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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Dead white men replaced by live women

Excerpted from story by Maev Kennedy in The Guardian

Students at an Oxford college will return this term to find an entirely new
set of faces staring down on their meals in the great hall: the portraits of
dead white men, dim under their cloudy varnish, have been swept away,
replaced by striking black-and-white photographs of female fellows and

Emma Smith, an English lecturer and fellow since 1997, who curated the
exhibition, said: "We haven't gone for our most famous, most successful or
richest. They're not necessarily intended to be aspirational figures ­
they're just some individuals who have done some interesting things." It has
been warmly welcomed by students, graduates and staff, though Smith did get
what she describes as "a few political correctness gone mad letters".

The exhibition celebrates the fact that in 1974, when the philosopher
Geoffrey Warnock was the principal, Hertford was among a small group of
formerly all-male Oxford colleges that took an audacious leap into the 20th
century and decided to admit women as undergraduates. By then Stephanie
West, the senior figure among the portraits, magnificent in a stripy jumper
against a cliff face of books, had already been on the staff as the head of
classics since 1966. It took a little longer for female fellows: the critic
Julia Briggs was the first, in 1978. She died of a brain tumour in 2007, and
hers is the only archive photograph: "So many people mentioned her, and so
fondly," Smith said.

The college has a patchy history, dating back to the 13th century with a
roll call including Donne, the satirist Jonathan Swift, the radical
politician Charles James Fox, and the Maltese prime minister Dom Mintoff.
However, the story includes repeated near bankruptcy and closure, literally
reaching a new low in 1820 when most of the medieval facade collapsed into
the street. Even when the broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky ­ whose glamorous
portrait is included ­ arrived to study English in 1992, she was told it was
"so poor it could easily be swapped for a packet of mixed biscuits".

"That's what made this so easy," Smith said. "We have no glorious history,
we're not hidebound by ancient traditions, we have none.

"Taking down all the portraits was helped by the fact that nobody felt the
slightest affection for any of them, with the exception of John Donne."

The new portraits will be formally unveiled by the principal, Guardian
columnist and former Observer editor in chief Will Hutton, and will remain
for a year.

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