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Mary Wollstonecraft by John Williamson

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A guest post by researchers in residence Camilla Mørk Røstvik and Lucy Johnson

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Williamson (c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As part of an interactive research project we are planning a series of events to take place next March that engage with and explore this extraordinary portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft loaned from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Wollstonecraft was an early advocator of women’s equal rights and was more broadly engaged with issues of working class struggle in the 18th century. Her life and work saw her travel to Ireland, revolutionary France and across Europe to Scandinavia. She wrote many books, challenged dominant discourse and collaborated with a diverse range of radical thinkers until 10th September 1797 when she died in tragic circumstances, soon after the birth of her second child, Mary Shelley.

The portrait is one of a few remaining images that remain of Wollstonecraft, although her book Vindication of the Rights of Women survives as a canonical feminist text. Painted in the late 18th century, it depicts Mary as a powerful, asexual woman – unusual for women represented at this time. Rather than soft, ‘beautified’ and passive, Mary stares right back at us in a powdered wig and dressed in the revolutionary style of French intellectuals.

Where our archival research aims to uncover more information about the assumed painter, John Williamson, commissioner of the painting, William Roscoe, and what Mary thought about it, the events will create fresh dialogue, art, creative writing and ideas that engage with Wollstonecraft and her work. To be part of Manchester City Council’s International Women’s Day events in Manchester in 2015, the events will tie her work to themes of contemporary feminist debate; race, class, the role of men and issues of representation as well as explore her work’s legacy (or lack of) in other areas of the PHM collection.

Keep an eye out on the People’s History Museum website and blog for further details and dates of events in the new year.

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