Author Archives: George

Suffragettes and … gardening

To make the centenary of certain women being given the vote I have been thinking about the place of the garden or public park in the suffragette diet action campaigning of the early 20th century. Here is an extract from my 2011 book Radical Gardening

In the later nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century, though, some of these gendered gardening practices combined with and contributed to the growing demand for female suffrage and women’s rights. Suffragettes were gardeners, suffragettes targeted gardens for attack—in each instance horticulture was politically positioned. What is today called the Women’s Farm and Garden Association was established originally in London in 1899 as the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural International Union. Its founders were characterised by their privileged backgrounds and their belief in universal suffrage—and their energy was charged with the power of the key campaign of the period. In a 1900 paper to the Women’s Institute in London, one, a Mrs Chamberlain, articulated her view of the development of social activism which was a decidedly non-grassroots perspective:

Social movements spread from the top downwards. If, presently, girls and women of the less educated classes find that a country life, and work on farm or garden, is not without charm for the more educated classes, they will not be so anxious to get away to towns and shops…. When it is seen that ladies are healthy, happy and contented working on the land, the rustic damsel will begin to think it may be worthwhile to acquire knowledge of the primitive industries they have so neglected. 

‘Why was it’, asks Peter King in Women Rule the Plot, ‘that women were now encouraged to take to the groves of horticulture rather than the groves of academe?  It may have been because the women’s movement generally at this time was anxious to do something practical, rather than theoretical or academic’. In fact the academic side was also part of the target as a number of new horticultural colleges and courses were opening up exclusively for women at this time. Glynde College for Lady Gardeners, Sussex, Studley, Swanley, Kent, the Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm School, Berkshire, Waterperry, Oxon.—these were among the new institutions offering courses for women in gardening, horticulture, landscape architecture. Jane Brown states the fundamental connection: ‘the first generations of students were often involved in suffragette politics, many were university women’.

The gardening energy and suffragist zeal of Union members were soon channelled into a newly pressing social crisis: World War One and the new roles of women in industry and agriculture to compensate for the absence of men. Following the wartime food crisis of 1916, the Women’s Farm and Garden Union, as it was renamed, was pivotal in the establishment of the Women’s Land Army the following year. The Women’s Land Army was even more active in World War Two, when the new generation of ‘land girls’ were central to the anti-fascist ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, with their gendered perspective and an emancipatory rhetoric. Their official song exhorted new recruits with the promise:

you’ll think that the country life’s grand; / We’re all needed now / We must speed with the plough / So come with us—back to the land!

As Alison Woodeson comments, for the upper-class women still organising the Women’s Land Army in World War Two (or, like Vita Sackville-West, writing its history), ‘there was no doubt that the country life was indeed “grand”. The enjoyment these affluent ladies took in their own extensive, landscaped gardens was part and parcel of the upper-class perception that the countryside, with its supposedly organic and healthy way of life, was infinitely more desirable than the grimness and artificiality of the industrial cities’. For the land girls themselves, the pastoral reality could be startlingly different.

Suffragettes could employ gardening in other (radical) ways too. In the face of increasing government dilatoriness and obstruction and harsh treatment of activists at the hands of police and prison authorities, their direct action campaign for the vote was becoming more extreme, and progressed from smashing Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s windows to fire-bombing his Chancellor, Lloyd George’s, new house.  At the same time as the arson attack, in what was reported as an act of ‘female vandalism’ in February 1913 Suffragettes attacked the Orchid House and returned later to burn down the Tea Pavilion at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. Was Kew targeted in implicit or explicit acknowledgement of its link with empire, tradition, masculinity? The acts did not simply attack the male establishment, they also signalled a refusal of that ‘link between flowering plant and old-style femininity’ written of by Perényi above, a refusal to be a ‘rare and delicate plant’. Following the attack on the Orchid House, the Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer reported:

Kew has been marked out by the suffragettes as one of the scenes of their exploits. They smashed a quantity of glass in the orchid house, and in a manner that one can scarcely accredit to sane adults, wantonly tried to destroy the plants. Rare and delicate plants, under bell-glasses, attracted the special venom of these feminists.

Three greenhouses were smashed and plants uprooted. Suffragettes were also damaging flower-beds up and down the country in what Hoyles calls this ‘most violent clash between women and the gardening establishment’. After the second attack, the Journal’s reporter did not simply discredit the activists’ sanity as above, but declared them ‘insane’: ‘For the second time within a fortnight female vandals have visited Kew Gardens with direful consequences. The picturesque tea pavilion was razed to the ground by fire. Happily the perpetrators were captured and are unlikely to resume their insane campaign for some time to come’. In Jenny Uglow’s veiw, ‘for radical women, gardening could represent everything domineering in the British establishment…. Women, far from delicate, would not be kept under glass any more’….

Why would women’s rights activists, suffragists and suffragettes, look to the garden as a zone of contestation? On the one hand, gardening and farming more generally had been either male-dominated areas or ones in which the female contribution was downgraded, menial (‘weeding women’), and so by its nature a worthy area for a challenge to the expectations and limitations of gender. As the profusion of new gardening books for women shows, the garden was an increasingly significant aspect of middle-class identity through the nineteenth century, especially in the female-oriented domestic sphere. It connected with opportunities in education and new social movements.

On the other hand, the gentle or fragile flower model of femininity was one which activists attacked, and here the garden was understood as standing symbolically for that model, but also for male property, the establishment, even empire—all of which were worthy of attack by militant feminists. Radical gardening in this extraordinary period of the early twentieth century when revolution, workers’ and women’s rights, the crisis of war, and, in Britain, the beginnings of the collapse of imperial consensus, could make possible education in women-only horticultural colleges, or a new career path in garden design, for example, but it could make happen the destruction of existing gardens and public garden spaces by small groups of activists. Hoyles points to the link:

The attack on Kew Gardens is one of the most famous incidents for women’s suffrage. It illustrates the political nature of gardening and its symbolic meaning, just like the example of Kew’s role in the British Empire. Destroying flowerbeds and greenhouses seems insane, unless the gardens and the destruction of them by ‘female vandals’ are seen in terms of the power relations in society. Just as the orchid can symbolise extreme wealth, so a flower-bed can express the power of patriarchy in the political order.

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Jazz, race and JB Souter’s ‘The Breakdown’ (1926)

I had the pleasure last night of attending the private view for a terrific new exhibition about the Jazz Age in Britain, curated by Prof Catherine Tackley. Called Rhythm and Reaction, it’s at Two Temple Place, London until 22 April, and is free. Do go. (A photo/postcard from a 1919 ‘Famous Jazz Band’ in Cheshire which is in my possession is included in the exhibition.)

I was most excited about seeing this painting, which is we can say notorious in jazz history. In fact, there are no less three versions of it on display in the exhibition, which was thrilling to see. (This doesn’t include the original, as shown in the Royal Academy in 1926—that was destroyed by the artist himself following the public outrage below.) But this one, a small-ish pastel sketch from 1926, in its roughness and age, really caught my eye. I’ve never seen it before. 

It got me thinking again about the jazz story of the painting. In a chapter on whiteness and jazz in 2004’s Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, I’d drawn on Jim Godbolt’s work on it from his excellent History of Jazz in Britain vol. 1, and followed that up with material supplied to me from the Royal Academy archive. Below is what I wrote about John B. Souter’s ‘The Breakdown’, with a little material at the start to draw the context of jazz and race at the time. (From chapter 2, a section called ‘(White man) in Hammersmith Palais’: jazz, racism, white empires. For references, go to the book.)

‘A reason of state and not of art’ (nor music, of course) indeed…

… Through the 1920s, the Jazz Age, those in the business—of music education, and the burgeoning jazz and dance criticism—arranged themselves to present a solid white line of outrage—a certain sign that consensus was in crisis, transition imminent, and not only in the cultural arena. Jazz was the musical metonym of hegemon. Uniting the authority of Christianity and of an ancient university for the benefit of assembled music teachers, the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford welcomed delegates to a 1926 summer school with the advice: ‘Don’t take your music from America or from the niggers, take it from God, the source of all good music.’ The public racialised discourse of the consumption of jazz in Britain was frequently channelled through the (dancing) body, (black) masculinity and the fascinated threat to white female sexuality. This is evidenced in a Sunday Chronicle article from June 1924 by one Violet Quirk, in which she describes for readers her ‘disturbing impressions’ of a jazz dance.

 The negro musicians knew well how to recapture the inflaming noises made by their far-back ancestors, and which are still enjoyed by cannibals during their most important ceremonies.… [T]he animal devotees of jazz, who like to be maddened … [s]ee how it whips them about! They obey it like slaves.… These women … shuffle round the room with striding legs too far apart, rigid bodies, and fixed staring eyes.…

Animals, slaves are whipped. Young white women are enslaved, sexualised, narcotised, through the bodily experience of dancing to that primitive, that cannibalistic music. The transcendent music transports them to Africa, a colonial Africa of white nightmare (the horror), via the jazz dance as some kind of voodoo rite. This is an important point: at this time in Britain black jazz was articulated as a threat within the framework of the imperial experience. It was less to do with America per se than to do with continuing white anxieties about the blackness of empire, and how to control it.

Moreover, the crisis in whiteness was explicitly gendered and generational: it was young (fertile) white women that were depicted as threatened, through an implied miscegenation. Being white and weak was not an acceptable combination in a discourse of British imperial masculinity, but John Bull’s flapper grand-daughter, holder of the future of the white race if she would only realise it, only protect her privileged position as well as her virtue, was the ideal(ised) chosen symbol for the transmission of such neuroses.

In a further sign of the extent to which black jazz had entered the white imagination, and was beginning to impact on what it meant to be white, two years later a controversy led to the withdrawal of a painting from the Royal Academy spring show in London. John B. Souter, a member of the Pastel Society, submitted a painting called ‘The Breakdown’, which showed a naked young white woman dancing as in a trance to the music of a saxophone played by a formally dressed black man, who is sitting on a broken white classical statue.

issue no. 1, January 1926

The first editor of Melody Maker (founded that same year, 1926) was Edgar Jackson, real name Edgar Cohen, a London-born Jew. Because of the signified jazz of the saxophone, and probably also for the pragmatic reason that he wished his new publication to be recognised as a mouthpiece for the scene, Jackson felt it his duty to speak out against the painting—on behalf of all British jazz musicians:

We jazz musicians … protest against, and repudiate the juxtaposition of an undraped white girl with a black man.… We demand also that the habit of associating our music with the primitive and barbarous negro derivation shall cease forthwith.… ‘Breakdown’ is not only a picture entirely nude of the respect due to the chastity and morality of the younger generation but in the degradation it implies to modern white woman there is the perversive danger to the community and the best thing that could happen to it is to have it … burnt!

A Royal Academy Annual Report describes what followed.

At the request of the Secretary for the Dominions an oil painting (No. 600) entitled ‘The Breakdown’, by J.B. Souter, was removed from the exhibition on May 8, as the subject … was considered to be obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population. The gap was filled by a portrait of Lady Diana Manners, by Sir J.J. Shannon, R.A., lent by Violet Duchess of Rutland.

The justification was for the painting’s withdrawal was that it would make difficulties for white officials in the colonies, and indeed the Academy’s Council minutes explain the removal as ‘due to a reason of state and not of art’. That it should have been replaced by such an establishment piece as a portrait of a Lady painted by a Sir and lent by a Duchess suggests an ostentatious desire to re-establish the dominant order following its temporary breakdown.

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