Painting the town blue

Posted by on November 26, 2018 in Art, Blog, Dame designate, History, Literature, Women's equality issues | 3 comments

Pamela Hansford Johnson/A Writing Life

It is clearly the case that where damesnet leads, other dames follow. This was perfectly illustrated recently when national treasure Dame Judi Dench was featured urging Londoners to nominate their ‘unsung female heroes’ as candidate for a blue plaque:

Well this dame was writing about this back in March 2016, when English Heritage highlighted some of London’s pioneering women who are commemorated by blue plaques:

Unfortunately, in the interim not much has been achieved in terms of redressing the gender imbalance in this particular area.  Women still account for just 14% of blue plaques in the capital, so we welcome Dame Judi’s intervention.

My earlier blog provides all the necessary information on the procedure for nominating women, so this time I decided to check out some possible candidates from south London, where I live.  The following women all contributed to the creative process, and to my mind meet the English Heritage criteria.

Anna Airy was an English oil painter, pastel artist and etcher. She was born in Greenwich, south-east London, in 1882, and became one of the leading women artists of her generation. She was one of the first women to be officially commissioned as a war artist.

In June 1918 the Munitions Committee of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) commissioned four paintings of typical scenes from munitions factories in Hendon, Hackney and Nottingham and at the South Metropolitan Gas Co.  Working conditions in the factories were difficult and sometimes dangerous; at the National Projectile Factory in Hackney the ground was so hot that her shoes were reportedly burnt off her feet.

Airy was also commissioned by the Women’s Work Section of the IWM during the war and her work was featured in an IWM exhibition of Women War Artists in 2011-2012:

Mary Clare Absalom, actress, was born in Lambeth, south-west London in 1892.  She appeared on stage and in film and television. In theatre she became one of Noel Coward’s ‘leading ladies’, and appeared in several of his plays, including Cavalcade and Waiting in the Wings.  In 1945 Clare played the lead role of the victim in Agatha Christie’s play Appointment with Death.

Screen parts followed, including a role in the silent film The Black Spider and she appeared in two of Alfred Hitchcock’s films: Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.  Her forte was in strong character parts. Her only title role was as the eccentric detective Palmyra Pym in the 1940 film Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard.

My third nomination is Pamela Hansford Johnson, novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic.  She was born in Clapham, south London, in 1912.  She began her literary career writing poetry and went on to write 27 novels, where she explored themes of comedy, tragedy and crime.  Her second husband was the novelist C.P. Snow.

She also published short stories, critical works, sociological studies and autobiographical essays, and received a CBE in 1975.

Once again, we would love to hear your suggestions for blue plaque nominations. Dame Judi exhorts us to paint the town blue with women’s plaques. Let’s go for it.





  1. I love a blue plaque and have often commented on the few that celebrate women. Thanks Barbara for spear heading the mission to find suitable ‘dames’ to redress this!

    • Thanks Joyce! Blue plaques don’t have to be in London – if you can think of any noteworthy northern dames that meet the English Heritage criteria we’d be happy to make the application!
      Dame B

  2. My mother was a huge fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson. She said it was because you always knew how her characters supported themselves, which made it all the more real.

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