The latest Ertegun House excursion brought scholars to the neoclassical dining hall of Hertford College, for a viewing of a provocative and refreshing temporary exhibition, celebrating 40 years since the first admission of female undergraduates to the college. To commemorate this shockingly recent development, the college has replaced the oil paintings of its 19th century dining hall with twenty-one monochrome photographs of female alumni of the college, taken by Robert Taylor.
In navigating and interpreting the exhibition, scholars were guided by one of the originators of the project, Dr Emma Smith, Fellow in English at Hertford. Dr Smith explained how the women depicted had been drawn from every generation since 1974, chosen to highlight the multiplicity of fields in which alumnae of the college have gone on to attain excellence. The portraits therefore depict not only academics, bankers, and barristers, but also a TV broadcaster, a journalist, a sportswoman, a museum curator, and a school head teacher.
In staging this exhibition, Hertford has transformed the ancient heart of its college into a modern locus for meditation. The images provide a new set of icons for students to contemplate as they convene for lunch, dinner, or as visitors to the college, and challenge fossilized notions of the purpose and meaning of college portraiture. Though temporary, the portraits constitute an enduring step towards redressing the centuries-old gender imbalance in Oxford portraiture, and bear a common thread far removed from the aristocratic, hierarchical, and overwhelmingly male notion of achievement peddled by their forbears.