A call for women on our walls

Amelia Oakley 29 November 2015

In the majority of Cambridge colleges, the story is the same; walking down the halls of this ancient establishment, you cannot help but notice, the omniscient presence of portraits of men repeated like coarse potato prints on archaic wood paneling.

Men, men, men. Big or small; oil or watercolour, exquisitely done or terribly painted, at Cambridge, it’s quite simply impossible to escape these vast testosterone smeared surfaces (unless you’ve ventured to the artistic haven of the New Hall Art Collection). Visiting another college’s hall for formal, for example, should be an occasion of alcohol fuelled merriment, but it is always tinged with a sense of dismay as you search the candlelit walls for the face of just one woman, just one, and once again, dishearteningly, finding nothing.

Whilst, yes, many of the portraits which make up the collections which feature on college walls are of famous alumni, and, yes, we cannot pretend that there has been an equal number of male and female Cambridge graduates throughout history. We must acknowledge that this disparity in numbers comes from an inherent persecution of, and discrimination against women which runs throughout our educational history. By choosing to admit women to the University, Cambridge has made a commitment to striving for gender equality in its educational provision. Yet, this provision goes beyond simply offering all genders the same opportunity to study the courses here — it must also provide a place to study in which all genders feel equally valued, comfortable and represented. By making little to no effort to change the male dominated art collections of most colleges, these colleges are actively contributing to the marginalisation of women they claim to value and respect.

Earlier this year, Jesus College removed three portraits of men from the walls of its hall and replaced them with three portraits of women by female artist Agnès Thurnauer as part of a two month exhibition. Rod Mengham, the collegee's Curator of Works of Art commented the exhibition made “a big statement about female self-definition in an institution which encourages women to realise their true potential but which — like other colleges — surrounds them with images of male pre-eminence” . Indeed, whilst the exhibition was uplifting — at the end of the two months, the portraits came down, the men went back up and the issue has been pushed once again to the background.

Recently, Jesus College’s Women’s Officer Abigail Smith has launched a campaign pushing for greater representation, arguing “Arriving at college and not finding representation on the walls is not the most welcoming feeling: it does not do credit to the numerous, brilliant women fellows we have in college, nor does it acknowledge that college is a place where everyone can aim to achieve their full potential. Coming from an all girls' school, where women were celebrated and uplifted, it was very jarring to come to a place that only seemed to want to commemorate men, and at worst felt like an old boy's club. It's a shame that in a college which does so fantastically in other areas of gender equality, we still seem stuck in the past with regards to our art." 

"I don't think it's about reaching a quota, or forming an unnecessary binary between art styles. It is, simply, living and working in a place which celebrates self-identifying women and their achievements, and artwork is a very emphatic way of doing that. In a college that has 500 years worth of male history besides our 30, it is perhaps unsurprising that some women and non-binary students feel isolated from the imposing figures of masters on the wall.”

What Jesus’s exhibition of Thurnauer proved is that these portraits of men are not indelibly etched to the walls — they can be removed, replaced, and their replacements not only enjoyed, but celebrated for the small, but crucial steps they take in the name of gender equality at Cambridge.