Balliol has replaced the portrait of a controversial alumnus with four smaller portraits of women painted by a current student – the first time student art has been hung in the hall.
The new portraits, painted by Balliol undergraduate Fine Artist Emily Freeman, depict a woman in four different positions and replaced a portrait of George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, who was a Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. The original portrait was taken down last term at the height of the decolonisation debate spurred by Rhodes Must Fall.
However, the college claimed at that point the portrait was removed for cleaning and repair. Current JCR President Annie Williamson attributed the new replacement to the regular changing of artwork in college.
The fact that the new work was made by a woman has been seen as greatly important. “Female painters are vastly under-represented throughout history and for a piece of female-made (and student-made!) art to get exhibited inside of an Oxford University Hall, as a piece of institutional improvement toward diversity but also as a wider contribution to the representation of female artists in history is really really encouraging,” Balliol Fine Artist Indigo Wilde said.
Perhaps the biggest change is the symbolism of putting portraits of a woman up in Hall. “For a college which was largely founded by a woman, Balliol doesn’t have the best history in terms of actually embracing us” first-year Balliol historian Beth Cadwalladr said.
“Women weren’t admitted to the college until 1979 and the masters and famous alumni who are openly celebrated in the Hall are overwhelmingly male, and entirely white. To sit in that hall, whether it’s for collections or just for a daily meal, is to be reminded of exactly who the college honours and chooses to commemorate. Women deserve to feel like we can achieve that too. We deserve to be reminded that we are important, that we can create.”
Educated at Eton and Balliol, Marquess Curzon was later heavily criticised as a Viceroy for doing relatively little to combat a famine that killed millions of Indians. An ex-president of the Oxford Union, he argued vociferously against Home Rule in Ireland and was particularly defensive of colonial policy during his time in the House of Commons.
Many members of the Balliol JCR and MCR have expressed support for the change, holding the view that the Hall portrait celebrated and commemorated a man well-known for his greatly harmful actions to groups still marginalised at Oxford.
For some, however, even the possible symbolism of removing the paintings was relatively meaningless. “Taking down a portrait isn’t ever going to be a concrete action to counter racism, right? Plus what are portraits when the whole university has benefitted immensely by colonial rule?” one South Asian Balliol student commented.