By Eleanor Antoniou
I had never given much thought to the portrait paintings that surrounded me in my college hall, but last year when I attended a talk as part of the Rising Tide exhibition, I realised that the majority of the portraits hung in Cambridge colleges depict white European males, whose portraits converse with each other to imply that the narrative of Cambridge’s past is solely theirs.
While I’d glanced at the male-dominated walls during formal dinners, I’d never considered the effect they can have and the atmosphere their presence creates. Today, our college spaces are no longer reserved exclusively for men, and yet the artwork installations surrounding us suggest that the female experience has been made invisible. For the students who eat beneath these portraits every week, for the women who clean our college spaces under the eyes of so many unmoving male faces, these paintings suggest a certain history of the college and portray a particular message: this is a space in which the female experience, and female achievement, are not as important as their contemporary male counterparts.
This disproportionate representation in publicly displayed portraiture exists not just in Cambridge but across the world. During the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement artist Mary Beth Edelson highlighted the gender imbalance in her piece entitled ‘Some Living American Women Artists’, a reworking of da Vinci’s Last Supper, in which the men are replaced with the images of 69 female artists, a striking acknowledgement of the women that are all too often left behind by history. Even today in London, over 90% of commemorative statues are dedicated to men, something which recent campaigns are now trying to remedy.
Naturally, the portraits in the halls of each Cambridge college have been chosen because they reflect each college’s history, and this history cannot be changed – it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that we simply swap men for women, as Edelson did in her Last Supper reworking. But does the story that we are presented with have to be so exclusive and one-sided?
In 2018, Christ’s College celebrated the forty year anniversary of the admission of female undergraduates by reimagining the space in their Hall to recognise that, although women had only studied there for forty years, they had been involved in the life of the college for far longer than that. Lady Margaret Beaufort refounded God’s House as Christ’s in 1505, and in her honour, Christ’s asked its students to send in their own depictions of Lady Margaret, which would temporarily replace the portraits that were already hanging, celebrating her as a woman, a mother, and an advocate for education. Students commented that their dining experience was transformed by the new exhibition; it became a more inclusive space for the college’s female students, who could see themselves reflected in the images surrounding them.
Whilst colleges cannot rewrite their histories, they can shift the aspects of their history which they choose to portray. Evidently, bringing in new and different narratives can make a welcome and lasting impression on both female and male students, even with temporary exhibitions like Lady Margaret at Christ’s. The New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College is a fine example: exhibiting one of the largest, most significant collections of modern and contemporary art by women in Europe, it champions artists who identify as women, giving them visibility and a voice.
Women now live in all of Cambridge’s colleges: we study in the libraries, and dine in the halls. Yet the visual narratives that surround us still need to reflect this in order to highlight that Cambridge is now a place where all genders are welcome.
Featured image: portrait of Lettice Ramsay from the Rising Tide exhibition, courtesy of Newnham College, Cambridge.