For our third podcast series, TOAST has collaborated with the National Portrait Gallery to explore the lives of pioneering women, past and present. Portraits of all the pioneers are in the gallery's permanent collection and the subjects have been chosen for their ability to push boundaries and take risks. We hope that this podcast will shed some light on what it is that makes a pioneer, and where this pioneering spirit is born.
Join Laura Barton as she meets with Shami Chakrabarti and Germaine Greer, travels to Haworth in West Yorkshire and Charleston in East Sussex to tread in the footsteps of Emily Bront and Vanessa Bell, and discusses the life and works of Pauline Boty and Mary Wollstonecraft with Ali Smith and Claire Tomalin. The episodes will be released weekly throughout October and November.
You can see Pauline Boty's self-portrait on display in Room 31 at the National Portrait Gallery. A striking work of stained glass, it is an early piece from what would be a short career. Though she died at the age of just 28, in her brief, vibrant life she made a wonderfully varied contribution to the world of British pop art and culture. After decades in the shadows, Boty has recently been rightfully placed among the masters of the movement, from Peter Blake to Richard Hamilton.
Laura Barton meets the writer Ali Smith in front of Boty's portrait, where she is joined by the curator Lucy Dahlsen. Smith's book Autumn helped ignite a new appreciation and love for Boty's work its intelligence, mischief, feminist stance, and distillation of 1960's London. As Smith says, when you are anywhere near her work in the flesh you feel the life, you feel the energy.
Image: Pauline Boty by Pauline Boty. Strained glass, circa 1958. Pauline Boty Estate / National Portrait Gallery, London.
Gillian Wearing's portrait of Shami Chakrabarti, taken with a large-format camera, shows its sitter holding a wax mask of her own face. Wearing has said that the idea was inspired by Chakrabarti's own comment about her mask-like public persona, often interpreted as grim, worthy and strident.
A barrister, and former director of the civil rights group Liberty, Chakrabarti is now a Labour Party politician, and a member of the House of Lords. In her frequent appearances on the BBC's Question Time and Radio 4's Today Programme, among others, she has been consistently passionate and committed in her defence of civil liberties, particularly in areas of anti-terrorism measures and immigration. More recently she has been at the heart of the complex debate surrounding the UK's departure from Europe.
Laura Barton meets Chakrabarti in a park close to the House of Lords, where even on a dreary autumn morning demonstrators have gathered at the gates with placards.
Image: Shami Chakrabarti by Gillian Wearing. Gelatin silver print, 2011. National Portrait Gallery, London. Discover more pioneering women from the National Portrait Gallery Collection in the book 100 Pioneering Women, featuring portraits of remarkable women from the last five centuries.
Emily Bront's portrait, by her brother Patrick Branwell Bront, hangs in Room 24 at the National Portrait Gallery. For many years the paintings was lost, and only discovered in 1906, folded on top of a cupboard in Ireland. Today, it is one of the most popular works in the collection.
Emily is best known as the author of Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. It is regarded as a pioneering text, drawing on themes of the Gothic genre; a love story that also touches on issues of domestic violence, alcoholism, neglect, and sexual obsession, against a backdrop of a wild Yorkshire landscape.
Laura Barton travels to the Bront Parsonage in Haworth to meet the museum's learning officer Sue Newby and the New York Times bestselling graphic novelist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg, whose forthcoming book Glass Town explores the childhood imaginary world of the Bront sisters. Together they discuss the unique, unconventional spirit of Emily, who was as her sister Charlotte describes a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove.
Thank you to The Unthanks who granted us permission to include their music in this episode, which turns Emily's poetry into song. Words by Emily Bront. Music by Adrian McNally (of The Unthanks). Performed by The Unthanks. You can listen to more of Emily's poetry on their latest album, titled Lines.
Image: Emily Bront by Patrick Branwell Bront. Oil on canvas, circa 1833. National Portrait Gallery, London.
John Opie's portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hangs in Room 18 of the National Portrait Gallery; a woman in high-waisted white dress and soft hat, her gaze falling somewhere off to the right. The sitter's pose reveals little of her revolutionary life and the progressiveness of her views. She was a radical thinker, a feminist, journalist and author, famed particularly for her 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she discussed the novel idea that the sexes should be considered equal. I do not wish them to have power over men, she wrote of women, but over themselves.
When she sat for Opie, Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter, the writer Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft died days after her daughter's birth, and in the years that followed her role in the feminist movement became largely forgotten.
In 1974, Claire Tomalin wrote her first book, a biography of Wollstonecraft, kindling huge interest in Wollstonecraft's life and works. Laura Barton visits Tomalin at her home near the river in Richmond to discuss Wollstonecraft's remarkable legacy.
Image: Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie. Oil on canvas, circa 1797. National Portrait Gallery, London.
The portrait of the Australian academic, writer and broadcaster Germaine Greer, by Paula Rego shows its subject filling the canvas, legs apart. Her hands are rough from gardening and she is dressed in her favourite Jean Muir dress and old, gold shoes. The portrait's lack of flattery appealed to Greer: A portrait that is kind is condescending. The last thing I would want is for Paula to condescend to me, and it's the last thing she would think of doing.
A major voice of second wave feminism, in 1970 Greer published The Female Eunuch, which argued that traditional family structures repress women's sexuality. Still one of the most widely-read feminist texts, it has never been out of print.
Greer has long courted controversy, and is regarded by many as a combative and frequently frustrating icon of feminism. A New Statesman column once stated that Greer doesn't get into trouble occasionally or inadvertently, but consistently and with the attitude of a tank rolling directly into a crowd of infantry.
For all of this, Greer remains a crucial and powerful figure in the development of feminist thinking. One Guardian commentator put it: As it goes with pioneering figures, there is much to doubt and dismiss; yet we are still indebted to them, as we are to Greer, for taking risks in the first place.
Greer is 80 now, still writing, still vocal. On a midweek morning Laura Barton visits her at her home in Essex. There they discuss Greer's current works and her plans to return to her homeland, leaving behind the garden that she has been creating for the last three decades.*
Image: Germaine Greer by Paula Rego. Pastel on paper laid on aluminium, 1995. National Portrait Gallery, London. Discover more pioneering women from the National Portrait Gallery Collection in the book 100 Pioneering Women, featuring portraits of remarkable women from the last five centuries. *Please note, this episode contains strong language.
*EXTENDED EPISODE* Vanessa Bell's portrait is on display in Room 31 at the National Portrait Gallery. Painted by her lover and life partner Duncan Grant somewhere around 1918, it shows her in an easy, contemplative pose, wearing a floral red dress and holding a pale pink rose.
The creative talent of Bell is often overshadowed by that of her sister, Virginia Woolf, and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, to which she belonged. More recently, her work has been reappraised and reconsidered, celebrated for its experimental, often radical force and raw sensuality.
On a brisk Autumn day, Laura Barton heads to Charleston, the country home of the Bloomsbury Group, where the furniture and walls are still covered in Bell's designs. There she meets the curator Dr Darren Clarke, head gardener Fiona Dennis, and Bell's granddaughter, the writer Virginia Nicholson.
Charleston Farmhouse is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, 10-5pm.
Image: Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant. Oil on canvas, circa 1918. National Portrait Gallery, London.
The podcasts are presented by Laura Barton, produced by Geoff Bird and conceived by Emily Cameron. All views expressed in the podcast are the subject's own, and not necessarily those of TOAST or the National Portrait Gallery. Our next series will be launching in 2020.
The podcast was a collaboration between TOAST and the National Portrait Gallery.
If you would like to listen to more podcasts, head to your usual podcast provider and type in "TOAST Podcast", there you can listen to our first series celebrating the creative practice and our second series, following the unknown path. If you subscribe to our podcasts, you will be notified each time we launch a new episode.
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