Hertford College has replaced the all-male portraits in its iconic dining room with photos of women to mark 40 years of coeducation.

All change, ladies and gentlemen

By Caroline Jackson           

All change, ladies and gentlemen

Donne is done away with, Swift has been swept from view and Tyndale translated elsewhere. Hertford College has broken with centuries of tradition by removing the all-male portraits from its dining hall walls — and replacing them with women.

At this year’s Freshers’ Dinner, new students dined under the gaze of twenty-one notable Hertford women, strikingly photographed in black and white. Cheering greeted Principal Will Hutton as he explained the transformation.

Opened in late September by Mr Hutton and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith — who is one of those pictured — the exhibition replaces paintings of John Donne, Jonathan Swift and others including English Bible pioneer William Tyndale with strikingly informal pictures of women. So complete is the clearout that even the stag’s-head trophy that has long supervised Hertford meals (above right) has been removed to temporary lodgings in the Home Bursar’s office.

Hertford, which aims to keep the all-female gallery on show for the entire academic year, is staking a claim to be at the forefront of Oxford innovation and access again — 40 years after becoming one of the first five all-male colleges, with Brasenose, Jesus, St Catherine’s and Wadham, to admit women.

The struggle is not over. Hertford’s new intake is almost exactly 50:50 and the undergraduate body is nearer 60 per cent female, yet Curator Dr Emma Smith reports that even at the Freshers’ Dinner it was acknowledged that studying at Oxford can be ‘a troublesome thing to aspire to’, particularly for women.

Among the many events across the University to mark this important anniversary, Hertford’s creative response is as much about motivation as commemoration. Dr Smith, a Fellow in English, says the existing portraits ‘represented a very narrow definition of achievement, and a very hierarchical one’. At the opening of the Women Portraits exhibition, Mr Hutton expressed Hertford’s hope that ‘the range of people represented here will be inspiring to current and future students’.

All change, ladies and gentlemen

True to Hertford’s ‘forward-looking and free-thinking’ traditions and identity, Dr Smith says the idea of the exhibition proved ‘disappointingly uncontroversial’ when first mooted nearly a year ago. After approval by the college’s governing body, nominations were sought from Hertford staff, students and alumni before the final list of names was agreed.

Photographs were then commissioned from photographer Robert Taylor who, says Dr Smith, ‘understood the importance of who they are, not what they look like’. Bar one, each of his sitters has written a short description of her Hertford experience for the accompanying catalogue. Reminiscences all acknowledge the college’s profound influence on their outlook as women of the world.

Not all faces are familiar. Sarah Crompton, arts editor-in-chief at the Daily Telegraph, has written marvelling at her ‘slightly random’ inclusion. Dr Smith notes: ‘We are as proud of unsung achievement and of potential as we are of high office or salary.’ Senior among those pictured is Emerita Fellow Stephanie West FBA, Classics tutor from 1966 to 2005. Others include charity executive Sukhvinder Kaur (above right), as well as a philosopher, a broadcaster, a champion rower, a curator and two bankers.

All change, ladies and gentlemen

The only archive portrait is of the college’s first woman fellow, Julia Briggs (right), who was appointed in 1978, earned an OBE for services to English literature and education in 2006, and died in 2007. The youngest, author and blogger Shahnaz Ahsan, describes herself as the granddaughter of an illiterate economic migrant who would have struggled to imagine she and her sisters could graduate from Oxford just two generations after his arrival in the UK.

The exhibition, open to the public on Sunday afternoons, has provoked a wide range of responses. Reporting the exhibition under a heading that highlighted the removal of Hertford’s ‘dead white men’, the Guardian drew plenty of vigorous below-the-line commentary on equality for its own sake, equality as opposed to equal opportunity, and tokenism.

Dr Smith is sanguine. Whether or not any other college follows suit, Hertford has opened up debate and, once again, broken bounds to reconfigure its identity. She believes the college is characterised by its freedom from traditions and senses it is most engaged with the last forty years of its history. Speculating on the exhibition’s evident impact and popularity within college, she hints that the old portraits may have to fight for their right to return: ‘I’m not sure anyone really wants those to come back in quite the same way as before.’

The portraits

Shahnaz Ahsan (2006), Thouron Scholar and author

Helen Alexander DBE (honorary fellow since 2002), business leader

Marian Bell CBE (1977), economist

Julia Briggs OBE (Fellow in English 1978–95, Emerita Fellow to 2007)

Xanthe Brooke (1978), curator

Sarah Crompton (1976), arts editor-in-chief, Daily Telegraph

All change, ladies and gentlemen

Stephanie Cullen (1999), World Champion rower (right)

Kay Davies, DBE (college fellow), Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy since 1998

Julie Dearden (1979), educationalist

Louise Gullifer (1979), Professor of Commercial Law at Harris Manchester College

Charlotte Hogg (1988), banker

Natasha Kaplinsky (1992), broadcaster

Sukhvinder Kaur (1981), charity executive

Theresa Moran (1983), teacher

Serine Najarian (1998), banker

Carol Sennett (1982), TV editor

Jacqui Smith (1981, honorary fellow since 2007), former Home Secretary

Baroness Warnock (honorary fellow since 1997), philosopher

Stephanie West FBA, Fellow in Classics 1990–2005, Emerita Fellow since 2005

Joanne Wicks QC (1985), barrister

Alison Woollard (fellow since 2000), biochemist and Hertford dean

Portraits by Robert Taylor Photography, dining room photographs by Rob Judges (current) and Tim Soar; reproduced with permission.