by Daniel Sanchez Villavicencio, PhD student in History of Art.
As part of my PhD in History of Art, I am aiming to characterise the context and manufacturing technique of a group of painted trade union banners in the collection of Glasgow Museums, all made by the companies of George Kenning towards the turn of the twentieth century. As part of the first stage of the study, I made a visit to the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester to increase my knowledge about the banners and the company that made them to inform the historical contextualisation of the Glasgow Museum banners. PHM is not only the largest depository of these socially significant objects in the UK, but is also the warden of The National Banner Survey Database, a valuable source of information that stores the records of 2369 banners from all over the UK, including measurements, location, overall condition, images and authorship when existing.
Looking to have a better insight into the banner production of George Kenning and George Kenning & Son, I was determined to locate examples produced by them that were included on the database. I was also interested in doing the same for the banners made by their closest competitor, George Tutill, in order to compare their methods of construction. However, the task proved to be more challenging than expected, as the database not only contains painted banners, but also printed, embroidered and mixed techniques. Moreover, as specified in the National Banner Survey Report (Mansfield et al., 1999), it includes at least six different types of banner carrying organisations besides trade unions, including friendly societies, women’s organisations, religious organisations, political parties or groups and a majority belonging to others, excluding military. The PHM alone holds around 339 of the banners in the survey, and today the collection comprises around 400.
After a thorough search, a total of 22 banners produced by Kenning’s companies were located on the database, compared to 199 surviving examples by George Tutill. The astonishing difference seems to confirm, as John Gorman suggested back in 1973, that the greater proportion of all the trade-union banners from 1837 onwards can be attributed to Tutill’s company (Gorman, 1973; 49). The examples included on the database provided important information about the banners’ construction. It was noted that most of the banners by Tutill had contrasting borders around the central square sections, which in turn were made from single pieces of fabric. By contrast, Kenning’s production was more varied, showing that all his banners produced before the rename to George Kenning & Son in 1895, were made of various pieces of fabric sewn together, changing to single pieces with contrasting borders from that year onwards. In addition to the database search, several painted banners were inspected as part of the visit. The information gathered from the visit contributed to a better understanding of Kenning’s manufacturing technique, highlighting features to compare whilst examining the selected banners of the PhD study as well as other areas of research to pursue.
Access to see the banners is not a straightforward process as they are stored at the PHM banner storeroom, located on a different site, at the building of the museum’s predecessor, the National Museum of Labour History. In there, a multitude of tall metal shelves stock the large collection of banners, all of which have been carefully rolled onto individual tubes, to protect their layers whilst reducing their volume for storage. And with the same spirit of the parades I witnessed an ingenious system of ropes and poles is used to carry the rolled-up banners from each shelve to the floor and back, needing up to four people to safely manoeuvre them. This was another highlight to be able to see how the banners were stored.
All in all, the study trip to Manchester proved to be extremely fruitful, giving me the opportunity of expanding my knowledge on the surviving banners by George Kenning and of looking in detail and up close at actual objects that are often difficult to access. Doing it in a collaborative manner, reminded one of the mottoes of the trade union movement: ‘union is strength’.
*With special thanks to Jenny van Enckevort (senior conservator), Kloe Rumsey (conservator) and Chuance Chen (CTC student) for their valuable help on the visit.
- Mansfield, Nick, et al., (1999) National Banner Survey: The Report. Manchester: National Museum of Labour History.
- Gorman, John (1973) Banner Bright An Illustrated History of the Banners of the British Trade Union Movement. London: Allen Lane.