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First Women at the RCA – Anita’s round up


I will be honest; the last seven weeks truly haven’t even begun to sink in.

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I recall moments sitting in the RCA Dyson Gallery, watching the responses of women and men of all ages, races, nationalities and backgrounds responding to the portraits of the First Women exhibition…and it seems too much to start to assimilate.

I am stunned that what was for so long a dream finally became an immersive, potent reality. I was privileged to witness so many excited smiles, inspired and animated conversations, deep and thoughtful pauses…and not a few tears. Tears of pride (and sometimes loss) for those who had come to celebrate or remember the Firsts who were or had been their mother, grandmother, aunt, cousin, friend or wife. Tears of relief that this country has women in these roles. So many tears in fact that one of the gallery assistants had to go out on a tissue-buying mission!

Needless to say, this exhibition was all I had ever hoped it would be and more.

And larger than life too! You couldn’t miss it; the virtually life-size images on the walls, the impact of the layout, the fantastic banners on the outside of the RCA that pulled in passing visitors. Many were simply passing on their way home from work, on their way to lunch or the gym, or just changing buses, people who were out for the day, never expecting to be visiting an exhibition when they set off that morning. We had a whole Yoga class drop by after their lesson, people who had gotten lost in Battersea and popped in for directions (and then stayed to see the show), groups of teens, old friends, strangers that connected over a certain picture. And particularly striking for me, fathers bringing their young daughters.

Inside the Dyson Gallery, there was a tangible sense of being embraced by all those positive, powerful women. Of the sadness for those who had passed. And of the hope that each and every one of those one hundred females represented.  All of this enforcing the power of photography again and again, which is, of course one of the underlying drives beneath my passion for this art. Capturing forever the moments that have defined our Her-story; achievements that are now safe, recorded for all time in this collection. I am still on a high!

Perhaps working for so long at something means that it takes almost as long to appreciate the scope of it.   But what has landed for me is that I couldn’t have done it alone. Yes, it was usually just me and the First when the picture was being taken, but the ensuing collaboration was vital – the women and men that helped get these images up on the walls and out to the public.

The curator, the PR, the writers.  The designers, framers, printers, the hanging team, the sponsors. The web designer, trustees, social media wrangler, consultants. And of course my family – John my husband and my children Daisy and Louis.

I have realised that in order for something to flourish, its energy has to be released so that other creatives can work their individual magic and create the symphony of the show itself. A show that reached beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Opening night was such a buzz.  The power and optimism in the room was electric. One thought overrode all others as I looked about at the Firsts, the families, the friends: the thought that our future is safe because these women are here and making it happen – and, critically – inspiring it to continue to happen.

For the Firsts to meet was also very powerful as most never had before. Their gold ribbons marking them out as the subjects of the show, they could easily spot a sister First and connect on an extraordinary level.  Seeing a woman next to her portrait chatting away to another First was such a thrill for me; not to mention the brilliant curation by Kathleen Soriano, which offered not only immediate impact but other, subtler connections that rewarded the visitor if they chose to pause and look for them.

One of the most moving moments was the gathering of relatives and friends at Dame Helen Alexander’s portrait (the First Woman to head the Confederation of British Industry.)  Dame Helen passed away in 2017 and her picture was placed near the entrance. Her husband, children, nieces and nephews and close friends all came to see her and spent a lot of time gathered at her image. Perhaps one of the greatest compliments I received was being told by her children, ‘you really captured mum.’

Ultimately, whilst I wait for the enormity of it all to digest, I can at least know that I achieved what I set out to do over a decade ago.  I had no idea how it would manifest. All I had was a vision for 100 inspirational female icons to come together under one roof as a celebration of all that is possible, reiterating the message that as women we can be anything and everywhere. My motivation not only to document how far we have come… but also why it is so very important that we keep going.

During the show’s run I celebrated my 60th birthday.  Yet another milestone for me fittingly marked with a sense of pride and achievement in a job well done (and a fab set by Tony O’Malley and his fantastic band in the RCA space!). Great Grandma Annie Lidstone would have been proud.

And not forgetting, of course that First Women was always meant to be a loving tribute to my mum. Alda Corbin would have been 100 years old this summer and her spirit was a strong inspiration for this endeavour. In as much as she made me who I am today, she is as much a part of this exhibition as anyone else. Somewhat fittingly perhaps, she is its heart.


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