“As seen through the work of women”: The New Hall Art Collection at Cambridge University

Avis Berman

Avis Berman Art

Art pilgrims intent on making Cambridge, England, their destination should extend their journey beyond the university’s majestic Fitzwilliam Museum and its old masters and Kettle’s Yard, the fey modernist cenacle of British art between the wars, to include the New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College, one of three exclusively women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge. Unknown to many Cambridge students and faculty, and a substantial number of British art historians and critics, the college has collected and exhibits more than four hundred works of art by women. It is the most significant collection of its kind in Europe, and the second largest public collection of women’s art in existence, surpassed only by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., which houses some forty-five hundred objects.

Fig. 1. Sun, Stars, Dawn by Gillian Ayres (1930-), 1996. Oil on canvas, 78 inches square. On loan from Alan Cristea.

One of the most laudable aspects of this unsung treasure is the message its installation sends: art is for everyone. Paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints are not sequestered in gallery spaces. Instead, they are installed everywhere within the college, from the dining room to the corridors and the lecture halls. Their presence underscores the notion of intellectual freedom in a community of women living and working together, one in which individual expression is an everyday occurrence that permeates their lives.

Thus the collection is not so much a hidden gem as a multiplicity of riches hiding in plain sight.

Fig. 2. Gulf Women Prepare for War by Maggi Hambling (1945-), 1986. Oil on canvas, 48 by 57 inches. Gift of the artist.

New Hall College was founded in 1954 by the pioneering chemist and educator Rosemary Murray, who became its first president. She dedicated herself to making a solid academic curriculum a reality for women in all fields, but especially in the sciences, from which women were customarily steered away. Four years after Murray’s death in 2004, New Hall was renamed Murray Edwards College, in honor of her and of the Edwards family, who are major supporters of the institution, but the art collection, which was established before the name change, has kept its original title of the “New Hall Collection.” The college acquired its first work in 1986, which was a piece in mixed mediums by Mary Kelly (1941-), an American who was artist-in-residence there in 1985-1986. In 1991, when New Hall was approaching its fortieth anniversary and a development campaign was about to be launched, Ann Jones, then a curator at the Hayward Gallery in London, suggested soliciting artists for pieces of their work rather than appealing for money. Ten letters were written and, after nine successful responses, the college began a concerted campaign to assemble a broad collection of contemporary art by women artists.1

Fig. 3. Lucy Jones by Lucy Jones (1955-), 1987. Oil on canvas, 48 by 36⅛ inches. Gift of the artist.

In 1992 Valerie Pearl, New Hall’s president from 1981 to 1995, wrote to one hundred leading women artists in Britain and asked each of them to donate a work. These artists responded generously too, and the college received roughly seventy-five gifts. The collection opened to the public—visitors are welcome by appointment—in September 1992.2 The high percentage of donations also spoke to the situation at the time: many women felt that their work was not being seen nor taken seriously enough, and New Hall gave them an opportunity to have at least one work of theirs on permanent view. No work of art will ever be sold, and less than 10 percent of the collection is ever in storage-usually for reasons of conservation. Among the most striking of the 1991-1992 gifts were Maggi Hambling’s Gulf Women Prepare for War (Fig. 2), a commentary on the Iraq-Iran war with imagery redolent of Edouard Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and Francisco Goya’s Third of May 1808 in Madrid; Lucy Jones (Fig. 3), a self-portrait that the artist painted with expressionist rawness; and Anne Redpath’s Altar in Pigna (Fig. 4), a church interior executed in a rich impasto that deftly merges representation with abstraction.

Fig. 4. Altar in Pigna by Anne Redpath (1895-1965), 1963. Oil on canvas, 24 by 19⅜ inches. Gift of Jean Chamberlin for her architect husband Peter Chamberlin.

The New Hall Collection is nothing if not eclectic. It still consists chiefly of British artists, although the Americans Miriam Schapiro (1923-2015), Amaranth Ehrenhalt, and Judy Chicago (1939-), as well as Kelly, are represented. There are works from such earlier twentieth-century eminences as the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and the printmaker Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), and from leading postwar figures like Sandra Blow (1925-2006), Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993), Gillian Ayres, Bridget Riley (1931), and Paula Rego (1935-). Even two stars from the Young British Artists generation, Tracey Emin (1963-) and Jenny Saville (1970-), can be seen. But I derived the greatest pleasure from discovering artists who are not household names to American collectors and museumgoers but whose fresh images made me stop and pause.

Fig. 5. Large Plait No. 1 by Sarah Cawkwell (1950-), 1992. Charcoal and graphite on paper, 58 ¼ by 47 ¼ inches. Gift of the artist.

One of a series of self-portraits depicting the artist engaged in everyday tasks, Large Plait No. 1 by Sarah Cawkwell (Fig. 5) is a monumental charcoal and pencil drawing—it is nearly five feet high—that more than suggests that the particulars of women’s lives matter. In discussing the impetus for this series, Cawkwell has invoked Virginia Woolf, and two quotations from her are apt:

It is probable…that both in life and art the values of a woman are not the values of a man. Thus…she will find that she is perpetually wishing to alter the established values-to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important. And for that, of course, she will be criticised; for the critic of the opposite sex will be genuinely puzzled and surprised by an attempt to alter the current scale of values, and will see in it not merely a difference of view, but a view that is weak, or trivial, or sentimental, because it differs from his own.3
And:
Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’….And these values are inevitably transferred from life to…[art]. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop-everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.4

Cawkwell argues the value of recording women’s routines in her concentration on the complexity of the woven braid, which is intricately modeled and shaded. She also shows us the skill of the hands needed to style the hair. Gail Altschuler is also inspired by weaving as an artistic preoccupation of women, which she expresses through geometric abstraction that depends on a grid as well. However, no one would say that her oil Metropolis (Fig. 6), which exploits the power of color, is definably “women’s art.” Indeed, bold and blazing color is a primary element in numerous works in the collection, including the show-stopping Sun, Stars, Dawn by Ayres (Fig. 1) and the kinesthetic Three Streams by Ehrenhalt (Fig. 8).

Fig. 6. Metropolis by Gail Altschuler (1957-), 1997. Oil on canvas, 35⅜ by 36¼ inches overall (two pieces). Gift of the artist.

New Hall has a group of works on paper by the enormously talented Cynthia Pell, who was a prize-winning art student and critically praised painter before severe mental illness led to her suicide. One of Pell’s characteristic drawings is Cat Vomiting (Fig. 7), in which the animal is so alive that it seems about to growl and hiss-all accomplished with a minimum of staccato lines. A more familiar name might be Sandra Fisher, because she is American and because after moving to England she married the Cleveland-to-London émigré R. B. Kitaj (1932-2007). The couple fit comfortably into the cosmopolitan art scene of their adopted country, and Fisher documented the artists, actors, writers, and musicians they knew. Portrait of Jake Auerbach (Fig. 9) is an assured—and amused—meditation on the cocky young male artist as dandy. (Auerbach, the son of fellow painter Frank Auerbach, seems to be sketching Fisher while he’s posing, and a few years after this portrait was created he became a filmmaker specializing in portraits of artists.) For all its echoes of high style nineteenth-century and Edwardian portraiture, the depiction of Auerbach remains intimate, introspective, and individualistic in its lively brushwork and relaxed, sensuous color.

Fig. 7. Cat Vomiting by Cynthia Pell (1933-1977), c. 1976. Ink and crayon on colored paper, 10¼ by 7⅞ inches. Gift of Natalie Dower, Britta von Zweigbergk, andEvelyn Williams.

Sculpture is more difficult to display in public spaces than oils and works on paper, and there are fewer three-dimensional pieces in the collection, but attention must be paid to Wendy Taylor’s bigger than life Three Dung Beetles in meticulously textured bronze (Fig. 11). Taylor may have been fascinated by the insect’s shape or its role in the agricultural cycle—by ingesting and burying feces, the bug enriches the soil—but its lowly connotations make it something to be ignored or stamped out. On the contrary, Taylor enlarges the beetles by several thousandfold, forcing us to contemplate their place in nature and in our lives. Taylor is a veteran public sculptor, and her confidence and conviction surge through this work.

Fig. 8. Three Streams by Amaranth Ehrenhalt (1928-), 1984. Acrylic on paper, 24 by 25 inches. Gift of Anita Shapolsky.

The sense of discovery does not begin or end with the art in the collection. The Murray Edwards campus (see Fig. 11) might startle visitors who have been enthralled by the medieval spires of Cambridge’s historic grounds. As mentioned, the college was only founded in 1954, and its main building was not constructed until 1965. Its architect was the firm of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who was also responsible for the New Brutalist design of London’s Barbican Centre and the related architectural development around it. Like the Barbican, Murray Edwards is a distinctly contemporary building, but the overall plan is much more inviting than that of the Barbican. It pains me to put it this way, but the white-and-gray limestone brick cladding and the grand dome at the center of the building, which itself is ringed with gardens and plantings, were presumably chosen because they were seen as “softer” and “more feminine” than the materials and forms of the dark oppressive hulk in the London complex. In addition, the college’s walls and proportions work extremely well with contemporary art, although in situ photographs do not always register this compatibility. And once inside the building, there is great enjoyment to be had in seeking out pieces in the collection because visitors are given a chance to poke around in areas that are normally off-limits. When they are not in use, the faculty’s common rooms, including the dining room and sitting rooms, are open for tours, and viewers can imbibe the atmosphere while taking in the art installed in these private gallery spaces.

Fig. 9. Portrait of Jake Auerbach by Sandra Fisher (1947-1994), early 1980s. Oil on canvas, 60 ¼ by 36¼ inches. Gift of R. B. Kitaj.

The college remains committed to acquiring works of art, and one question remains: is such a collection still necessary when the presence of women artists is increasingly felt in museums, galleries, and the market? Certainly women artists are less marginalized than they were twenty-five years ago, but the quest for parity is by no means over. Maura Reilly, the founding curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, recently published a searching article in ARTnews on sexism in the art world. Concluding that “the existence of a few superstars or token achievers…does not mean that women artists have achieved equality,” Reilly reported that between 2007 and 2014, only 22 percent of the Hayward Gallery’s solo exhibitions were given to women, and at the Tate Modern, just 25 percent.5 The majority of British women artists do not find it easy to get galleries either. According to a 2013 survey of 134 commercial galleries in London, only 31 percent of the artists represented were women.6 This signifies progress if compared with conditions in 1960 or 1990, but it nonetheless means that women are not yet on an equal footing with men. Moreover, it would be wrongheaded to discontinue collecting at New Hall for essentialist reasons. The art acquired to date is wide-ranging in style, genre, and medium—there is no sign of an intrinsically female iconography or a preferred way of working.

 

Fig. 10. Murray Edwards College’s main building was designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and built in 1965. Fig. 11. Three Dung Beetles by Wendy Taylor (1945-), 2000, as installed in the stairwell under the dome, which leads to the college’s dining room. Each is bronze; height 11¾, length 33½, width 25¼ inches. Gift of the artist.

And by now, the collection possesses a historical resonance that should be acknowledged and preserved. In the words of Rebecca Fortnum, an artist who donated a painting to the collection in 2005, “What I really like about it is that it’s the one place I can go and see, all together in the same building, the work of all my female peers and colleagues. It’s an inventory of what’s happened to art in Britain over the past twenty years, as seen through the work of women.”7

1 Ann Jones, “Foreword: Looking Back and Thinking Ahead,” in New Hall Art Collection: Murray Edwards College (Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, England, 2015), p. 10. Jones is now curator of the Arts Council Collection in London. 2 Ibid., pp. 13-14. 3 Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” in Granite and Rainbow: Essays (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958), p. 80. This essay was originally published in 1929. 4 Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1929; e-book edition posted by the University of Adelaide, ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/ virginia / w91r/index.html. 5 Maura Reilly, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes,” ARTnews, vol. 114, no. 6 (June 2015), p. 40. Reilly also notes that in 2015 Tate Modern had retrospective exhibitions of Sonia Delaunay, Agnes Martin, and Marlene Dumas. 6 Ibid., p. 44. 7 Quoted in Joanna Moorhead, “A gallery of one’s own,” The Guardian, July 27, 2008, theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/jul/28/turnerprize.art.