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Oriel College removes 18th century painting ‘over fears it would offend students’

In March, Oriel College removed an 18th century painting featuring a Duke with a black servant in the background. Critics have said that the painting was removed over fears that it would offend students, while Oriel has maintained that the move was due to the college’s ongoing renovations. 

The Duke, Henry Somerset, graduated from Oriel college in 1763 and was a benefactor to the college. The painting features him and a black servant boy positioned behind him and holding the Duke’s crown. 

A spokesperson from Oriel college told Cherwell: “Due to extensive renovation of our senior library where the Duke of Beaufort’s painting is normally hung, we have loaned the painting to Badminton House for safekeeping.” The college is currently undergoing extensive renovation to the bar, dining hall, and kitchen. The Senior Library, where the painting had been housed, was converted to a temporary servery and dining hall prior to the painting’s removal. 

Badminton House, the ancestral home of the Duke’s family since the 17th century, has no modern connection to Oriel. It is unclear why the painting was not rehoused in college during the renovation period. The college did not reply to questions of whether other paintings were removed during renovations or whether the artwork would be returned in the future.

Alexander von Klemperer, a former PhD student at Oriel college, had called for the removal of the painting and one other, also featuring a black boy in the background, prior to its removal. He said: “While both images are products of their time, they are also racist depictions of people of colour as subservient and to some extent dehumanised. The way in which portraits and people are represented in a space can deeply alter how comfortable or welcoming that space is to people.” 

Oriel college has previously been criticised over its handling of past benefactors, most notably in the case of alumnus Cecil Rhodes. After calls to remove its long-standing statue of Rhodes, Oriel college opted to keep the statue and to erect a plaque contextualising Rhodes’ legacy.

Other Oxford colleges have also taken steps to remove contentious artwork. In 2017, Balliol college removed a portrait of ‘colonialist’ statesman George Cursor from its dining hall. And in 2021, members of Magdalen college MCR voted to remove a portrait of the Queen from their common room after it was deemed a symbol of “recent colonial history.” 

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