Votes for Women – Janet Sturge

Shell Postcard, Votes for Women, Suffragettes (1908). Caption reads 'Every lady votes Shell - motor spirit unequalled' and shows a suffragette holding up a can of Shell Motor Spirit, whilst women in the crowd raise their hands. Artist not given.
Shell Postcard, Votes for Women, 1908

To mark the centenary of ‘Votes for Women’ the Shell Heritage Art Collection will be highlighting female artists from our collection who have played strong, leading roles in their professions of commercial and fine art. These women helped to create change within their industry and society as a whole.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 allowed some of the women of Great Britain and Ireland to vote for the first time. The act meant that women over the age of 30 could vote, but only if they were either a member, or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. The 1928 Act widened suffrage by giving women electoral equality with men. It gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. The call for the vote for women was led by a group of strong, inspiring women known as the Suffragettes.

Janet Sturge (1928- )

Born in Bristol in 1928, Janet Sturge studied at Leicester College of Art, then Reading University for her teaching qualification and after retirement graduating at Kent Institute of Art Design. Janet taught art in Cornwall, North Yorkshire, London, Maidstone and Orpington while continuing to make art at every opportunity.

Black and white portrait photograph of artist Janet Sturge, 1967, courtesy Shell
Janet Sturge, 1967, courtesy Shell

The Shell Heritage Art Collection were pleased to have a conversation with Janet about her memories of the commission for Shell. For the commission Janet produced the watercolour painting of Clyn Gwyn Falls, Brecon. This painting featured in the 1968 Shell calendar under the title ‘Off the Beaten Track’, following the Shell tradition of encouraging motorists to get out and explore Britain. The calendar and the series of press adverts that followed showed the painting alongside a short biography and image of the artist. Janet remembers being treated very well at the photo shoot with a hairdresser on hand!

It was whilst teaching part time at the Lady Margaret School in Parsons Green, London, that Janet had an exhibition of work at The Woodstock Gallery, London. The Gallery kindly passed on her details to an advertising agency who worked on behalf of Shell, who contacted her in late 1966 / early 1967 offering the commission. Janet was living in Wandsworth at the time and remembers popping out of her bedsit/studio to the shared phone to conduct her business discussion on her free days. One of the discussions was to chase the agency for her commission payment which they claimed to have paid her for! The mix up was resolved with a firm letter from Janet’s solicitor.

Press advertisement by Shell from Country Life magazine, Oct 19 1967
Press advertisement, Country Life, Oct 19 1967

Janet remembers the commission as a real adventure. At the time she owned a Honda C50 motorbike which she rode to Paddington Station, loaded it onto the train and journeyed to Wales. Janet remembers staying at a Youth Hostel near to the village, which was on the eastern bank of the Falls. She discovered that the clearest view of the Falls was from the west side, but this was a much more difficult route to access. She abandoned her motorbike and climbed over a fence, crossed rough pasture and scrambled down a steep wooded slope to find a perch from which she could paint the falls. This difficult journey is described in the press advertisement (above) as the best way to visit the Falls! Balancing her A2 sketchbook on her knees Janet painted plein-air, viewing the falls in front of her, with just a few highlights of white added to the image on her return to her studio.

Janet has continued to travel widely and create art throughout her life. She has created sculptures, prints and video work. For her reflections on the collections at Quex House, Birchington, she incorporated text into digital images overlaid with relief prints. A major retrospective of her work was held at Maidstone Library Gallery in 2010.

Painting of Clyn-Gwyn Falls, by Janet Sturge, 1967
Clyn-Gwyn Falls, Janet Sturge, 1967

Janet has continued to be involved in art education, writing essays on the subject. Janet is a Quaker and said in a 2014 radio interview, “There’s an ambivalent relationship between art and Quakerism. I’d struggled for the right to take up art seriously. To make a living, I trained as an art teacher, working in London, Cornwall, Yorkshire, London again, Maidstone and Bromley. I believe the arts reach a side of children that academic subjects don’t.”

Janet is being assisted by friends to create a comprehensive catalogue and an updated website of her life’s work.

References:

https://www.janetsturgeart.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/kent/content/articles/2006/06/01/faith_profile_janet_sturge_feature.shtml

Telephone conversation with MMcC, Shell Heritage Art Collection Promotions Manager, 18th January 2019.

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