It was Sidney Webb, not Beatrice, who first supported women’s suffrage. Photo: Getty
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The Women’s Library: a treasure house of women’s literature

The LSE recently took over custodianship of the Women’s Library, which houses everything from Emily Wilding to Barbara Cartland and has close links to Beatrice and Sidney Webb. 

On 12 June 1912, Sidney Webb wrote to Ruth Cavendish Bentinck, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, about his own long-standing support for the cause. On the second page he permitted himself a little domestic joke: “My wife bids me add – I have converted her!”

By this point, Beatrice Webb’s supposed opposition to women’s suffrage was well known. In 1889, she put her name to an open letter in the journal the Nineteenth Century titled “An Appeal Against Female Suffrage”. She believed the movement’s focus was too narrow and that true equality could be achieved only through wide-sweeping reform.

Whether Sidney did “convert” her is unclear, but there are distinct signs of a change of heart. Just a few months after they founded the New Statesman in April 1913, the Webbs wrote a joint article stating that “the Socialist takes for granted not only an extension of the suffrage to all adults but also the entire removal of artificial disabilities for duty or office”. Her conversion may not have been absolute, though – in November of that same year, she stressed in the pages of this magazine that “the Awakening of Women” was “not mere feminism”. The vote on suffrage was won decades ago, but the conversation that Beatrice started in the NS continues to this day.

The New Statesman was the less well known of the Webbs’ two “children”, as Beatrice termed them in a 1936 diary entry. The other, the London School of Economics, which they co-founded in 1895, recently took over the custodianship of the Women’s Library – a collection of over 60,000 books and 5,000 museum objects, as well as the personal papers of everyone from Emily Wilding Davison to Barbara Cartland.

Seen in the light of this new home, the connection to the location captured by Sidney Webb’s letter to Bentinck becomes rather symbolic – in 1909, Bentinck put together a subscription library of feminist materials that formed the core of what became the Women’s Library.

Naturally, much of the library’s holdings relates to the women’s suffrage movement, including letters and papers from campaigners such as Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. Katie Gliddon’s prison diary, which she wrote in 1912 in the spaces around the verses in her copy of Shelley’s Poetical Works, is a fascinating artefact, as are the tiny purse and return ticket found in Emily Wilding Davison’s pockets after she jumped in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. The collection isn’t by any means focused exclusively on the early 20th century – other highlights include John Dunton’s Ladies Dictionary, published in 1694, and the first ever issue of Spare Rib magazine from 1972.

It is hoped that the LSE will be a permanent home for the Women’s Library, which has had to move more than once in its history. A petition calling for it to remain at its previous location, a converted wash-house in Aldgate, east London, attracted over 12,000 signatures – but London Metropolitan University could no longer afford to run it, and so invited bids from other institutions. Long after the building work was complete, debate raged on in the letter pages of the Guardian.

Yet the passionate response that the move provoked is only to be expected. From the start, the people who have worked on the collection have fought to keep it safe and accessible to the widest possible audience.

The objects and papers are vital for research, of course, but they have come to symbolise something else, too – a feminist outpost in the male-dominated academic sphere. It’s something worth fighting for.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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