Poll: Jane Basham says Suffolk artist Sybil Andrews should be on the new £20 note. Do you agree?

Sybil Andrews at work in her studio, circa 1980 - Photo from the book "Something to Splash About"

Sybil Andrews at work in her studio, circa 1980 - Photo from the book "Something to Splash About"

Suffolk artists are often hidden from history, but a campaigner is hoping to rectify that.

Jane Basham

Jane Basham - Credit: Archant

This time it’s a visual artist that the Bank of England has decided will feature as the face of it’s new £20 note - a painter perhaps, designer, sculptor or photographer, writes Jane Basham.

Following a row two years ago, when it took a petition of 35,000 to secure the selection of Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen for the £10 note, anyone can be nominated this time - via the bank’s website - before 19th July. Across the country there will be individuals and organisations speaking out and lobbying for their preferred artist to be chosen. As a local, I’ve been tempted to back the growing campaign to win recognition for Sudbury-born painter Thomas Gainsborough, but I’ve decided to resist.

Gainsborough is already well recognized. Besides this, artists associated with Suffolk by having been born, brought up or working here, still struggle to escape the shadow cast by the longstanding renown of Gainsborough and Constable. Stubbs, Reynolds and Hogarth seem to carry equivalent status. Only Turner and, perhaps, William Morris seem to stake a reputation beyond our shores. It’s all a matter of taste and personal preference of course. Or is it?

Sybil Andrews, 1918

Sybil Andrews, 1918

Finding and reading material about many painters and artists, their lives, work, and subjects is easy. What is more difficult is working out how and why particular painters find renown and reputation over generations and others don’t. Those that do however are usually male. If you doubt me make your own list of female artists. I’ll bet it’s not so long.

So here are four women artists with strong Suffolk connections you may not have come across. There are of course many more.

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Born in Barrow, Mary Beale (1633-99) was a renowned portrait painter, and one of the first women to have set up her own studio and establish herself as a professional artist. From Bury St Edmunds, Sybil Andrews (1898-1992) eventually settled on the Campbell River in British Columbia, Canada - but not before she worked as a metalworker on airplanes in both world wars and made a name as a modernist lino-cutter with dynamic print compositions. Margaret Mellis (1914-2009) lived in Walberswick and Southwold and died only 6 years ago. She is known for her incredible driftwood sculptures. Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy (1952-2012) lived in Hacheston, having moved to Britain in 1975 as a refugee from the Biafran war. She produced the Golden Jubilee portrait of Queen Elizabeth II - the first black artist to paint her.

A print by Suffolk artist Sybil Andrews found at a fete in New Zealand

A print by Suffolk artist Sybil Andrews found at a fete in New Zealand - Credit: Archant

It’s highly unlikely any of the four will even be nominated, never mind chosen for the £20 note. Not that surprising really when you consider the reaction against Jane Austen’s nomination. Austen’s nomination provoked a barrage of intimidation and abuse on social media and even a rape threat against a female MP.

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Despite recent progress, power and influence continues to be largely wielded by men. Only six women have won the Turner Prize in 30 years – with four of those being in the last ten years and male nominees significantly outnumbering female. In 2013 a Fawcett Society report revealed that only 28% of directors of national and regional museums and galleries were women.

“There are a wealth of individuals within the field of visual arts whose work shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society and who continue to inspire people today.” said Mark Carney, the Bank’s Governor as he launched the search for the face of the £20 note. A statement that reflects a status quo that for the most part keeps women hidden from history - including here in Suffolk.

So I think my nomination will be for Sybil Andrews. I can’t think of a more inspirational artist for these times. She took an apprenticeship as a welder when her parents couldn’t afford to send her to train in the visual arts. Her commitment and hard work led her to producing some unforgettable images that will - to my mind - always carry her strong associations with Suffolk.

• Jane Basham is Vice Chair of South Suffolk Labour Party and a member of the Fawcett Society.

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