Gallery Oldham is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Patti Mayor (1872–1962) with an exhibition dedicated to her work: 'Patti Mayor 150' is open until 28th January 2023. Working in collaboration with the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and Grundy Art Gallery, Gallery Oldham has developed a programme of activities and events that will explore the life and work of the Preston-born artist and suffragist.
Mayor's work predominantly takes the form of painted portraits of women and young girls, with her mostly unnamed subjects drawn from Preston's working-class population. She attended the Slade School of Fine Art, one of the UK's most prestigious art schools, and was a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a key organisation whose members were often known as suffragettes.
Patti Mayor exhibited widely in Lancashire, in 1959 was given a retrospective at Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool and in 1963 a memorial show was held at the Harris.
While the Harris is closed for the £16 million Harris Your Place capital project, five loaned Patti Mayor paintings will feature in the 150th anniversary exhibition.
Gallery Oldham is already home to Mill Girl with a Shawl, but the exhibition also displays The Half-Timer, The Sewing Maid, Miss Mary Martin, Portrait of a Girl with an Apple and Portrait of a Girl in a Cap from the Harris collection.
In 1908, Patti carried a banner showing her painting The Half-Timer when she led the Preston branch of the WSPU on a London march. The image was chosen to represent working women: the title references children who 'halved' their time between working and getting an education.
Unlike the sitter of The Half-Timer – a girl called Annie Hill who lived in Preston – little is usually known about the unnamed female muses in Patti Mayor's work. However, new information has recently been discovered through social media about the young sitter of Portrait of a Girl with an Apple.
After the Harris posted an image of the work on social media to promote the exhibition loan, Ann got in touch to reveal the girl with an apple was in fact her late mother, Marjorie. This new information has provided valuable background information for the mostly unknown process of sitting for Patti Mayor.
The girl in the painting was Marjorie Hill, a local Prestonian girl from Ashton born in 1928, who later married and became Marjorie Gore.
Marjorie believed Patti Mayor chose her because she was a 'solemn-looking' child. Marjorie liked going to Patti Mayor's house as it was always warm, but she didn't like the actual sitting for the painting as she was continually told to stop fidgeting. As an incentive, Marjorie would get to keep the apple she posed with, plus a three-penny bit. Majorie mentioned that she had to suffer sleeping in rags to curl her poker-straight hair and, interestingly, the olive green dress she wears was created from one of her mother's.
Later in life, Marjorie emigrated to Canada and unfortunately never viewed the painting while on display. However, many years later, Marjorie's daughter rediscovered the painting on the Harris website and Art UK.
After viewing the painting for the first time, Majorie thought that the little girl was too pretty to be her, but her daughter believes she captured her mother's expression perfectly! Majorie's daughter can also see the likeness of both her own daughter and niece within the painting.
You can find Portrait of a Girl with an Apple displayed at Gallery Oldham as part of 'Patti Mayor 150'.
A virtual curator talk – part of Gallery Oldham's exhibition – led to the organisers meeting Dominic Bull, a relative of Patti Mayor. As a personal project, he put together a family tree and was able to fill in some of the gaps in Patti's life. Subsequent correspondence and another virtual meeting led to the fleshing out of what kind of family Patti came from, where they lived, and some insight into how they lived. We learned Patti's birthday (1st May) and that she was one of five siblings (three girls and two boys).
We also learned that her father started a company, Mayor and Sons Rope and Tarpaulin, that only recently ceased trading. We were able to trace the upward mobility of the family: how Patti's father went from a tradesman to a business owner, and how the family eventually housed and employed servants. Within her family tree, we clearly saw how deeply rooted her family was in the northwest of England, though Patti and two of her siblings also have links to London. We now have photographs of members of her family, putting faces to the names on the page.
Glimpses into the Mayor family life, offered by Dom and the documents he found, painted a picture of the Mayors as ideologically progressive. Patti's sister Sarah was employed within the family business, which was unusual for a middle-class woman at the time. This makes Patti's own actions as a hard-fighting suffragette part of a wider familial ethos. Go back just a few generations and you will find that Patti's ancestors were the type of impoverished millworkers that she often painted. Though her family had 'moved up' socially and economically before Patti's birth, they did retain a certain connection to working-class people.
There is also some speculation that some of the unknown sitters of paintings were in fact family members, but, as is often the case with Patti, she left behind little documentation to say that with certainty. Her often-anonymous but charismatic models are just some of the many mysteries relating to the most famous member of the Mayor family.
Eleanor Ghebache, Marketing Officer at Preston City Council and Emily Moore, Exhibitions and Collections Coordinator (Art) at Gallery Oldham