Emily Susan Ford (1850–1930), artist and campaigner for women’s rights, was born into a Quaker family in Leeds. She trained as an artist at the Slade School of Art and exhibited at the Royal Academy. With her sisters Isabella and Bessie Ford became heavily involved in labour politics, focusing on the inequalities of capitalism, class and gender, and supported striking women weavers and tailoresses in 1888 and 1889, practically and financially.
Ford’s work was generally influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, particularly by Edward Burne-Jones, but as was not uncommon for the time she became interested in spiritualism in the early 1880s, which was the inspiration for her ”The Sphere of Suffering” series.
Emily Ford was born in Leeds into a politically active Quaker family. Her parents were Robert Lawson Ford (1809–1878) a solicitor and Hannah (née Pease) (1814–1886), who moved to Adel Grange on the outskirts of Leeds when Emily was 15. Her youngest sister Isabella became a prominent campaigner for the rights of working women. When in Leeds Emily lived at the family home, Adel Grange, but after her older sister Bessie died in 1922, Emily and Isabella moved to Adel Willows, a small property nearby.
From 1873 until 1881 Ford was an active member of the Leeds Ladies’ Educational Association, an organisation that provided lectures and courses, supervised Cambridge Local Examinations, and with other local bodies, founded Leeds Girls’ High School. Ford was secretary of the association and in 1879 backed a series of lectures on the laws relating to women’s property rights and custody of infants. The controversy surrounding these subjects split the association’s membership and it was abandoned in 1881. She attended the Slade School of Art in London from 1875.
Like other members of the association, such as Alice Cliff Scatcherd, Ford was a member of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage which was a hive for activism in the 1880s. The society formed strong links with the Manchester Society of Women Painters, of which Ford was a member. The society was active from 1879 until 1883 and had among its leading members suffragettes such as Susan Dacre, Annie Swynnerton and Jessie Toler Kingsley. Ford was an active member of and speaker for the Leeds Suffrage Society, becoming its vice president.
In 1887 Ford and her sisters Isabella and Bessie became heavily involved in labour politics, focusing on the inequalities of capitalism, class and gender. Ford joined the Leeds Socialist League and, with her sisters and Scatcherd, supported striking women weavers and tailoresses in 1888 and 1889 with practical assistance and contributions towards the strike fund.
In the early 1880s Ford became interested in spiritualism and joined the Society for Psychical Research. For spiritualists, colour invoked spiritual and emotional states. She painted ”The Sphere of Suffering” series, in which she depicted the “naked Soul in the Storm Abyss” as a female nude plunging through space while shafts of light break through the clouds above. Ford argued that “people must learn to see Spiritual truth as an artist must learn to see colour”.
Ford’s religious convictions, feminism and social politics underwent profound change. She converted to Anglicanism, abandoned socialism and instead of focusing on a wide range of issues that concerned women, focused her efforts on women’s suffrage. She transferred her suffrage society membership to London and expressed the desire that her art works should be hung “where they could speak”. By that time declamatory art by women artists had reached a wide audience outside the institutions of culture and scholarship through the women’s suffrage banners. She was baptised into the Anglican Church at All Souls, Blackman Lane in Leeds in 1890.
Ford’s work was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement particularly Edward Burne-Jones. After her baptism at All Souls, she gave the church a tall font canopy designed by R. J. Johnson of Newcastle attached to which are eight panels that she painted herself. Painted in a primitivist Italian style, they depict scenes from the Bible but the figures in them are portraits of people she knew, her friends clerics, the church’s congregation and herself. The paintings were restored after fundraising and intervention by Victorian Society. Her painting ”Towards the Dawn”, described as “feminist”, was donated to Newnham College in 1890 by her friend Millicent Fawcett.
Ford had a studio in Chelsea that was described by fellow artist, Dora Meeson as “a meeting ground for artists, suffragists, people who “did” things”. She joined the Artists’ Suffrage League and designed a poster for it in 1908. She continued to devote herself to religious art, designing stained glass windows and painting murals, but also produced posters, banners and shields for the suffrage movements.