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The walls that stare – what college portraits tell us about Oxford

They say a picture paints a thousand words. So what do the thousands of portraits hanging around Oxford colleges tell us about the University, and the people and ideas which inhabit it?

Cherwell sent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to every Oxford college and Permanent Private Hall, asking for details on all of their portraits hung in communal areas. In addition to a breakdown by gender and ethnicity, colleges were also asked to provide their policies for the hanging and commissioning of pieces of art, as well as for details on whether they had or were planning to pursue a ‘diversity drive’.

The responses showed that at least ten colleges do not have a single portrait of a BAME person hanging on their walls. Women of colour were the least represented group, featuring in less than 1% of total portraits.

Other than those from formerly women-only colleges, most responses showed that less than 10% of portraits’ subjects were women.

Interestingly, there is a significantly higher proportion of women and BAME portraits located in college dining halls – the traditional centre of college life and height of portraiture esteem – than there are in other areas of colleges. This might be a result of recent moves to diversifying the portraits in their main halls, forcing the old paintings out in the process.

Many colleges did not fully respond to the request. For instance, a Hertford college spokesperson told Cherwell that they “do not keep independent lists with the breakdown information you have requested”, before directing us to ArtUK’s website (which listed 44 pieces of artwork as being located within the college, all of which of white men). In addition, Cherwell are yet to receive responses from a significant amount of the most ancient colleges, including Christ Church, Magdalen, Jesus, Oriel, and St Edmund’s Hall.

Diversifying the University’s iconography has long been on the agenda for student activists. Common Ground Oxford is a campaign group set up to to take down the “structures of racism, classism, and colonialism [which] pervade Oxford University in a variety of ways”. Indeed, one of their main resolutions is to campaign for the “the decolonisation of Oxford’s curricula and iconography”. How does the group get people to take portraits and statues seriously, and not dismissed as the whims of ‘snowflake’ students?

“Iconography is often placed at the centre of debates about colonialism in order to justify the dismissal of decolonial arguments; to try and frame the debate in terms of naïve students who cannot cope with the cold, hardstone of historical reality,” a spokesperson for the group told me.

“In truth, however, physical manifestations of the legacy of imperialism in a space like Oxford are so important because they promote a whitewashed version of history.

“Common Ground’s focus on putting Oxford’s imperialist and classist past in the context of present-day inequalities is borne out of a recognition that all aspects of Oxford life which perpetuate colonial narratives permeate the attitudes of all those who study here. At a world-leading institution, it’s crucial to beg the question: is this the view of the world we want to be imparting to our future leaders; academics; teachers; influencers?”

But do ‘diversity drives’ signify real progress? Common Ground don’t think it will ever be the full solution: “We’re looking to decolonise, rather than simply diversify: there’s a need for fundamental, not superficial change.

“It’s clear that projects to diversify Oxford’s iconography are a move in the right direction, but in order for these to feel less tokenistic a wider shift needs to take place: one towards diversity not for the sake of good public relations, but for the sake of a richer academic experience in all senses.”

It is notable that many portrait diversity drives are only temporary in nature. Last month, Magdalen College unveiled 25 portraits of its staff and students to showcase the college’s diversity and “more accurately” represent the college community. Featuring cooks, cleaners, teachers, and researchers, as well as members of the college’s current student body, the new portraits were taken by award-winning photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.

Of these portraits, half are of women – a stark contrast to before this project, when the vast majority of paintings in the college’s hall represented its overwhelmingly male founders and historic supporters. Paintings of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Fricker (the college’s first female fellow) were the only two portraits of women hanging in hall.

However, while acknowledging that the project is a step in the right direction, Femi Nylander – a member of the campaign group Rhodes Must Fall Oxford – raised issue with the fact that the exhibition is likely to end in a year, stressing that “Oxford still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and dealing with its own past.”

Not all diversity drives seem as transitory, though. St Peter’s is an example of a college making rapid changes to its portraiture. While stressing that the previous composition of portraits was a “perfectly understandable and in no way to be demeaned historical accumulation of absolutely significant people”, the college’s Master, Mark Damazer, admitted that it “didn’t take great powers of observation to look around the College and to see that there are lots of other sorts of people here, and it didn’t represent the College in its full range of excellence.”

He told me: “We brought into the Hall two oil portraits of women. And then we added to it at the same time group photographs of contemporary women fellows at St Peter’s. And having done that we’ll now unveil in January the next stage of this, which is to do with people of colour and disability… Then there is an oil portrait going in of the first black professor at the College, Professor Dapo Akande, which we’re commissioning at the moment and will come in the spring.”

For Damazer, the location of the portraits are of equal consideration as the subjects: “I think it’s very important that these images should be in places where they are seen by the largest number of people, and in a shared common space, and not either temporary or in corridors.

“It must reflect the importance of their contribution and the diversity of the college, that they are somewhere in a significant space and are important.”

What’s more, he maintains that this was not merely the result of student pressure, but rather something embraced by the college at large: “When we discussed this collectively together in Governing Body, there was not a single voice of dissent about any of this at any stage.

“Every single member of the Governing Body – these would have been various different discussions down the years – have been utterly without any conceptual ideological friction, absolutely none.

“I’ve got a very amicable Governing Body, but even I had expected one or two objections. Now it’s true to say that we had to work out who they were going to be as it were, but even that wasn’t that difficult. In other words, the idea that this was a project that needed to be done – though far from the only thing one should do to reinforce diversity and plurality, by the way – was completely commonly held and supported by everyone.”

St Peter’s approach is exceptional by Oxford standards, but it isn’t the only college which has conceded it must do something about the problem. Almost half of Oxford colleges have policies and plans to diversity their portraiture in the coming years, and that number is only increasing. While Rhodes may not have fallen, the incredible campaign has energised a wider discussion about the role iconography plays in the University’s traditional structures, and built towards a growing consensus towards decolonisation.

Of course, the battle is far from over. As Common Ground stress, there is still a need for more meaningful change – and the onus is on the University and its colleges to lead that process.

“Oxford has a social role which it doesn’t fully acknowledge, which contributes to the intersectionality of these issues,” their spokesperson told me. “Colonialism, institutional racism, and institutional classism all pervade the city of Oxford. As long as each issue is not fully addressed, all three are perpetuated.

“It should not be controversial to acknowledge that there are a series of institutional and social biases in the world, and that we should be doing our best not to replicate that in the way we portray ourselves.”

Of course, if the intonations of wizened dons and irate breakfast-show hosts are anything to go by, decolonisation is still a controversial issue. But for how much longer will these tub-thumpers hold the ear of those with influence? When you speak to both the campaigners and the college authorities they rally against, one really detects that there is a growing consensus on Oxford’s need to confront its colonial past. Naturally, important divergences on the best way to go about that objective persist; the holistic decolonisation which groups like Common Ground and Rhodes Must Fall are fighting for is some way off yet.

But that doesn’t stop me from believing that when another student replicates this investigation – perhaps in a decade, maybe two – she will be confronted with faces quite different from what I have described today: faces less white, less male, less haggard. An Oxford that is at least trying to understand its history, and which aspires to welcome all those who walk its halls.

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