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Balliol accused of bowing to “anti-colonial” pressure by moving Viceroy’s portrait

After taking it down for repairs, the college have not replaced the portrait of George Curzon in its hall.

Greg Ritchie
Greg Ritchie

Balliol have moved an imperial statesman’s portrait out of their hall, prompting accusations of “anti-colonial” motives.

The 1913 oil painting of George Curzon – the former Viceroy of India and British Foreign Secretary – hung in Balliol’s main hall for decades. It was taken down early last year at the height of the student decolonisation movement, though the college insisted this was purely for maintenance work.

However, despite the repairs being completed earlier this year, the painting was not returned to the hall. Instead, the portrait has been moved into the office of history professor Martin Conway.

Nigel Biggar – a theology professor at Christ Church – accused Balliol of submitting to “anti-imperial ideology”, though the college insist that the painting still “hangs prominently in a busy teaching area.”

The portrait initially disappeared at the the height of the debate sparked by the Rhodes Must Fall movement last year. Both Balliol undergraduates and graduates passed motions demanding the removal of the colonialist’s statue from Oriel.

Balliol’s JCR motion, which passed by seventy votes to twelve, included the line: “Balliol has its own colonialist, George Curzon, honoured with a painting hung in Hall.”

Despite the growing student concern, college authorities claimed the painting was removed purely for cleaning and repair work.

Last summer, the Master of Balliol, Sir Drummond Bone, reassured a descendant of the former Viceroy that, despite “the heat generated over statues in Oxford”, the painting was undergoing conservation work.

This maintenance was completed at a cost of £3,200 earlier this year.

Professor Biggar – who last week was criticised by almost 60 Oxford academics for his defence of the British Empire’s moral legacy – said: “Oxford colleges are full of overwhelmingly male portraits, so there is a case for more diversity.

“But I would object if there is a general stripping of our walls of any memory of our imperial past. Our past is full of things, some of which we can be proud, and Curzon was a great man in many respects.

“But right now colleges are vulnerable to anti-imperialist ideology, which is shared by some senior members. If Curzon disappears into some back office, I would strongly suspect that political correctness and a too-uncritical deference to anti-colonialist ideology would be the reason.”

A Balliol spokesperson said: “The painting hangs prominently in a busy teaching area for historians, where it often stimulates informed historical discussion and debate among students and academics. It is therefore absurd to allege the portrait has been removed from sight to avoid any controversy about Lord Curzon and his time.

“The painting was in a very bad state of repair two years ago and had to be sent away from the college for restoration work to ensure its survival.”

Curzon’s portrait was replaced by four smaller portraits of women painted by Emily Carrington Freeman, an undergraduate studying fine art. It was the first time a current student’s work had been hung in the hall.

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