Dr Ruth Scobie explains the thinking behind Diversifying Portraiture, an initiative to widen the range of people represented on the University's walls.
There are, it’s true, an awful lot of middle-aged white male faces framed on the walls of Oxford University. Colleges and other groups have, for centuries, commissioned and displayed portraits of their greatest scholars, leaders, and philanthropists. That the resulting pantheon is often less than varied is, of course, a reflection both of who was doing the commissioning, and of who was allowed to achieve what kind of greatness, during most of this history.
What’s more, in the last few years, diversity in portraits has become a priority for a lot of institutions, with interventions large and small taking place in many colleges and faculties. New exhibitions and new commissions are appearing all the time, provoking new conversations about how the university’s past can best be reconciled with its hopes for the present and future.
Christ Church dining hall, as depicted in 1842
This is not about political correctness, modernising, or even just about doing right by pioneering men and women of earlier generations (although it is also about all those things). It’s also about academic success. There’s increasing empirical research to back up what we might instinctively feel to be true: that faced with environments that suggest to BME, female, LGBTQ or disabled students that ‘people like them’ might be unwelcome or undervalued, those students are more likely to underperform. Conversely, a building which tells them that their school or university has high expectations of ‘people like them’ fosters faster learning and, yes, the chances of achieving greatness. A 2013 American study found that simply displaying a photo of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel in a room where students were asked to give a speech caused young women to speak for longer and more confidently.
So out of the hundreds of portraits showing Oxford’s diversity, here are five examples you may not have seen, in the hopes that they might inspire a little greatness.Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990) by Edward Irvine Halliday. © The estate of Edward Irvine Halliday. By kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford.
A member of one of India’s great political dynasties, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was imprisoned by the British three times as a pro-independence politician. Undeterred, she was made the first female Indian cabinet minister, and after Independence, began a distinguished career in international diplomacy, becoming the first Asian and the first woman to be elected president of the United Nations General Assembly. Pandit was an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, where her niece, Indira Gandhi, studied Modern History, and where this striking full-length portrait, a gift to the college from the Indian Embassy, is now displayed.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) by Emilio Angel Sirimarco. © The copyright holder. By kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of St Antony’s College, Oxford.
This portrait of the Argentinian writer, translator and critic Jorge Luis Borges was painted in 1962, a few years before he received an honorary doctorate from Oxford. The portrait’s unfixed gaze might reflect his blindness, by this time a complete loss of sight which prevented him reading. Borges’ disability, some critics have suggested, also influenced his later, experimental poetry and short fiction.
Women of Distinction. Photographs at the Philosophy Faculty (2016).
Recent initiatives in academic faculties around the university have celebrated the academic achievements of female scholars, especially in fields where women can still sometimes feel out of place. These photographs of Dorothy Edgington, Philippa Foot, Susan Hurley, Martha Kneale, Mary Warnock, and Kathy Wilkes were unveiled at the Philosophy Faculty in January 2016.
Richard Hillary (1919-1943) by Eric Kennington. © By kind permission of the President and Fellows of Trinity College, Oxford
In 1939, at the age of nineteen, the Australian Richard Hope Hillary left Trinity College, Oxford to join the RAF. Fighting in the Battle of Britain, he was shot down and suffered extensive burns. He underwent lengthy and painful plastic surgery as one of the ‘Guinea Pig Club’ of the pioneering surgeon Archibald McIndoe. A copy of this pastel sketch, showing Hillary post-surgery, is displayed at Trinity College, where he is also commemorated in an annual literature lecture.
All Souls Triptych by Benjamin Sullivan (2012). © Benjamin Sullivan. By kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford.
This spectacular painting shows 27 of the non-academic staff of All Souls College in their workplaces: administrative staff on the left, the kitchen in the middle, and porters, gardeners, and accommodation staff on the right. Full of concrete and symbolic details, it was influenced by medieval altarpieces and the work of Stanley Spencer. The work was commissioned by the college in 2008 and unveiled in 2012, with the artist, Benjamin Sullivan, sketching each person from life. Sullivan has said of the picture that he “wanted to give an account of people’s day to day activities: to celebrate them as individuals and to elevate and dignify their work. Given the almost religious reverence to be shown to both persons and their tasks, a triptych seemed to be the perfect format.”
Dr Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). She is also the project manager of Diversifying Portraiture at Oxford, a scheme to catalogue, highlight and promote portraits of diverse individuals around the University. The projects will promote the visual representation of diversity in all its forms, ultimately by commissioning new works as well as highlighting the existing ones. You can read more about it here, or follow us on Twitter for regular links to new and old pictures.