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Series: On Art and Artists
Ernestine Mills and her Enamel Portrait of the Emperor
Emperor Haile Sellassie, at the time of the Italian Fascist invasion of 1935-6, and for perhaps a decade thereafter, had a major impact on the world. His broadcasts from Addis Ababa, at the beginning of the Italian Fascist war, his desperate struggle in the face of the enemy’s overwhelming superiority in weapons – its use of poison-gas, and above all his historic speech to the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland, made him for many throughout the world a symbol of the cause of Collective Security, and resistance to Fascism.
One of those who much admired him, in the second part of the 1930s, was a British artist and feminist Ernestine Mills, who was a renowned enamelist and metal worker. It is she to whom we turn our attention today.
Ernestine Mills (nee Bell) was born in 1871, and, taking a great interest in art, was taught, as a child, by Frederic Shields, friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She was subsequently to publish the “Life and Letters of Frederic Shields”.
Ernestine duly joined the famous Slade School and the South Kensington School of Art, later the Royal College of Art, both in London. It was at this latter institution, by coincidence, that my mother Sylvia Pankhurst, also studied art. Ernestine, again like my mother, soon afterwards became passionately involved in the struggle in Britain for Votes for Women.
The Arts and Crafts Movement
Ernestine Mills, as her grand-niece Irene Cockroft, to whom I owe almost the whole of this story, tells me, worked in the style of the so-called Arts and Crafts Movement. This went out of fashion in the middle of the present century, but is now becoming increasingly admired.
Besides working as an artist, Ernestine was a political activist, involved in the British women’s struggle for the vote, and used her art for the Suffragette movement. For example she designed badges in the Suffragette colours, purple, white and green. In 1901 she became a member of the British Society of Women Artists, and, long afterwards, in 1943-4, served as its Acting President.
Ernestine, again like my mother, was a Socialist. A member of the Fabian Society, she contributed a paper on the “Origin of the Physical Disability of Women” to a series of essays read at the Fabian Women’s Group, way back in 1908-9.
Throughout her long life – she first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1900, and lived on until 1959 – she had the distinction of exhibiting at the prestigious Walker Gallery in Liverpool no less than sixty-one times.
Precursor of the Welfare State
Ernestine’s husband, Dr Herbert Henry Mills, who, by another coincidence was my grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst’s family physician, and treated one of my uncles, was likewise a figure of distinction. A staunch advocate of affordable health for the poor, he was a member of the Advisory Committee involved in the establishment of the National Insurance Act of 1911, one of the first historic steps towards the subsequent establishment of the British Welfare State.
Haile Sellassie’s Portrait
But to return to Ernestine and Haile Sellassie: some time around 1936 she produced an enamel portrait of the Emperor, measuring 33.5 centimetres high by 24.5 centimetres wide. It was a good likeness, depicting the Emperor, with large, alert and expressive eyes, looking over his shoulder directly at the viewer. The work, a masterpiece of its kind, was exhibited at an Exhibition organised by the Society of Women Artists at the Royal Institute Galleries, in Piccadilly, London, in June 1937.
Enter Irene Cockroft
The painting was subsequently presented, after Ernestine’s death, by her daughter Dr Hermia Mills, to the Ethiopian Embassy in London. With political changes in Ethiopia, and subsequent turn-over of Embassy staff, the picture was, not surprisingly, quite forgotten – until Ernestine’s grand-niece Irene Cockroft appeared on the scene.
Planning an exhibition of Ernestine’s work, to be held at Leighton House Museum in October and November 2000, Irene contacted the Ethiopian Embassy, in March 1996. She spoke in particular with a dedicated member of its staff, Ato Daniel Truneh, who had no knowledge of the portrait, but kept his eyes open. Not long after this, another staff member, Woiz. Abeba Negash, while cleaning an Embassy cupboard, came across the picture. Daniel, on learning of the important discovery, duly informed Mrs Cockroft, whose husband Da, a professional photographer, took the fine photograph here reproduced.
So all you have to do, dear reader, is to pencil “Leighton House Museum October-November” in next year’s diary, to see this and other remarkable works by Ernestine Mills in the round.