Many years ago, when Judy Chicago’s highly original and subversive creation ‘The Dinner Party’ (1974-9) travelled to London from the United States, I was lucky enough to see it in Islington. Lauded as the first feminist artwork on an epic scale, this bold and somewhat controversial installation celebrated women achievers from prehistory to ‘the women’s revolution’. It depicted them in 39 elaborate plate settings on a vast triangular table. They included British women such as Queen Elizabeth 1, Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf.
Now ‘The Dinner Puzzle’ presents us with a very different dinner party. Yet it too breaks new ground in how it celebrates the lives and achievements of women. It draws upon the technology of the twenty-first century to vivify an event from the early 1930s that brought together a remarkable collection of friends and acquaintances in London: 130 people, mainly women, united by their links to Lady Rhondda. It provides in microcosm a glimpse of the occupations, preoccupations and politics of the women who ‘made’ it and were seen to matter in inter-war Britain.
The skills of Richard Rhys O’Brien and Liz Smith have combined to produce this pioneering and wonderfully imaginative project. And it does not end by going live. Its interactive online format enables us on the one hand to speculate on the unknown elements of the evening and on the other hand to supply the knowledge to build upon the research, fill in the missing parts of the puzzle and so reveal more clearly how women’s networks operated in the inter-war years.
We can speculate as to where we would have liked to be seated. As Lady Rhondda’s biographer, I would, of course, have wished to be on the top table! It would, though, be tough knowing where to place myself since in this fantasy world I’d sit where I wished rather than where I was told to be! Since Margaret would need to be surrounded by those who were hosting the evening, I would probably plump for sitting next to E. M. Delafield. If her conversation proved to be anything like her wonderfully witty writing, it would be a treat. Even her penname suggests her sense of fun – she had been born Elizabeth De La Pasture, hence the Delafield! I would, however, run the risk of being parodied in the next instalment of her diary.
It might be illuminating to sit next to one of the highly successful Welsh Berry Brothers though Rose Haig-Thomas might be more fascinating and revealing as Margaret’s aunt (sister to Sybil and married to D. A. Thomas’s brother). A Fellow of the Linnean Society, she published papers on scientific subjects, wrote for children and, like most of the Haigs, was a decent painter. I would have enjoyed conversing with the academic Winifred Cullis but the person I would opt for on my other side would be Winifred Holtby. She had only two and a half more years to live and I would have savoured my time with this talented, kind woman.
INFORMAL PORTRAIT / GRAND DINNER
At the centre of this web of influence was the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, now in her fiftieth year and one of the movers and shakers of British society in the first half of the twentieth century. Admittedly Alice Burton’s portrait of Margaret Rhondda, commissioned by her friends and presented to her at this dinner, represented a much more traditional art form than that espoused by Judy Chicago just over forty years later. But the informality of the painting was a far cry from the traditional posed portraits that adorned the walls of so many grand houses. Moreover, Margaret’s life to date had clearly challenged conventions in public and private life. This is demonstrated by the way she was parodied in novels and portrayed by the press.
A grand dinner was a highly appropriate way to honour Margaret. She loved rich food and dining out and conducted many meetings in restaurants. It was at her favourite local restaurant Le Caprice twenty years later that she would sack John Betjeman as Literary Editor of ‘Time and Tide’. He promptly penned a poem entitled ‘Caprice’ reflecting her capriciousness (though not actually naming her) as well as the setting.
MARGARET’S WIDE CANVAS
The range of guests at the dinner in 1933 is a useful reminder of the breadth of Margaret’s interests and achievements. She covered such a wide canvas and over so many years that at first sight she can seem rather contradictory. She was a Victorian who appeared on television, an imprisoned suffragette who became a Justice of the Peace, an international industrialist who edited a Bloomsbury journal of the arts and an inveterate feminist who, to many, seemed to be an establishment figure.
The situation is compounded by the fact that she was known by a number of different names and this has meant that she sometimes slipped through the net. When I researched her life for my biography ‘Turning the Tide’, I discovered, for example, records in the National Archives about her significant posts during the First World War in both Wales and London that had been ignored since they related to Mrs (then Lady) Mackworth. This was, of course, Margaret’s name during the years that she was married to Humphrey Mackworth.
For some years after her death in 1958 Margaret, like so many women, was not well remembered. The women’s movement was quiescent and in Wales she was seen as the daughter of the industrialist D. A. Thomas rather than in her own right. The focus within modern Welsh history was increasingly on the organised labour movement, most notably miners who had been unjustly neglected in earlier historical analysis. Welsh women were simply not visible and, when this began to change, attention was paid to working class rather than well-off women. Yet although Margaret was in many ways immensely privileged, she still had to wait until she was 35 before she was could vote in national elections.
Her life straddled both Wales and England yet when she did start to receive some recognition as modern women’s history began to come into its own, the range of her commitments was not fully appreciated. In Wales she became well known as a pre-war suffragette. Her important role in the suffrage movement of the 1920s in London was ignored. In England she was seen as the woman behind ‘Time and Tide’ and little attention was paid to her earlier years.
INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
Back in 1915 Margaret had almost drowned when the Lusitania was torpedoed. She was rescued and (literally) revived and then took on many more challenges. Recently her story has itself undergone something of a revival. In 1991 Shirley Eoff wrote about Margaret as a London-based equalitarian feminist and in 1999 the historian Deirdre Beddoe declared her to be ‘the most prominent Welsh woman of the twentieth century’. I produced a substantial biography of Margaret’s entire life in 2013.
I then included her in ‘Rocking the Boat’ my recent biographical essays about seven women who operated within and beyond Wales over one hundred and fifty years. In 2015 she was one of a number of women whose lives were explored in a Welsh language television series called ‘Mamwlad’ (‘Motherland’. Some years earlier I had edited the first book of essays about historical Welsh women and called it ‘Our Mothers’ Land’, playing on the title of the Welsh national anthem).
Recently, recognition of Margaret’s significance has assumed some imaginative forms. Crowdfunding by Newport’s Julie Nicholas resulted in a plaque erected to Margaret close to the infamous letterbox that she had set alight in 1913 at the height of suffragette militancy. Amy Morris’s animated film company Winding Snake set up a project entitled ‘A Bird in a Cage’ (Margaret’s own description of her prison experience). It produced a short film and organised lectures and visits to schools where we talked about her life and the importance of voting in elections. In 2011 Newport East’s MP Jessica Morden, with the support of Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda, secured Alice Burton’s dignified portrait of Margaret for the House of Lords.
2018, the year that celebrated the centenary of the partial winning of the vote for women, gave the suffrage movement unprecedented popular attention. It was unduly focused on the suffragettes at the expense of the larger numbers of suffragists. But this meant that Margaret, as a suffragette activist was placed in the spotlight.
In her home village of Llanwern a church service honoured her life – it was also sixty years since her death – and a wreath in purple, white and green was laid on the family monument in the churchyard.
Margaret featured in the Vote 100 exhibition at the Palace of Westminster and was one of six women on a postcard using paintings from the Parliamentary Art Collection. She also appears on one of the tiles of key suffrage figures included on the plinth of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Dame Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square.
The Women’s Local Government Society selected her as one of a hundred suffrage pioneers who used their citizenship positively. 2020 will mark the centenary of the founding of ‘Time and Tide’ and Catherine Clay, author of a literary study of that name about the paper’s feminist and cultural politics, is organising a conference to mark the occasion.
Margaret’s most spectacular revival has been Welsh National Opera’s ‘Rhondda Rips It Up!’ a glorious celebration of her life in a show that, like its subject, defied conventional definitions and was part-opera, part-musical, part- music hall entertainment and much else. Its witty libretto by Emma Jenkins and Elena Langer’s inspired, rousing music made this all-woman production compelling.
Starring Madeleine Shaw and Lesley Garrett, it opened in June 2018 in Newport and travelled to sixteen venues across Wales and England, from theatres in small towns such as Mold and Brecon to venues such as the New Theatre, Cardiff, Oxford Playhouse, and the Hackney Empire. The final performance was in Winchester on 20 November. The centrality of the WNO chorus to the whole production underscored the fact that women’s suffrage itself had been a collective experience.
Accompanied by a specially created Community Chorus who sang rousing suffrage songs in foyers pre-show, ‘Rhondda Rips It Up!’ provided an exuberant, vibrant experience. It won rave revues and was nominated for a world opera award. I led some post-performance discussions with cast, crew and audiences and there was considerable outreach work involving schools, sessions on women in music, augmented reality shows and much else. ‘Rhondda Rips It Up!’ concentrated primarily on Margaret the Suffragette but also focused on her relationship with Helen Archdale and the sinking of the Lusitania. It ended with her casting her vote for the first time. A television documentary ‘Rhondda Rebel’ tracked the show’s development and unfolded Margaret’s story.
It does not end there. Margaret features in one of the six new women’s history mosaics designed and erected in Newport in 2019 and the fact that Wales has not a single statue of a named Welsh woman has recently led to a project to uncover Hidden Heroines to change the situation for good. The development of a brand new square in front of Cardiff Central railway station in the heart of the city provided the impetus. A group of us – Monumental Welsh Women – helped by the square’s developer, as well as funding from Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Government, commissioned a statue of a historical woman who had made a major contribution to Welsh society. A short list of five was drawn up (from a long list of 50) and an online public vote organised by the BBC, alongside extensive radio and television publicity, took place in January 2019. Lady Rhondda was one of the shortlisted women. (Carolyn Hitt, ‘Hidden Heroines: Will Lady Rhondda Win Your Statue Vote?’)
The worthy winner was Cardiff’s Betty Campbell MBE (1935-2017), the first woman of colour to be a head teacher in Wales. (BBC Sounds for Radio 4 ‘Statue No 1’ broadcast on 9, 11 September 2019). She had faced and challenged prejudice based on race, class and gender, yet made her beloved Butetown a beacon of multiculturalism. Her statue will be unveiled in July 2020. The second statue will be of Lady Rhondda and erected in Newport where Margaret now is represented in one of six new mosaics depicting local women’s history at St Paul’s Walk. The Welsh Government has now promised a further £20,000 apiece for this and for statues of the other runners-up. A local steering group spearheaded by the indefatigable Julie Nicholas and supported by women such as Newport’s Welsh Assembly Member Jane Bryant, a long term champion of Lady Rhondda, is working hard to make this a reality within the next few years. It’s costly and will need all the financial support that can be mustered.
So ‘The Dinner Puzzle’ provides yet another creative way of remembering this extraordinary woman and her world. How about it taking a further step by holding another dinner at the Rembrandt Hotel? And this time it could be a fund-raising event for Lady Rhondda’s statue. Watch this space!
©Angela. V. John