Raising the Banner
James Boyle, Royal Holloway, University of London Curatorial Placement Student
Raising the Banner brings to public view the artistic and political work of Mary Watts and her friend, renowned horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll, whilst also showcasing the work of contemporary artists Charlie Betts and Anna Garrett. The link that connects these four women together, and the focus of the entire exhibition, is the art of banner-making.
An ancient form of visual art, banners have been raised throughout history for many purposes. In ancient Rome, banners emblazoned with coats of arms were hung outside the houses of the wealthy; in the Middle Ages, they were used for both combative and celebratory occasions, carried into battles by knights and flown in victory parades by civilians. The earliest use of banners in a political context dates back to the eighteenth century, when the first trade unions were established.
Aware of the historical significance of banners, the suffragists made them an integral part of their political expression. Mary Watts and Gertrude Jekyll used their creative talents to express their political views peacefully, without a need for the violent tactics that characterised the more militant suffragettes. In 1913, Gertrude Jekyll made an embroidered banner for the Godalming branch of the diplomatic National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, of which Mary Watts was the honorary president. The banner was carried along the women's suffrage parade of the same year from Godalming to London.
Inspired by Mary Watts' and Gertrude Jekyll's suffrage activity, Charlie Betts and Anna Garrett have produced a banner of their own. Originally designed to celebrate International Women's Day 2019, the banner draws inspiration from the woodland landscape of Limnerslease, the beloved home of the Wattses. To accompany their work, Charlie and Anna made a short film depicting their intimate connection with the gardens, over which a symphonic collage of their mellifluous voices can be heard reciting passages from Mary Watts' diaries and letters. The artists' installation is an immersive experience, satisfying the viewer's desire to see, touch and hear the landscape around them.
Raising the Banner is on display in the Mary Watts Gallery at Watts Studios until 13 December 2019.