Margaret Pilkington: ‘Queen of Arts’

Written by Angela Petyt-Whittaker and Lorraine Coughlan, Specialist Library Assistants from the Reading Room at The John Rylands Library.

Have you been to see the latest displays in the Rylands Gallery? We’ve had the pleasure of guest curating the two Manchester cases and are pleased to say we chose a fascinating subject in Margaret Pilkington (1891-1974) – a creative, innovative and generous woman, who had an influential impact on Manchester culture and charity. This blog gives us the opportunity to tell Margaret’s story in more detail.

During our research we discovered that Margaret was involved with many more roles than we at first realised! We found so much information in her archive (held here at John Rylands Library) that it was difficult to know what items to include and what to leave out, as the number of items per case and the word length of captions were limited. We were greatly inspired by Margaret and her family’s love of art and philanthropy – therefore we decided to divide the cases into these two themes.

Margaret was a talented and recognised artist in her own right, working in watercolour, ink and pencil. The archive contains several of her sketchbooks filled during her many travels in Europe, particularly in Alpine areas.

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Encouraged by her school headmistress, Margaret went on to study at Manchester College of Art. In 1913, initially without her parents’ consent, she attended Slade School of Fine Art to study painting. The following year, she enrolled in the Central School of Arts and Crafts to study wood engraving with Noel Rooke. She went on to produce over 100 wood engravings, many of which were used to illustrate books, some written by her father Lawrence.

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However, her art education was cut short by World War 1. During this traumatic time, Margaret felt her priorities lay in welfare duties rather than her artistic career. She became involved with girls’ clubs in the poorer local areas. She was also honorary secretary of the newly established Pioneer Club for business and professional young women in Manchester. These activities took up a large amount of her time and this social conscience influenced her daily routine for the rest of her life.

Pioneer Club presentation. Margaret Pilkington is in the audience. c1917
Pioneer Club presentation. Margaret Pilkington is in the audience. c1917 PIL/3/1/6/6

In 1920, inspired by the work of William Morris, Margaret organised an exhibition of wood engravers, which evolved into the Red Rose Guild. She was heavily involved with this group of talented artisans, including serving as chairman from 1952 until 1967. She also found time to be a member of Manchester City Art Galleries from 1925 and then became president of the NW Federation of Museums and Art Galleries from 1945. The Whitworth Art Gallery invited her in 1925 to join their council, beginning a long-standing and dedicated relationship. By 1936, Margaret stepped in when the Whitworth suffered financial and staffing problems, by proposing a rescue plan which saw her take on the role of honorary director, a post she held with distinction for over 22 years. This included supporting the gallery financially and donating works of art. Margaret felt that art should not be the preserve of the rich, working tirelessly to promote accessibility to art for everyone.

The outbreak of World War 2 brought more challenges for Margaret – firstly she oversaw the movement of many of the Whitworth’s works of art to safe storage in the National Library of Wales. She was also pivotal in establishing a rest centre in the Whitworth’s cellars to shelter those made homeless by the Manchester blitz, personally caring for those who had suffered.

In recognition of Margaret’s many achievements, she was awarded an honorary MA from the University of Manchester in 1942 and an OBE in 1956. In 1953, the Friends of the Whitworth (which she had founded to support gallery activities) commissioned a portrait of Margaret from Sir Stanley Spencer. In addition, when the Whitworth was refurbished in the mid-1960s, a new exhibition room was named after her.

Official photograph commemorating Margaret’s honorary MA degree, 1942
Official photograph commemorating Margaret’s honorary MA degree, 1942 PIL/3/1/6/10

In her later years, Margaret continued to be heavily involved with Manchester’s cultural scene, including serving as first woman president of both the Manchester Luncheon Club (1963-4) and Manchester Lit and Phil (1964-5). For her 80th birthday in 1971 an anonymous musical ode was penned in her honour, which celebrated Margaret’s remarkable life and achievements.

We have really enjoyed investigating some of Margaret Pilkington’s fascinating accomplishments for the exhibition – so much so, look out for our next blog, which will focus on her equally talented family and their life together. Watch this space!

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Imaging Team.

2 comments on “Margaret Pilkington: ‘Queen of Arts’

  1. Pingback: The Pilkingtons: A Family on the Edge | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

  2. Thanks for this short history of Margaret Pilkington, what a generous and energetic woman!

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