Emily Ford: What a Woman!

I had never heard of Emily Ford prior to visiting the Edward Carpenter display in the Gallery so I attended the talk on Thursday 26 April eager to find out more about this charismatic character.

Janet Douglas, the chair of the West Yorkshire Group of the Victorian Society, proved a very entertaining and knowledgeable speaker. The audience discovered how Emily was born into a creative and wealthy Quaker Family who instilled in their six daughters and two sons the importance of duty and 'useful work'. The Fords were involved in liberal politics and an array of colourful political figures frequented Adel Grange, the family home, throughout Emily's childhood. Human rights and education were two other key concerns of the family and along with establishing several local charity schools, they welcomed refugees into Adel Grange when World War One made thousands of people homeless.

Emily was undoubtedly influenced by her parents and their acquaintances, especially the 19th century social reformer, Josephine Butler. However, she was also revolutionary in her own right. She published a series of plays in the 1880s but is perhaps best known for her paintings. She attended the Slade School in 1875 and three of her paintings, Inspiration, Contemplation and A Seated Man are hung in the University's Great Hall. Janet described the works as 'Michelangeloesque' and in the 'Symbolist' style and to me, the serene beauty of the two female figures masks an energy and intelligence that was perhaps similar to Emily's own 'restless spirit.'

Image: Inspiration (1914) by Emily Ford. Tempera on canvas, University of Leeds Art Collection.

Emily was also a Suffragist, a prolific member of conversation clubs and helped establish many movements and organisations with her sister, Isabella, including the Leeds Ladies Education Association which later became Leeds Girls' Grammar. She was a very good mimic and speaker and used her oratory skills to fight for women's rights. She also employed her artistic talents to design banners and posters for her feminist causes.

Religion featured heavily in Emily's life. She was born a Quaker but dabbled in Spiritualism before finally converting to Anglicanism in 1890. Indeed, it was the Anglican Church, namely All Souls' Church, Leeds, that gave her a platform for one of her most famous pieces of art, the All Souls' Font Cover. The Cover consists of eight panels and features the faces of her friends and acquaintances in an array of scriptural scenes. It was painted by Emily in a rather uncharacteristic late medieval style in thanksgiving for her baptism. The West Yorkshire Group of the Victorian Society is in the process of raising funds so that this magnificent work can be cleaned and thus restored to its best. I hope they succeed so that the legacy of Emily Ford can live on.

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