Votes for Women – Mary Kessell

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 in 2018 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.

Mary Kessell (1914 -1978)

photograph of artist Mary Kessell painting a mural for Shell BP Pavilion at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow 1938
Mary Kessell painting a mural for Shell BP Pavillion in 1938. Credit Illustrated London News Ltd Mary Evans

Born in London, Mary studied at Central School of Art from 1935-37 (at that time known as Clapham School of Art) then went on to the Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1937-39. This photograph from ‘The Sketch’ weekly journal in March 1938 shows Mary working on a mural painting for the Shell BP Pavilion at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, so we can see she had an association with Shell from an early stage of her career. The innovative policy to commission emerging artists rather than graphic designers for the Shell poster series and other commercial work was created by Jack Beddington, Publicity Manager of Shell at the time. He was credited with making Shell a patron of the arts by supporting the early careers of fine artists through providing paid, commercial work.

In her career Mary worked across disciplines as a painter, book illustrator, designer and like many other Shell artists, as a war artist. She was one of only three female war artists selected and became known for her charcoal drawings of war refugees, mostly women and children and survivors of the concentration camps.

Post war Mary was commissioned to create experimental designs for hand and machine embroidery work for the Needlework Development Scheme with the aim to initiate a new standard for British embroidery design.

Shell transport poster of Arlington Row, Bibury, Mary Kessell, 1952
Arlington Row, Bibury, Mary Kessell, 1952

Shell commissioned Mary to paint the landscape Arlington Row, Bibury for their 1952 poster  and she went on to design the 1964 poster ‘Kew Gardens’ for London Transport too.

Mary lectured in drawing at the London School of Printing from 1957 and also the Central School where she worked alongside the painter Richard Hamilton.

In 1966 Mary married the designer Tom Eckersley who had, in the late 1930s, also produced posters for Shell in collaboration with Eric Lombers.

The Imperial War Museum, Tate and Victoria and Albert Museum all hold works by Mary Kessell in their collections.

London Transport Museum – Mary Kessell

Tate – Mary Kessell

The Independent

The British Newspaper Archive


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you would like a copy of any of our images, please visit our dedicated Motoring Picture Library website