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Spring round-up: First Women Show at Palace House, Newmarket

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‘I couldn’t be prouder that we are hosting such an inspirational exhibition as 100 First Women Portraits here at Newmarket.’

Chris Garibaldi, Director of Palace House

The First Women exhibition’s latest UK tour stop may well be familiar to serious equestrian fans. Grand and welcoming, Palace House, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art housed all 100 First Women portraits in a fantastic, custom-made gallery space for a four month run.

Opening night was a fun affair, with lots of close friends in attendance as well numerous Firsts, including Kim Cotton, Baroness Helene Hayman, Alison de Burgh, Dr Jean Venables and First Women’s tirelessly dedicated ambassador, Jill Pay. I appreciate you hugely, Jill!

We also welcomed a very special guest visitor to the first public open day of the Newmarket show; First Woman Speaker of the House of Commons, Baroness Betty Boothroyd came over from her home in nearby Cambridgshire to see all 100 portraits together for the first time. This, nearly a decade after I had asked her (on my knees, I might add!) to become the project’s patron.

Admittedly, I was kneeling to more effectively capture the angle for her photograph at the time, but it has nonetheless always seemed an apt gesture for a woman so formidable but approachable, uncompromising yet passionate and deeply inspirational. The perfect patron for the First Women project.

It was deeply gratifying to have Baroness Boothroyd with us for much of the day, browsing the portraits with her friends and enjoying that which she had helped bring to birth. Her visit certainly bought considerable delight to Palace House Director,  Chris Garibaldi a self-proclaimed Betty fan!

The gallery Palace House created for us did exceptional justice to the images – beautifully lit in their own custom space, the portraits had a chance to shine in a layout that was both concentrated and powerful for the few thousand visitors that came to see it.

Newmarket’s opening also got some fantastic press – including BBC Look East and a variety of BBC radio stations.

Another esteemed guest visitor to the Palace House show was Matt Hancock MP.  His arrival, Betty and her entourage, plus a visit from the mayor of Newmarket meant the exhibition’s first public open day was quite a gathering of dignitaries. Unsurprisingly, an impromptu press call resulted and we were fantastically besieged by local media.

Another notable Newmarket moment was ‘An Evening With…’ event with First Woman, Felicity Aston MBE on International Women’s Day. She spoke to avid listeners about her time in the Antarctic and what it was to be the First Woman to solo ski 1744km across it.

I spent a few days at Palace House during the show’s run and enjoyed it’s popularity with all walks of life. The diversity of our UK Firsts offer infinite ways to inspire or delight; there is always someone that a visitor will recognise or can connect to through their field of achievement.

Certainly, at Newmarket, more than a few visitors would have recognised equestrian Firsts, Hayley Turner OBE, Lara Prior-Palmer and Charlotte Budd. But that doesn’t preclude any viewer from appreciating the First Woman to become a surrogate mother, to become Director of MI5 or to be a champion beatboxer.

Whatever a visitor’s area of interest, there is a story to engage with. And simply as women too, connections are made with the Firsts. Often, a visitor will remark on a ‘First’ that they went to school with, who knows their cousin, or who worked with them ten years ago. And that for me is the jewel at the heart of this show: that these trailblazers aren’t just pioneers in their field but real women. They symbolise a truth that we can all find a thread back to each other that reminds us that trailblazers are not the ‘detached elite’ but mothers, daughters, colleagues, sisters, partners and wives.

The Firsts are the Every Women for the modern age and reassuring proof that world-changing action is within reach of us all.

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