Are you visiting the Houses of Parliament? There's a fantastic new work of art for you to see! Come in at the main visitor entrance, Cromwell Green; walk through Westminster Hall, admiring the amazing medieval hammerbeam roof; and as you turn left at the top of the steps at the end to enter St Stephen's Hall, look up and you'll see 'New Dawn'.
'New Dawn' is a major new permanent contemporary artwork by artist Mary Branson, celebrating the 'Votes for Women' movement in Parliament. It consists of 168 individually hand-blown glass 'scrolls', in the colours of the various women's suffrage organisations, individually backlit to ebb and flow with the tidal Thames. And they were inspired by the Original Acts in the Victoria Tower.
Mary visited the Parliamentary Archives early on in her six-month residency as Artist-in-Residence to Women's Suffrage in 2014. She was immediately inspired by the 60,000 parchment rolls, writing in her residency diary:
What an amazing place! Thousands upon thousands of documents on vellum scrolls, piled high in this tightly controlled atmosphere. Each roll has a small colour-coded paper tag attached, marked with a code for the Monarch and the year of their reign. The circular scrolls, the tower and its spiral staircase all share a nice resonance. I wonder what other treasures this building has in store?
On her next visit, she began researching proper, working her way through a set of police reports to the Serjeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons on suffragette activity:
Four boxes are waiting for me. I take a deep breath, sit down and open it up carefully. As I start reading through the hand written and typed letters, I’m immediately drawn back in time - the feeling that I’m seeing the actual reports in the place where the events happened is pretty powerful.
The reports helped her reach another conclusion that informed 'New Dawn'; that the artwork had to be inclusive, and not just depict suffragette leaders or specific individuals.
I come across a particular report of the arrest of several women. What strikes me is their varied ages and how many different parts of the country they have travelled from. Once again I made a mental note that I must find a way to represent all women.
Mary became a regular visitor to the Archives. She did a lot of research counting all the women's suffrage petitions laid before Parliament between 1866 and 1918, and the numbers of signatures. At first she thought she could record more details about them, but found there were too many.
I’m in the archives, in the midst of the late 1880s and the numbers of petitions are snowballing. My original way of documenting the petitions is unravelling. Damn!
She had no previous experience with archives or archival research, and found it fascinating to work in the Parliamentary Archives search room:
This morning I work in the archives – it’s full today and we all sit silently side by side working away at our own projects. I seem to have the biggest trolley of books to go through, it means nothing, but it makes me feel valid being here… I’m curious to know my fellow researchers’ projects; are they political, academic, or studying old property boundaries? I will never know….
After a number of visits, Mary finally got to the end of her count:
Coming towards the final years leading up to 1918, the entries for all petitions drop off massively – a sense through the pages that the country was dealing with war... I feel sad that I won’t be visiting these books again. I’m just getting to understand how much more they are saying through the disrupted rhythms of entries, tucked away supplements and the rise and fall in petition numbers that had been steady for decades. …. So, a quick tot up total number of petitions from 1866 to 1918 to gain the vote: 16,433 with a total of 3,609,162 signatures!
This convinced her that the artwork had to be large in scale to represent so many people. Unveiled on 7th June 2016, the 150th anniversary of the first mass women's suffrage petition, 'New Dawn' is 3.4 metres in diameter. It sits in a large arch above St Stephen's, the entrance used by suffrage campaigners 100 years ago, a rising sun raising the Portcullis to women.
Mary Branson was appointed Artist-in-Residence to Women's Suffrage by the Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art. As well as researching in the Parliamentary Archives and elsewhere, she spent her six months exploring the Palace of Westminster and talking to lots of people, including MPs, peers, staff, and suffrage historians.
Find out more about 'New Dawn', its influences, construction and installation, at www.parliament.uk/newdawn
Read our guide to Tracing Petitions in the Parliamentary Archives