Dr Ruth Scobie explains the thinking behind Diversifying Portraiture, an initiative to widen the range of people represented on the University's walls.

The Dining Hall at Exeter CollegeHundreds of portraits of exceptional individuals hang on Oxford's walls, such as this collection at The Dining Hall of Exeter
By Dr Ruth Scobie

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. 

Among the many portraits at the university, though, can be found numerous images of a more diverse Oxford. Working on the project Diversifying Portraiture at Oxford, I’ve found more than 250 examples, and I’m sure there are a lot more out there. For obvious reasons, the historically female colleges already own more than a few portraits of women: Somerville, for example, only has portraits of women in its dining hall. Other works are scattered around the university: some quite well-known, others more obscure or surprising. Stories of disability and non-normative sexuality are also present; often hidden in portraits, but sometimes also startlingly or movingly expressed. 
SomervilleWomen on the walls at Somerville in the early 1900s 

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, Oxford, 1842 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.PanditVijaya 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.

 BorgesJorge 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

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.

Images: Oxford University Images, Somerville College, St Antony's College, All Souls College, Trinity College


By Dr Wanda Wyporska

You might want to make the very few diverse students actually studying there feel more welcome by getting rid of the Rhodes statue. I am ashamed of my alma mater for not doing so.

By Thomas Dineen (...

"This is not about political correctness..." Hahahaha. Well, if the PC can't remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel (yet), I suppose they have to start somewhere.

By Peter West

I really like the "All Souls Tryptich." Unsung Oxfordians.

By Dorcas Fowler

Presumably it is not widely known that when the African state was afflicted by a devastating disease which affected the vines, Rhodes encouraged the planting of apples, invested in that and thereby contributed in a major way to restoring the economy (and jobs for the locals). He also supported the concept of planting native species of trees and plants.

By RJ Nicholas

I nominate Daffy Duck!

By RH Findlay

Does Oxford's walls sport any portraits of any members of the Atlee Government of 1945-1950. You know, the government whose work contributed greatly to the UK by instituting the NHS, guaranteed old age pensions, unemployment benefits, enabling sound education for secondary and tertiary students from all walks of life, and organising low-cost rental housing for the many who had little money and no hope of buying their own house? Among other matters that benefitted the public good.

By RH Findlay

Sir Clement Atlee, Labour Prime Minister from 1945-1951, attended University College, Oxford, where he graduated with a Second Class Honours BA in Modern History in 1904 following which he had a distinguished career both in the British Army and in in politics, culminating with his government's institution of the British NHS, guaranteed pensions for the elderly and a number of other valuable social contributions to the well-being of British society. Atlee's cabinet, a fascinating social mix from all walks of life, included Lord Jowitt (New College) as Lord Chancellor. One wonders if these Oxonians, who contributed to what was a relatively short-lived (1945-51) but extremely socially constructive and progressive government that most certainly laid the ground for the post-war economic reconstruction of the UK, are remembered in portrait form in Oxford? University?

By Jeremy Stone

Atlee - portrait in Hall at Univ since (at latest) the 1970s.

By Dominic Berry

Why do you assume that the portraits hanging in Oxford's colleges are not of LGBTQ people? Statistically, at least 5% of them will be of LGBTQ people. In fact, given that for most of Oxford's history fellowships were open only to the unmarried, I would guess that the proportion of LGBTQ people represented in Oxford's portraits is far above the proportion of such people in society.

By kate noble

I am thinking of proposing myself for portraitsforoxford. I love the portrait of Richard Hillary (1919-1943) by Eric Kennington. my website is www.katenoble.co.uk

By richard kortum,...

why the prejudicial assumption that "political correctness" is, as it is for old friend, commenter tom dineen (above, 22 april), a dirty word? ditto for "diversity". my other old friend here, dominic berry (30 april), is right, but significantly underestimates the probable minimum percentage of LGBTQs. this said, let's not forget that for the vastly greater part of its long & illustrious history the university was open only to men, and mostly white men at that. the times they are a changin'. is good, IMHO, for oxford colleges to try to keep up. kudos to all souls and to the philosophy sub-faculty, my old home away from home.