Wednesday 18th June 2014

This week marks a new phase in my residency; I am starting a series of conversations with people, mainly women who have a vested interest in suffrage.

In order to meet and gain time with these people (particularly the MPs), I have to pass a bit of a test, as though my title as A.I.R. isn’t quite enough.

I have to send a series of emails, using the right form of words, to show I care and want to listen; that I won’t waste their time. Writing isn’t my strongest suit, but Melanie brokers the meetings for me, she knows everyone and it is getting me introduced.

So today I travel to Cardiff to meet Angela John, biographer and professor of history. Her most recent book is Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady RhonddaShe was a feminist and part of the suffrage movement.

From my first emails with Angela, I sensed that we would get on well. She told me she was going to make me lunch in her apartment, so that we could talk and I could relax after my journey down. It stuck me how thoughtful and sensible this was, reinforcing my sense of how blessed I am to be surrounded by these kind and wise women for this project.

The train journey made me think of air travel. As I sped through Reading terminal, passing seamlessly from one platform to the next, connected by steel grey escalators and large expanses of glass. This is not how I remembered train travel before, things have moved on. I wonder how this architecture will age?

I spent the journey trying to free my mind of the chatter of information I have already gathered so far for my research. It has started to make me tired and I need to free up space to listen, to pick out the gems that will make sense to me.

On the train. Image: Mary Branson

On the train. Image: Mary Branson

I arrive in Cardiff. It’s a city that has completely changed from the last time I was here. I ask for directions, as I have no real clue where I am. I’m greeted by lovely Welsh accents and people with a bit more time to talk.

Finally I’m with Angela. I introduce my project and talk about the archive research that I am undertaking on the petitions and my approach as a conceptual artist. Her first question to me stops me in my tracks: ‘Had I considered the 10 years between 1918 and 1928?’ ‘No’, I answered, but I remembered as I was going through the petition records that I had briefly wondered how the suffrage movement had evolved from that point; all that energy and organisation surely couldn’t have just disappeared?

Angela told me about the ‘politics of change’ at that time, and how the movement went from public demonstrations to lobbying within Parliament. We discussed Lady Rhondda and the struggle she faced to take her seat within the House of Lords. She spent her whole life fighting for this right and realised it only two years before her death; a humbling story of dedication.

'Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda' by Alice Mary Burton, 1931. Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 7177

‘Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda’ by Alice Mary Burton, 1931. Image: Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 7177

Angela asked me directly what I wanted from her, and I gave her the same question I have posed to all my interviewees; what did she feel I needed to get across in this artwork?

Angela began to tell me what she hoped the artwork might say, and I found her answer very moving. In essence, it was to convey the individual bravery of all the women who stood up and found their voice for the first time, the scale of the movement reflected by women from every corner of the country.

I left Angela inspired. She gave me a photocopy of Evelyn Sharp’s short story ‘Shaking Hands with the middle Ages’ from  Rebel Women (1910).

A passage stood out on the train home: “It is like reaching back to shake hands with the middle ages” she said, “To fight with the Middle Ages” he amended, and they both laughed. “You will find” he added, narrowing his eyes a little to look at her, that the Middle Ages generally win, when we hold political meetings here in the provinces.”

I feel like this about the Palace of Westminster; I need to puncture the architecture somehow, to interrupt its narrative.

Come back on Saturday 8 October 2016, when meets actor, campaigner and former MP Glenda Jackson…