are a delightful discovery.  It kicks off with a splendid portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, who was a fearless leader in a world dominated by men, establishing authority and respect. I was enthralled to learn of the tenacity of Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676), who gained fame by fighting a forty-year legal battle to inherit her father’s estates, which had been left to her brother. When she finally received her inheritance she became probably the wealthiest noblewoman in England.

From nobility to plain farmer’s daughter, the trail leads us to Flora Macdonald (1722-1790), who became a Scottish Jacobite heroine when she helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape the Battle of Culloden by disguising him as her maidservant. Onwards and upwards, we are directed to Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), about whom Bee Rowlatt, chair of the Mary on the Green campaign, asks ‘has there been another treasure-hunting single mum Enlightenment philosopher on the high seas?’

As I strolled happily around the gallery, Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807) was next on the list. A founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, as a woman she was excluded from the life drawing classes. She developed her own brand of history painting, which focused on classical female subjects.

And then we meet Mary Seacole (1805-1881), the British-Jamaican businesswoman and nurse who set up the ‘British Hotel’ behind the lines during the Crimean War. Hot on her heels is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), the passionate campaigner who became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and left an extraordinary legacy.

Marie Stopes by Sir George Kelly/damesnet

On the subject of legacies, I was delighted to find a portrait of Marie Stopes (1880-1958) included in the trail: she rebelled against the mores of her time to demand greater autonomy and more choices for women, including in their sexual and reproductive health. Her controversial sex manual Married Love was published in 1918, at a time when such matters were not deemed suitable for public discussion.

The trail includes a portrait of Josephine Butler (1828-1906) by George Frederic Watts. She campaigned to establish refuges for homeless women, housing many in her own home. In 1869 she became involved in the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation that attempted to control the spread of venereal diseases through the forced medical examination of prostitutes, a process she described as surgical or steel rape. The Acts were repealed in 1886.

‘Self portrait’ by Laura Knight/damesnet

And make sure you see the excellent ‘self-portrait’ by Laura Knight. Her 1965 retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts was the first accorded to a woman. As a female art student she was denied access to nude models, so the painting with model Ella Louise Napier makes a strong statement about artistic freedom.

If you are anywhere near Trafalgar Square this year, do take the trail, and don’t forget that it is just one of the events on offer at the NPG – for details of other exhibitions on this theme check out




  1. Portraits of women. did you know that Barbara Judge when she was appointed to the IOD, first woman director etc, etc,
    relined all the walls with portraits of women from around the country National Trust, etc, finding it difficult to get some people to release or loan.

    Recently she has been asked to stand back, there are allegations of bullying etc, etc,
    oh did I mention she was american? Ie non British, so doesn’t really recognize the place of women in this society.

    On a more cheerful note, the Royal Society, Carlton Terace has a number of women scientists proudly displayed. they have a whole policy which makes interesting reading.

    • Thanks for the Dame Judge comment. Must get to the Royal Society..
      Dame B

  2. I wonder why you have omitted the significant contribution that Florence Nightingale made to Nurse Education and standards of care which are followed today, statistics (being the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society), and very important sanitary reforms and hospital design which radically reduced mortality rates in this country.

    I have no problem with you including Mary Seacole but her contribution to caring for the wounded and desperate soldiers was negligible in comparison as she only went to the Scutari hospital on 2 occasions. She ran a hotel which she says she established to ‘watch the glory of war’. She records she supplied provisions for the ‘Spectators who came to watch the glory of war’ and provided food for the officers races. It was primarily for the officers thereby ignoring the upwards of 5,000 men suffering in unimaginable conditions. Contrary to current popular revisionist history, she had absolutely no influence on the practice or education of nursing whatsoever. She was untrained but instructed by her mother who was a ‘Traditional Healer’ dispensing ‘medical potions’ which had no evidence base.

    With regard to the inclusion of Mary Stopes – I regret you have failed to include her stated eugenic agenda to prevent ‘useless’ people from being born. Her pursuit to provide contraception had no laudable motivation but was part of a movement to remove groups of people she considered did not deserve to live.

    I fail to see why this is to be celebrated. Mary Stopes today has been regularly criticised by the coroner following patient deaths and last year several of their clinics were closed due to ‘unsafe practices’.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I would respectfully point out that the ‘Rebel Trail’ was created by the National Portrait Gallery, and they made the selection. Our review highlights some of the women included in the trail whose portraits hang in the gallery. As regards Mary Stopes, I am well aware of her views on eugenics, but no doubt you know that Charles Darwin, who died 2 years after Stopes was born, propounded this theory vigorously, yet this often tends to be overlooked in appraisals of his work. Also, I think it a little unfair to blame Stopes herself for any current failings in the organisation. As always, one has to consider the wider circumstances and views of the time when assessing anyone’s achievements. And it begs the question why women are so often judged more harshly than men..

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