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 graduates.
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.