The National Portrait Gallery: Rebel Women

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A conservationist and artist most famous for a writing the wayward adventures of rabbit in a blue jacket. The woman who opened Britain’s first birth control clinic and championed sex education in the 19th century. A British-Jamaican nurse who’s reputation rivals that of Florence Nightingale, and for that matter, Florence Nightingale herself.

I’m talking of course, of Beatrix Potter, Marie Stopes and Mary Seacole. But I’m also talking about The National Portrait Gallery, because nowhere else would you find these women, who moved in very different circles and lived in very different times, sitting next to each other.

Much of London has tried to honour the centenary of the vote for women in some shape or form, but few places are as well equipped to do so as the National Portrait, whose job it is to celebrate and commemorate figures who have altered the course of British history.

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(L) Beatrix Potter by Delmar Banner, (R) Marie Stopes by Sir Gerald Kelly

Although occasionally the Gallery has come under fire for featuring too few ladies alongside the many aisles of so-called gentlemen, Rebel Women is an ingenious idea to bring the female faces in the gallery to a fore. In a partnership with MGallery By Sofitel, The National Portrait Gallery will be hosting a season of events throughout 2018, reflecting on “the suffrage movement, but also focus on pioneering women throughout history and on the contemporary relevance of the ongoing battle for equality”, in their own words.

These conversations are current and necessary; we should all be gathering to listen and take action to secure our future and those of generations to come. But for me personally, the Rebel Women Trail, in which leading contemporary females pick out their favourite historical figures in the Gallery, is something more. Although no doubt it is exciting to see that popular comedian Miranda Hart revers tennis legend Virginia Wade, and that author Ali Smith is a fan of Pauline Boty the pioneer of pop art, for me the fascination is the all too rare chance to explore the heroines of bygone day – who’s actions still touch us now.

For instance, after strolling through the Rebel Women Trail, I was inspired to do a bit of research. Did you know Beatrix Potter was a successful amateur mycologist, and she not only drew specimens of mushrooms and fungi, but also wrote scientific articles about them? Did you know that Marie Stopes (after whom a chain of abortion clinics is now named) wrote a sex ed manual for Victorian women as a response to her humiliating first marriage, during which she never experienced intercourse, since no one told her about the birds and the bees?! Did you know Mary Seacole nursed soldiers on the Crimean front at her own expense, since the Government refused medicinal aid from a woman?

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(L) Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen, (R) Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

For the rest of this year, consider The National Portrait Gallery as more than a gallery, a grandiose hall of picture frames. See it instead as a lively tribute, an interactive experience where you can learn about some of the women who never showed up in your history books. These women, all of them, not just Beatrix Potter or Marie Stopes, but women like Elizabeth I and Mary Wollstonecraft, had lives that were rich with incident and wild beyond imagination. The women in the Gallery are as varied as they are colourful, they are travellers, warmongers, intellectually astute and ambitious. They do not need to be perfect saints to be awe-inspiring, they only need to be rebel women, and there’s no better time to be reminded that you can be one too.

Find out more about the Rebel Women calendar at The National Portrait Gallery here

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