SUFFRAGE BLOGS

  • Mapping Women's Suffrage

Protect the Paintings! How the Royal Society of London prepared for suffragette protests.

Dr Ann-Marie Richardson

 

In June 1914, the Superintendent of Vine Street Police Station received two letters from Robert William Frederick Harrison (1858-1945), Assistant Secretary of the Royal Society of London. Police officers were often enlisted for crowd control and to prevent carriage congestion for the occasion of the society’s conversaziones when hundreds of fellows and pre-approved guests would descend upon the Society’s headquarters at Burlington House. Their annual “Ladies’ Night” was coming up, an event which had occurred every June since 1876 to display innovations in science and technology. This evening differed from the annual conversazione in May because Fellows were encouraged to bring a female guest. What made this police commission different was that Harrison made the unusual request for four officers to attend the soirée incognito ‘in evening dress’. This subterfuge prevented the appearance of officers diminishing the friendly atmosphere whilst not alerting anyone to their presence – specifically, any militant suffragettes who might make an unwelcome appearance.

J. R. Brown. (1888) ‘Conversazione of the Royal Society at Burlington House’ from The Graphic. [Illustration]
J. R. Brown. (1888) ‘Conversazione of the Royal Society at Burlington House’ from The Graphic. [Illustration] p.629. Held at British Newspaper Archive. Available via: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/9000057/18880616/036/0013 Image © Illustrated London News Group. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

As suffragette protests became progressively violent in the 1910s, the Society became increasingly wary. What is notable about Harrison’s letters is his stipulation that ‘especial supervision’ should be given to protect the pictures and ‘other exposed objects’ that would be displayed ‘against damage by women’. Harrison’s concerns for the paintings were likely provoked by Mary Richardson’s (1882/3-1961) slashing of Diego Velázquez’s painting ‘The Rokeby Venus (1647)’ on 10th March 1914. Art deemed to be overtly patriarchal or representing an overbearing male gaze, in the case of Rokeby, were being targeted. Harrison clearly anticipated that protestors might attack the Royal Society’s portraits – as representations of male dominance over the scientific realm. The walls of Burlington House were filled with portraits of notable male fellows {women were not accepted as Fellows until 1945}. The only exception was a bust of Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Even today, in the Society’s new headquarters at Carlton House, portraits of past fellows adorn the walls – although more women are now included.


The exhibits scheduled to be displayed on this occasion may also attract dissent. The surviving programme from 1914 shows amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson (1864-1916), who “discovered” the Piltdown Man (Eonthropus dawsoni), presenting fossilised remains and bone fragments as the “missing link” between ape and man. He claimed the remnants were found in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown (East Sussex), later exposed as fraudulent [c.1950s]. Unaware of the hoax, the Royal Society had procured an exhibit of the ‘lower canine tooth’ of the Piltdown man from Dawson, as well as a display by osteologist William Plane Pycraft (1868-1942) of a restoration of the skull “found” in the pits. Harrison possibly feared this would incite outrage amongst suffragette sympathisers – this would not be the first time this specimen had been a target of the suffragettes.


‘Police Memo’. (1914) from Director’s Office: Reports and Letters. [Bound volume] Held at Natural History Museum, London. (Then known as ‘British Museum (Natural History, South Kensington)’. DF ADM/1000/99.
‘Police Memo’. (1914) from Director’s Office: Reports and Letters. [Bound volume] Held at Natural History Museum, London. (Then known as ‘British Museum (Natural History, South Kensington)’. DF ADM/1000/99.

When Dawson announced his “discovery” to the Geological Society of London in December 1912, the Express weaponised this “breakthrough” to attack the Suffragette cause. One article drew parallels between the unevolved early man and the “New Woman”. They reimagined the Piltdown Man with long hair and labelled this the ‘Ancestress […] The New Woman (200,000 Years Ago)’. The Express mocked the Suffragette’s supposed refusal to complete traditional domestic duties, comparing this to neanderthal inabilities: ‘She could not cook. She could not talk. She could not wash. She could not light a fire.’ The Piltdown Man had only just been introduced to the world, and they were already using it to tear down the cause. The Express thought they were being humorous, but their actions were also unwise. On 3rd March 1912 London police had advised museums to close to the public to avoid violent Suffragette protests, including the Natural History Museum – the eventual home of the Piltdown Man. Some would argue the negative connotations imposed by the Express meant it was only a matter of time until a suffragette targeted the exhibit, and A. J. H. Goodwin claims that in 1914 ‘a suffragette, objecting to the attribution of a sex to Piltdown man, attacked the showcase. They were then removed to a safe in the Director's room’. In May, 1914, the museum felt compelled to decree a woman would only be permitted within the museum if she had a ticket, agreed to have her bag and muff checked for any concealed weapons, and had a male chaperone. Men attending with women were encouraged to sign the following card:


‘Good behaviour card’. (1914) from Director’s Office: Reports and Letters. [Bound volume] Held at Natural History Museum, London. (Then known as ‘British Museum (Natural History, South Kensington)’. DF ADM/1000/99.
‘Good behaviour card’. (1914) from Director’s Office: Reports and Letters. [Bound volume] Held at Natural History Museum, London. (Then known as ‘British Museum (Natural History, South Kensington)’. DF ADM/1000/99.

The Royal Society had long stressed the importance of a male chaperone, which may have assuaged some fears of protests. Despite being named ‘Ladies’ Night’, the annual conversaziones were ultimately designed to encouraged friendly discourse amongst Fellows, hence women could only attend in the company of a male invitee. This was something birth control pioneer and member of the Women’s Freedom League, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) publicly criticised. On 16th June 1914, the same date as Ladies’ Night, Stopes penned a ‘Complaint Against the Royal Society’ in The Times. Her article laments the restrictions placed upon women. Women ‘who would themselves bear the title of F.R.S.,’ she protests, ‘[…] such women are shut out from the concourse of their intellectual fellows’. Stopes continues to explain to her readers that women are even impeded from entering the Society’s social gatherings, which she argued led to a disparity between the number of women attending with legitimate scientific ambitions and those simply in search of a social evening. Stopes’ frustration about the lack of opportunity for female scientists to engage with their male colleagues is palpable as she explains women who wished to attend could not ‘unless they know by chance some bachelor Fellow, or one whose wife does not care to show off her diamonds, who will take her incognito as 'his lady'. With every odd stacked against them, it is a wonder that the Royal Society conversazione went ahead in 1914 unscathed. What these episodes in the history of science’s dealings with suffragettes shows the unnecessary risks these men were willing to take. The Royal Society did not have to include the Piltdown Man exhibits if they feared it would incite insurrection, the Express did not have to place a bullseye on an inevitable museum exhibit at a time when such buildings were being targeted. While some of the actions of the suffragettes appear too radical, we must consider why they felt impelled to act so.


Acknowledgements: A tremendous thank you to Kathryn Rooke, Assistant Archivist (Natural History Museum).

 

About the Author

Dr. Ann-Marie Richardson graduated with her PhD from the University of Liverpool in 2019. Her current Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project is in collaboration with Lancaster University and the Royal Society of London. Her research focuses on the Royal Society conversaziones as an opportunity for female scientists of the 19th and early 20th

centuries to showcase their work. Twitter: @RichardsonA_M

 

References:

Fowler, R. (1991) ‘Why Did Suffragettes Attack Works of Art?’ Journal of Women’s History, Vol 2, No 3 Winter 1991. 109-125.

Goodwin, A. J. H. (1953) ‘The Curious Story of the Piltdown Fragments’ The South African Archaeological Bulletin. Vol 8, No 32, December 1953. 13-105.

Goulden, Murray. (2007) ‘Bring Bones to Life: How Science Made Piltdown Man Human’ Science as Culture. Vol 16. Issue 4. 333-357.

Harrison, R. W. F. (1914) Harrison to the Superintendent, Vine Street Police Station. 9th June 1914. p.167. [Letter] Held at: Royal Society, London. NLB/50/284.

Harrison, R. W. F. (1914) Harrison to the Superintendent, Vine Street Police Station. 18th June 1914. p.180. [Letter] Held at: Royal Society, London. NLB/50/310.

Nead, L. (1982) The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

Royal Society of London. (1914) ‘Programme for a Royal Society Conversazione: 16th June 1914’. [Printed Programme, Bound]. Held at: London: Royal Society of London. PC/3/4/7.

Stopes, M. (1914) ‘Complaint against the Royal Society, The Handicap of Sex’. The Times. 16th June.

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