Wadham In Objects: The College Paintings

13th March 2017

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A Warden who lasted less than four months, the laundress who claimed to have lived to 120 and a portrait discovered rolled in a coal-hole were among secrets revealed through Wadham's magnificent art collection.

  • Stephen Goss leads College members on a tour of the Hall portraits

    Stephen Goss leads College members on a tour of the Hall portraits

  • Warden Wright

    Robert Wright, the first Warden, rapidly got onto poor terms with Dorothy Wadham and stayed in office for only four months

  • Archdeacon Philip Bisse, whose gift of 3,000 books founded the College Library

    Archdeacon Philip Bisse, whose gift of 3,000 books founded the College Library

  • Sir John Strangeways, the benefactor who paid for the Chapel's magnificent east window.

    Sir John Strangeways, the benefactor who paid for the Chapel's magnificent east window

  • Former Wardens (top right) Maurice Bowra (below him) Claus Moser, (to his left) Neil Chalmers, (to his left) John Flemming, and (far left) Stuart Hampshire

  • The Royal Society corner (left to right) Warden Wilkins, Christopher Wren and Thomas Sprat

  • John Wills, Warden from 1783-1806

    John Wills, Warden from 1783-1806

  • Warden William Tournay painted in 1825 by Thomas Kirkby

    Warden William Tournay painted in 1825 by Thomas Kirkby

  • John Lovelace

  • Walter Blandford, Warden from 1659 -1665, whose portrait hangs in the Old Senior Common Room

Of Wadham’s 230 pictures, some 160 hang in College today according to Dr Stephen Goss, Emeritus Fellow with responsibility for the College picture collection.

Having held this position for the past 35 years, Stephen is enjoying the opportunity he has had since retirement in 2016 “finally to get to grips with it.” He told the audience of 25 Wadham College members attending the latest 'Wadham in Objects' event that when you encounter things in the same place every day they easily become ‘invisible.’ He saw his talk as an opportunity for us to gain a proper appreciation of the importance of the College’s legacy in art.

The lighting conditions in the Hall make true appreciation of the pictures there a little challenging, and Stephen had arranged for some temporary additional lighting which showed the full splendor of our best paintings.  He started by considering four early seventeenth-century on oak panels.

The 1611 portraits in Hall of founders Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham appear to be derived from sixteenth-century versions such as those in the Warden’s Lodgings. In the 1611 versions, it is indicated that Nicholas had by then died, his right arm being somewhat awkwardly adapted so his hand can rest on a skull; and the Dorothy’s face, possibly painted from life, shows her now as an older and perhaps milder woman than in the earlier version. In the case of our earliest portraits, the identity of the painter is unknown, though progress is currently being made by scholars in Yale in attributing west-country portraits such as these to a common painter with a small number of assistants.

Another fine panel painting shows the first Warden, Robert Wright, in a beautifully painted white Bishop’s rochet. This portrait dates from 1632 by which time he had become Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. A falling out with Dorothy combined with his desire to get married, which was against the College statutes, meant that he was Warden for only four months – our shortest serving Warden.

Most striking of all is the portrait of benefactor Archdeacon Philip Bisse, painted in 1612 on an exceptionally large oak panel. It shows him in a scarlet doctoral chimere and was commissioned by Dorothy Wadham to be hung in the College Library. It now has pride of place on the right side of the great south window of Hall.  Stephen explained that Bisse, a friend of the Wadham’s, had donated some 3,000 books to the College to found the library – a gift that has been estimated as worth between two and three times the purchase-price of the land on which the College was built.

Wood panels are notoriously easily damaged by sustained changes in temperature and humidity.  The Hall shows only short-lived fluctuations around meal times, and the otherwise constant environment has contributed to the excellent condition of these 400-year-old portraits.

To the left of the south window hangs a large portrait on canvas of Sir John Strangeways, nephew of Nicholas Wadham and another early and important benefactor. He donated 113 guineas in 1622 for the Flemish glass of the east window of Chapel. His portrait, painted after the Restoration in 1663, was framed in what was then the latest fashion, elaborately carved in the ‘Sunderland’ style. This portrait, which only last summer had been given a light cleaning and the frame repaired and reguilded with gold leaf, looked especially fine under the additional lighting.

The modern group of paintings of recent Wardens comprises Maurice Bowra, Claus Moser, John Flemming, Stewart Hampshire and Neil Chalmers. The portrait of Claus Moser by Tom Philips has a rich iconography combining the College and Moser’s love of opera, the background showing the night-time garden scene from the end of the Marriage of Figaro, with figures lit by footlights and with the moon shining through the boughs of the 350 year old Wadham beech tree which dominated the Fellows’ Garden until it had to be felled in the late 1990s. The College has paintings of 21 out of its 27 past Wardens.

Wadham’s connection to the founding of the Royal Society is highlighted by the three paintings of Warden Wilkins, Christopher Wren and Thomas Sprat. The portrait of Wilkins is a fine painting by John Greenhill, but Dr Goss remarked that the others, despite the significance of their subjects, are unfortunately nineteenth-century copies of little merit.

The tour continued up the spiral staircase into the Old Senior Common Room, one of the College’s finest rooms with its late seventeenth-century panelling.  Here we saw another portrait of Warden Wilkins (painted after the Restoration by a woman painter, Mary Beale, whose career was aided by support from the court painter Sir Peter Lely), with, on one side a portrait of Seth Ward (another founder member of the Royal Society), and on the other, a portrait of Robert Blake (a Parliamentary soldier subsequently famous as a successful admiral during the Commonwealth).  Wilkins had been imposed on the College after the Civil War.  Fortunately, both his successor in the Wardenship from 1659, Walter Blandford (shown in another portrait in the same room), and Seth Ward subsequently proved very acceptable to Charles II.

Moving to the balcony the tour viewed the large and splendid portrait of Sir John Lovelace (by Marcellus Laroon) which dominates the north end of Hall.  Lovelace had played a key part in deposing James II and arranging for William and Mary to be brought from the Netherlands, and this portrait had recently featured in the BBC television’s programme on the Glorious Revolution.  We noted that the College has portraits of Charles I (after Van Dyke) and William III (after Godfrey Kneller) in the Old Library.  Our paintings constitute some record of the involvement of the College in the political turmoil of the seventeenth century as well as the scientific revolution leading to the foundation of the Royal Society.

  • Wadham's third Warden, William Smyth, painted in 1635 by Gilbert Jackson

  • Dorothy Wadham, painted in 1595, looking strong and determined

  • Nicholas Wadham

  • Scottish poet James Thomson whose portrait was found rolled up in a coal-hole in College.

  • Laundress Alice George who claimed she reached more than 110 years of age

  • Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961)

    Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961)

In the Long Room of the Warden’s Lodgings, the group viewed the 1595 pictures of Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham as well as a superb portrait of the College’s third Warden William Smyth.

There was also on show a collection of engravings and watercolours of the College and its gardens which, with a late seventeenth-century panel painting, showed both the real and, in some cases, imagined development of the College site.

Sir Thomas Beecham, whose portrait hangs in the music room named in his honour, was a student at Wadham for a year before he left to become a professional musician. The portrait, which had been commissioned by Lady Cunard, was offered to the College in 1927 through F.E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead) acting as intermediary.  However, the College turned that offer down, and it was not until Maurice Bowra became Warden that the portrait was offered again and accepted.

A portrait of the Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748), which had reportedly spent part of its time neglected and rolled up in a College coal-hole, is one of the portraits in the new Senior Common Room. Thomson hangs opposite his patron, Speaker Onslow (a Fellow Commoner of the College). But perhaps the most popular portrait in the room is that of the former College Laundress Alice George, painted in 1691 by Wilhelm Sonmans. Stephen quoted from a record prepared by John Locke which claimed that, by the time she died in 1691, according to her at an age approaching 120, she had produced ten sons and three daughters as well as having suffered several miscarriages. The secret of her longevity was, she said, a simple diet of bread, with cheese, butter and ale, and with a little sherry when she could get it. The only meat she ate was suckling pig.

Organised by Wadham’s Research Associates, this Wadham in Objects event was part of a seminar series using Wadham’s objects as starting points for multi-disciplinary discussions, seeking to engage Fellows and graduates alike in the College’s history and to ponder their role in shaping its future.

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