Rare watercolour sketch to feature in exhibition exploring history of women and politics - The Stratford Observer
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8th Aug, 2022

Rare watercolour sketch to feature in exhibition exploring history of women and politics

Ian Hughes 11th Jun, 2018

A RARE watercolour sketch depicting the reality of women’s exclusion from political life 200 years ago is to go on display for the first time.

The early 19th century sketch, belonging to Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) in Stratford, is attributed to the novelist Lady Georgiana Chatterton and shows 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.

The watercolour, painted in 1821, will go on display as part of the exhibition ‘Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament’ which will open at parliament on June 27. It will tell the story of women and parliament and will include historic objects from parliamentary collections and loans from around the UK.

Rosalyn Sklar, museums collections officer at SBT, 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.”

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 explained: “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.”

Amy Galvin-Elliott, a PhD student working on a joint project between Warwick University and the Parliamentary Archives, highlighted the importance of the sketch.

She 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.”

Alongside the sketch two tickets admitting the bearer to view Westminster Hall dated July 11 1821 were found. Research conducted by the SBT shows 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.

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