International Women’s Day: Exploring the Life and Work of Patti Mayor

2022 will see the 150th anniversary of Patti Mayor’s birth. To commemorate this, we will be working with Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston and Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool to showcase Mayor’s work throughout 2022. Gallery Oldham will show an exhibition of her work in the autumn of next year. In the second of our blogs about Patti Mayor, MA student Alexandra Cosmé shares more of the story of Mayor’s life. Alexandra is currently studying Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester after her undergraduate degree in History. She is currently on placement at Gallery Oldham as a collections researcher where she is exploring her interests in history and art.

Mill Girl with a Shawl is one of Gallery Oldham’s most intriguing pieces of art, and yet, we know shockingly little about its artist, Patti Mayor, or its sitter. Here, we will attempt to uncover more details about the work and life of one of the North West’s most important, yet under-appreciated artists of the 19th and 20th Century.

Who Was Patti Mayor?

There aren’t many details available about Patti’s birth, however, we do know that her real name was actually Martha Ann Mayor and she was born in Preston in 1872. She attended Slade School of Fine Art at University College London, one of the UK’s most prestigious art schools at the time. Other alumni include other female painters such as Dora Carrington, sculptor Mary Spencer Watson and even pop singer Charli XCX. After her time there, Patti returned to Preston where she perfected her craft whilst living a very cultured and vibrant lifestyle.

Patti’s Art

Patti’s real interest was portraiture and her work rarely strayed away from this. Most of her portraits are of women and young girls, however the sitters are rarely named, adding to the mystery around her work. We are left to wonder: Did she know these women? How intimately? What was the purpose of painting them? Still, we can discern an important pattern in her portraits as most of these women appear to be from a working-class background. Many women in Preston had no choice but to work. The 1901 census returns for Lancashire reveal that girls often went straight from schools to the mills, and many stayed in their positions once they were married.

Some young girls split their time between school and work. Patti’s The Half Timer (1906-8) depicts Annie Hill, a twelve-year-old girl who did exactly that. You’ll notice a similarity between this and the piece in Gallery Oldham’s collection: the shawl. Shawls were worn by working women and were an easy way to spot their occupation. Annie Kenney famously wore shawls on occasion, and this became somewhat of a marketing tactic by the WSPU to show the “inclusivity” of their movement.

Patti’s Politics

It’s impossible to talk about Patti Mayor’s art without talking about her politics. Preston was a very politically active area from its trade unions, the Independent Labour Party, to the Suffragettes. One famous Suffragette from Preston is Edith Rigby who established the St. Peter’s School for young working girls and was imprisoned alongside the Pankhursts. However, there were other women who fought for the vote in the North West who rarely get as much historiographical attention. Jill Liddington calls these women the “Radical Suffragists”. They differed from the Suffragettes in that they weren’t militant and they sought a broader programme of reform, extending beyond the vote to issues such as working conditions, maternity pay and childcare facilities for working mothers. Though the contribution by these women to the Suffrage movement has been largely overlooked, living within this hub of political activity must have had some impact on Patti’s work and certainly her view of the world. In 1908, Patti took The Half Timer out of its frame and to the 1908 Women’s Sunday march and rally with the slogan “Preston Lasses Mun Hev the Vote”. Clearly, then, Patti saw her work as a political statement about the lives and capabilities of women and young girls, and notably, their contribution to the UK’s economy.

We may also discern details about Patti’s politics through her close friendship with Joseph Garstang. Garstang was a committed socialist, atheist and was completely opposed to World War 1, becoming imprisoned for at least two years for his absolutist stance. Patti painted Joseph on several occasions, as well as his family members, before his imprisonment. You can read more about Garstang’s life in this fascinating piece by his great niece, Ann Berry.

Patti’s Legacy

Patti died in 1962 whilst living in her sister’s home. She had not married or had children, proving her to be an unconventional twentieth century woman until the very end. She bequeathed a lot of her art to northern museums and galleries, one of which was Gallery Oldham. This International Women’s Day 2021, we remember the countless women like Patti Mayor and her named and unnamed sitters who strove to make the world a better place for us today.

You can see more of Patti Mayor’s work on Art UK.

Alexandra Cosmé is on twitter.

Gallery Oldham