News and Stories from the College Collections

These short articles give an insight into the most recent findings, news and stories from the College’s Fine and Decorative Art Collections.

Tapestries by Jilly Edwards

Newnham commissioned artist Jilly Edwards to create two works for the Dorothy Garrod Building. The resultant pieces are a subtle exploration of the rhythms of College life, bringing together vibrancy and detail.

Jilly Edwards, whose fluid, complex pieces are worked in woven tapestry, is known for her subtle evocation of place. Her own personal response to a location is integral to the pieces she creates.

Newnham has a strong tradition of the arts, and significant examples of global textile art. However, these newly commissioned pieces were very much to be a contemporary work.

Edwards spent time within the College, developing an understanding of its shifting rhythms. In her journal, she notes, “I am struck by the way this college links education and life during the student stay and staff tenure. There is a strong connection with the past but also very aware of looking forwards. How do I connect the buildings / gardens / education / Cambridge and my work? The colours are my way in, with perhaps shapes within a segment or piece.”

The final works show emphatic verticals, in complex washes of colours that evoke the elements of academic life. The initial designs were created in watercolour – “It gives the sense of layer, which is so much part of life and education” – a demanding approach to translate into a woven tapestry, and one that fully shows Edwards’ skills.

'Beyond thinking' by Cathy de Monchaux

This ‘tower of books’ sculpture by Cathy de Monchaux, beside the Porters’ Lodge on the Sidgwick Avenue frontage of the Dorothy Garrod Building, celebrates education and research.

Cathy de Monchaux, the Turner Prize-nominated sculptor, has created a new public artwork for Newnham College, celebrating the College’s tradition of learning and research.

The 35-foot-tall bronze sculpture, Beyond thinking, shows a vertical column of open books set into the fabric of the building. Instead of words, a vine-like structure is embedded in the pages. The spine of each open book holds a female figure gazing out at the world. The sculpture is positioned at the entrance to the College’s new Dorothy Garrod building, and is the first thing that students and visitors will see.

The artist’s inspiration for the sculpture came from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), itself based upon a lecture given by Woolf to the students of Newnham and Girton Colleges in 1928. The essay explores the conditions that can promote women’s creativity: one of them being the freedom to gaze out on the world, to stand still, think and dream.

Says Cathy de Monchaux: ‘I find in my own creative process, when I am somehow overfilled by my thoughts and confused about how to move forward, I can only unravel what I am trying to create when I find a way to stand back and draw breath. It is the hardest thing to arrive at – a condition where you have so much in your mind that you become for a moment ‘beyond thinking’ – and somehow, an answer or inspiration of how to move forward in an idea comes to you. It is not a condition you can manufacture, as Virginia Woolf explained. For women, it was a question of having the right social and educational conditions to allow the space for inspirational thought to grow.’

'Arc of History' by Haberdashery

The sculpture explores key moments from Newnham College’s history, with pages from the College archive re-created in brass and powder-coated steel, and suspended from the double-height ceiling.

The sculpture was created by light and sculpture firm Haberdashery, who have created pieces for the Wellcome Trust, The Shard, the Medical Research Council and Selfridges. This is their first piece for a Cambridge or Oxford college.

Haberdashery began the collaboration with the search for a compelling story: “when we find such a story, it’s about turning that story into a 3 dimensional piece with light”. Upon learning about the College’s 150 year history of women’s education and empowerment, they were determined to find techniques that could celebrate that content in an authentic and honest way.

Working with the archivists and College members, they selected twenty pieces from the archives, which are repeated through the 270 pages of the sculpture. “We wanted something that visually flows through the space, that looks exciting from whatever area of the room you’re in,” explained co-founder Ben Rigby.

The pieces include

  • A letter by archaeologist Prof Dorothy Garrod, first female Professor at Cambridge
  • A letter from Anne Jemima Clough, the College’s first Principal, to Horace Darwin
  • A letter home by Mary Hutton, one of the College’s first students
  • The estimate for repairs to the Clough Gates, after the ‘Storming of the Gates’ in 1921
  • A photograph of Anne Jemima Clough and the first five Newnham students of 1871
  • A letter home from Newnham student Rosalind Franklin, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA
  • Second Principal Eleanor Sidgwick’s 1890 publication of Health Statistics of Women Students
  • Mathematician Phillippa Fawcett’s travel journal from Japan
  • A letter from Newnham’s architect, Basil Champneys, to Henry Sidgwick
  • A 19th century student’s satirical sketch of Henry Sidgwick giving ‘Lectures for Ladies’
  • A 19th century student’s cartoons of Tripos exams
  • A comic play by Newnham students from 1906

Portrait of Prof Dame Carol Black by Saied Dai RA

Saied Dai’s portrait of Dame Carol hangs in the new Entrance Hall. Completed earlier in 2018, the portrait shows the sitter wearing a white oriental style silk jacket with a length of blue silk draped over her shoulders against a background of bamboos and other foliage inspired by a design on an eighteenth-century oriental lacquer folding screen in the atrium of Lloyd Lodge.

Chosen for his original, meticulous and timeless style, Dai, born in Tehran in 1958 was trained at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design, before studying at the Royal Academy of Arts. He later taught at the RA Schools and at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture.

Dai writes that Dame Carol and he ‘spent a considerable amount of time choosing the clothing – the criteria for which was to select something that would offer a simplicity of design, a good silhouette and most importantly, a combination that would appear as timeless as possible. I added the silk material to create movement and rhythm, in an otherwise static image’.

Dai’s interest in geometry is revealed in the sharp angles of his preliminary drawing for the portrait. He says that the screen ‘provided simple musical intervals and a crisp geometry that was also lyrical – so a good balance of both masculine and feminine elements’. His technique, using oil painted on a gessoed panel, employs the same materials as described by the Renaissance artist and author, Cennino Cennini, in his seminal book on painting, Il Libro del’ Arte (c. 1400). This choice of technique, in which the paint bonds with the surface to create a unified object, conveys a monumental, icon-like quality to the painting.

The portrait handsomely framed in gold by the artist and placed prominently in the new entrance to the College carries a message of modernity linked to tradition.

The hidden portrait of Blanche Athena Clough

The portrait of Blanche Athena Clough (1861-1960), Newnham’s fourth Principal, hangs on the wall of the SCR. She is portrayed in sombre mood, unseeing as she looks straight ahead lost in thought. By the artist William Nicholson, the portrait shows her as a distinguished administrator; her hands are folded on a table and a book and some papers are spread out before her. It hardly shows the warm and sympathetic personality for which Blanche Athena was remembered by students and colleagues alike.

Now, a re-discovered painting, hidden for 90 years, shows the Blanche Athena Clough that her colleagues knew – and suggests that the sombre expression was a very deliberate, and second, choice…

The well-known portrait of Blanche Athena Clough in sombre mood

The well-known portrait, with the sombre expression, was commissioned to mark the retirement of Blanche Athena Clough as Principal of Newnham in 1923, and signed and dated in 1924 by Nicholson.

Two years ago, the portrait was lifted off the wall in the SCR where it had hung for almost a century. Lining the canvas, a second canvas was discovered and around its edges a layer of greenish-grey pigment could just be seen. This suggested to paintings conservator, Julie Crick, the possibility that another work by the artist might be on its other side.

Julie’s hunch was to prove correct. On separating the two canvases she found there was indeed a second painting – the artist’s original, abandoned version of the portrait. While the lower half remained unfinished, with one sleeve and the hands sketched in broad outline only, the head was fully worked up and showed a rather different expression on Blanche Athena’s face: here, by contrast to the finished version, her eyes are alert, catching the light from the window as she appears to look out on to the gardens she was instrumental in creating, with a half-smile playing on her face.

The lost portrait of Blanche Athena Clough shows her smiling.

We will never know of the conversation that went on between artist and sitter and what led  Nicholson to decide to alter Blanche Athena’s expression so crucially. Having painted a thin ‘veil’ of white pigment over the head, as if to alter just that part of the portrait, he then abandoned the whole painting and started again – but someone chose to preserve the original beneath the replacement.

Now framed and hanging in the SCR near the finished portrait, the find is a rare example of an artist’s discarded earlier version of a work to be preserved in this way. It leaves us with more puzzles than it answers about this complex woman.

Tea at Newnham

Amongst the decorative art collections at Newnham are a number of items associated with the traditional college ritual of tea parties in student rooms. Several Victorian copper kettles survive from the earliest days of college life, together with a brass trivet for resting the boiling kettle.

Accounts left by students of earlier generations frequently include lively memories of tea, as well as cocoa, parties…

Archive photo from 1941, a group of Newnhamites gathered round the table for tea and cake.

A photograph in the Archives shows a group of undergraduates in 1941 gathered around a tea table bearing cake and jam, with one toasting bread or crumpets on the coal fire in the grate.

Different articles of tea china from various later periods have emerged from cupboards, including a plain white tea pot and plate adorned with the College coat-of-arms. A jam or butter dish decorated with a coloured print of Clough gates has recently been presented to the collections by an alumna. And on display in the SCR is a wooden tea caddy (which even contains the remains of different sorts of tea leaves in its inner compartments), carved in a distinctively Arts and Crafts style, and proudly bearing the initials ‘NC’ engraved in a shield on its front. The survival of these and other objects, some homely and some decorative, all help to tell the story of the College and preserve aspects of its distinctive character.

Old furniture and its stories in students’ rooms

Newnham is unique among Cambridge colleges for the eighteenth and nineteenth-century oak furniture which adorns its student rooms. The majority of pieces – bureaus, coffers (once jokingly called ‘coffins’ by students), cupboards and tables, are in a late 19th-century revivalist ‘Jacobethan’ style, with shapes and forms, carving, inner compartments, and handles all deliberately slightly different. Many pieces, especially in Old Hall, may even be in the same rooms for which they were originally made.

There is a quirkiness about some pieces, and in others a story…

Many bureaus have names and dates written or carved inside them. A particular tradition is the signing of owners’ names and dates on the pull-out secret compartments fitted either side of central pigeon holes, while with careful examination other inscriptions may turn up elsewhere. The oldest inscription so far discovered is in a copperplate hand on a desk surface, ‘John Norris, 1779, aged 20 years’ – surely a member of the 18th-century East Anglian Norris family of joiners who left his maker’s mark. The way human lives are connected through successive use of furniture conveys a vivid sense of history and continuity between one generation and the next. Three students have recounted what the old furniture in their rooms means to them.

Coffer, Old Hall 306

‘Living in one of the wonderful ‘tower rooms’ of Old Hall this year, I have lots of beautiful furniture in my room, including a corner cabinet, bureau and coffer. These make the room feel both unique and homely, as I’m sure they did when they were used and loved by previous generations of Newnhamites. Being trusted to treasure and enjoy this furniture is one of the many reminders around college of our inspiring shared history at Newnham. I was even lucky enough to buy copy of a Canaletto painting of Venice from the Newnham collection for the bargain price of £2. It now hangs in my room alongside my antique furniture as the perfect final touch to the most beautiful university room I’ve ever seen!’
(Isabel Lowe-Zinola, NC 2014, OH 306)

Secret compartment in bureau, Peile 223

‘In fourth year, I discovered a secret compartment inside my bureau. Over the years its finders had written their names and years inside and I quickly added my own. Inside I found a diary. It was not from that long ago and so I was excited by the chance to play detective and reunite it with its owner. Armed with just the first name and year of arrival in the college, I went to see if I could find any clues in Newnham library. Luck played a big part as of only two yearbooks in the library, one of them corresponded with the owner’s dates; she was very pleased to have her diary back! I like to imagine that the bureau kept it safe throughout countless moves around the college’.
(Catriona Corke, NC 2012, Peile 223)

Bureau, Peile 123

‘Every time I enter one of the rooms in Newnham I am grateful for and amazed at the unique pieces that have adorned the rooms of inspiring women for decades and will go on to do so for many more to come. My favourite piece is my oak bureau that serves as a chest of drawers for my clothes. I had heard of secret compartments in similar pieces and, lo and behold, I found a false base in the top section of mine. The carved groove that allows you to draw back the thin plank of wood is worn down by so many hands over the years, sliding it open to discreetly hide away letters or cherished treasures. I use it to hold my knickers. I love this idea of inheritance, that we are the temporary guardians of these beautiful items of furniture and our marks left on them (deliberately or not) will remind future students of the history and heritage of our magnificent college’.
(Georgina King, NC 2016, Peile 123)

Two Rembrandt etchings rediscovered

In early 2017, two etchings by the preeminent seventeenth-century Dutch artist Rembrandt emerged from the collections, one hanging high up on a wall, and another amongst the framed prints and drawings in store.

One of the etchings depicts a biblical scene while the other is a secular subject; both are late works by the artist, signed and dated 1658.

Neither was documented in the inventories or in the Archives…

Christ and the woman of Samaria

The biblical print, of Christ and the woman of Samaria (fig. 1) depicts the account in St John’s gospel where Christ tells a Samaritan woman who draws water from a well that ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’. The secular print of a Reclining Female Nude (fig. 2) is one of Rembrandt’s most atmospheric etchings of female nudes, showing a naked woman from behind, lying languorously in the shadows of a curtained bed. Traditionally called the Negress Asleep it was assumed to portray a black woman, but this seems to have been a misunderstanding of the artist’s intention to explore the subtle effects of shadow across the nude form.

Reclining Female Nude (traditionally called the Negress Asleep)

Both prints come from the collection of Dr Winifred Joan Wadge (NC 1923), who bequeathed her furniture, pictures, silver and books to the College in 1986. The Rembrandt prints are just two items amongst others in the bequest which indicate that Dr Wadge was a discerning collector.

A portrait of Hubert Parry by Harold Rathbone, 1898

A striking and unusual portrait of the composer Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) was recently rediscovered in the College collections. Executed in coloured chalks by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Harold Rathbone (1858-1929), it portrays the composer in a fresh and unpretentious way.

Drawn when he was 50 in the year he was knighted by Queen Victoria, he is shown not formally in academic robes, but looking dapper in a suit, brimmed felt hat, and sporting a rose in his button hole. He is seated in front of his piano, with an open score spread out behind him…

Portrait of Hubert Parry by Harold Rathbone, 1898

The portrait is inscribed, ‘Hubert Parry, with fond wishes from Harold Rathbone, 1898’, indicating that it was not a commission, but a gift by the artist to the sitter. The drawing seems to have returned to the artist after Parry’s death, as in 1925 it was gifted to the College jointly by Rathbone and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Parry was a strong supporter of women’s education and the suffrage movement, while Millicent and her husband Henry Fawcett were music lovers, and these shared interests cemented a friendship between them. After Millicent heard Parry’s Jerusalem performed in the Albert Hall in 1918, she asked the composer if it could be used thereafter as the Suffrage anthem.

The portrait has undergone conservation, and will go on display in the College, fittingly in this centenary year both of Parry’s death, and the granting of the vote to selected women.