Deep in the Royal Pavilion Gardens, amongst the exotic, architectural creations of George the Fourth, the 100 Firsts are now happily housed in Brighton’s Museum and Art gallery. This is a beautiful, early nineteenth century space, positioned above a museum full of fancy furniture, idiosyncratic ceramics, Egyptian mummies, historical fashion (and a few Neanderthal men statues…)
The gallery – usually host to the works of Constable and Holbein which cannot withstand the sunlight – opened its roof blinds for the first time in ten years, bathing the 100 female pioneers in delicious and uplifting streaks of light and moving shadows.
For over 150 years, the triptych gallery has been a hotbed of inspiration, filled with precious works of art and groundbreaking creativity; what a perfect place for First Women to land! I could feel the artistry and energy filling the spaces, feed by and feeding into every new exhibition that lands there from all over the world – an energy facilitated by the many dedicated curators and exhibition programmers on the team over the years.
I cannot thank our curator Jody East and the technicians Louise and Glen enough. All of them tapped into that energy of the space during our prep in early February and almost magically let the portraits find their own perfect position. The result was a version of the show that activated a new tone of engagement with the viewer. It was also very exciting for me as the photographer, seeing the portraits interacting with each other and the visitors in a fresh way. Each of the three, huge rooms has a different, individual feel; some portraits double hung in a big block of colour and graphic shapes that are visually striking.
Interactive aspects include art materials for children and other visitors to add their own contributions to the pin-board display dedicated to celebrating their own unsung heroines. Brighton also provides lucky visitors with ‘Gallery Explainers’: arts graduates, artists and those interested in the arts who are recruited by the gallery to engage with visitors to make the portraits accessible through stories and anecdotes. They are always on hand to answer detailed questions facilitating more access to the very spirit of the show. However I understand that no one has, as yet, asked where Margaret Thatcher’s portrait is…*
Innovators at Brighton are also currently creating a downloadable, audioguide mobile app that includes excerpts from me regarding the photographer’s perspective, interview highlights with many of the Firsts, biographies, information and other gems about the 100 portraits. We will keep you posted! When it is complete it will be accessible here on 1stwomenuk.co.uk.
*At almost every show and in every discussion about First Women, somebody asks why the exhibition does not include a portrait of the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain. The story is, that – love her or hate her – she was an important portrait for the exhibition and I wanted to include her from the start. Over the best part of a year, I wrote to her through official (and unofficial) channels, through PAs, PRs, her personal friends – even her daughter, Carol. I received not a single reply.