Reframing the Collection

Deanna Petherbridge

Introduction to the 3rd Edition of The Women’s Art Collection Catalogue, 2004

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this new edition of the catalogue of the Women’s Art at New Hall, all the more so because it provided the opportunity for me to look closely at the growing collection. The previous catalogue of 1996 was introduced by a brilliant essay by Marina Warner investigating the making of a ‘Female Body of Art’, which together with Griselda Pollock’s address of 1992 dealt very extensively with the complex historical and theoretical positions which have shaped women’s art. I feel that I cannot meaningfully add to these wide-ranging debates, which were so richly investigated.

As a practising artist and teacher I know that, although many of the practical problems of production, exhibition and status of women in the arts still remain, there have also been profound changes resulting in a new spirit of confidence and daring. In particular, extensive artistic investigations and pragmatic changes in the social spaces of culture have resulted in the blurring of artistic boundaries, so that many male artists have been emboldened to deal with issues of body, identity and subjectivity which were previously claimed by women, just as most young women artists nowadays eschew an essentialist position as women making definably ‘women’s’ art. These re-alignments make it more problematic nowadays to define art production by gender, although most older women artists are very aware of questions of difference, whether they choose to acknowledge them in their practice or take them as read.

I am therefore going to take up a very different position from Marina and Griselda and attempt to give an overview of a collection which has gone through a period of reassessment and evolution in a building which has also changed. While acknowledging these changes, I want to propose that the Women’s Art at New Hall constitutes a specific body of work installed (indeed freshly re-installed) in an unique architectural space which frames and contextualises it in a very special way.[1]

New Hall as a college within a university represents a doubled utopian space: something reflected I believe in the strict geometries, domed central volumes and radiant internalised spaces of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s fine 1965 buildings, which have recently been refurbished by the Cambridge architects RH Partnership.[2] As a women’s college within a great historic university, New Hall is not an uncontested space, and its own history, however resolved within its academic status and architectural formulation, could also be said to prefigure some of the issues inherent in the establishment of a collection of women’s art.[3]  It is not by chance that the formation of the collection was spurred by Mary Kelly’s residency at New Hall and Kettle’s Yard in 1985-1986 and the acquisition of her work Extase, part of a larger photo-text work Corpus commenting on J.M. Charcot’s clinical studies of female hysteria.  Whereas the term ‘ecstasy’, from its Greek roots of ‘ex’ = out-of and ‘stasis’ = bodily immovability or state (so aptly appropriated for the popular hallucinogenic drug) evokes out-of-body experiences,  Kelly’s immaculate ordered panels present us with images of neatly folded rather than torn garments, and distanced fragments of textual commentary pulled from a hidden but rolling meta-text which has been re-framed into an intimate narrative.  By constructing contradictory and thought-provoking verbal and imagistic representations of containment and control, Kelly metaphorically appropriates, deframes and reframes areas of masculine authority in this six-panel work, displayed in the formality of the Fellows’ Drawing Room with its glazed wall on to the garden.  Her usage of these formal devices parallels the dignified ordering of the unshakeable – even phallocentric – modernity of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s authoritative architecture and the interesting manner in which it enframes and offsets the collection.

I’m surmising that it was possibly the austerity of the original architecture with its long perspectival colonnades, pale brick interiors and hard finishes, that contributed to New Hall’s decision to put together an art collection. Within the long perspective of the central colonnaded Main Walkway which gives access to the spectacular ‘Egyptian’ volumes of the library as well as the residential wings, courtyards and garden, the collection of artworks, however arresting or intense, fit into a strict geometric rhythm and proportional and progressive logic.[4]  In this context, each work invites spectatorial inspection: not as an aggregate but as an accumulative experience, contrasting with but also enriching the architectural narratives. Although the building has many registers, from grand open and glazed public colonnades to the more interiorised low-ceilinged corridors of student wings, where broken geometries provide short vistas and variety is achieved by the interpolation of unexpected stairs and windows, the architecture is never playful, although always impressive.  In the public spaces, large artworks therefore supply  painterly or sculptural drama and in the more private corridors, smaller artworks provide humour, contemplative repose or intimacy for the student population.  In the communal areas of the College, approached by a wide transverse corridor in which art is displayed, surprises lurk in the quadrupled circular staircases each lit by a cupola inside a circular tower which flank the dome over the Dining Hall as well as providing access.[5]  Ascending one of these brick towers to the extraordinary centralised refectory, where huge artworks are bathed in brilliant light from the clerestory fenestration, and the enormous dome floats effortlessly in a fluid space, is an amazing experience.  Here the Persian references (particularly Seljuk or early Timurid mosque and tomb forms) illuminate a building whose utopic and transformative modernity has little to do with Cambridge and England, and much to do with the optimistic generalisations of international-style modernist architecture at its very best.

The almost sacralised space of the domed Dining Hall seems an appropriate place for the hanging of large-scale works which epitomise another unique aspect of this collection. None of the works has been bought by New Hall: they have mostly been donated by artists, as an act of belief in, and commitment to what sociologists would call a ‘symbolic’ economy.  No money has exchanged hands in the acquisition of these paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics, fabrics and sculptures so that each artist has had to think very deeply, and possibly even make considerable monetary sacrifice in order to participate in this venture, as have the other donors who have given works.[6]  In Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis, an art founded on “the obligatory recognition of the values of disinterestedness and on the denegation of the [commercial] economy”  would appear to be at the opposite pole from a market which responds to demand and which is predicated on capital turnover.[7]  But as Bourdieu argues, in the field of culture, economic profits require to be reconverted into ‘symbolic capital’ through a “practical mastery of the laws of the functioning of the field and of its specific requirements.”  Within this space, which Bourdieu likens to a game with ‘sacred’ stakes which he rather cynically names the illusio, public museums and private art collections provide an important function in serving to consecrate art objects through the conferred prestige of their institutions or the amount and quality of public and critical acknowledgement which has accompanied the acquisition. As well as museums, patrons and collectors, all the other players in the field or world of visual art, including curators, critics, funding agents, exhibition organisers and gallerists, collude with these mutually re-enforcing systems of legitimation.

Extraordinarily, following the genesis of the New Hall collection in 1991 (based on a suggestion by Ann Jones, a curator at the Hayward Gallery, London) a group of artists communally waived aspects of economic and (immediate) symbolic gain by independently ‘gifting’ their works as part of an entirely novel, communal and untested enterprise.  (By comparison, the core of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC is a private collection assembled by its benefactors Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay.)  It could be argued that women, historically excluded from direct participation in economic and culture systems, have a vast hinterland in participating in cultures of ‘gifting’.[8]  And it could be suggested that an educational institution within a prestigious university operates as a protected locus for fostering transcendental values.  Nevertheless, the core group of professional artists who agreed to give their work in the early 1990s had all struggled very hard to establish their professional careers and knew exactly the price of being ‘put upon’ by colleagues and partners in institutions outside the blissful autonomy of the studio.   Giving work to New Hall was therefore a determined act of faith and idealism, especially as, in many cases, the works resist any system of even symbolic exchange by being in excess of requirement: what Derrida defined, in the context of an examination of gifting, as “beyond measure.”[9]

Of the large works which invigorate the vibrant spaces of the Dining Hall and which represent just such excess, Maggi Hambling’s Gulf Women Prepare for War (1986/87) is a particularly topical image in the face of another imminent conflict in the Middle East. The meaning of this group of black-clad armed women in chadors against a pink-toned, all-embracing desert background (where sky and ground resist definition) has taken on an added resonance. Where before the contrast of the head-covering robes of female seclusion had contrasted so potently with modern weaponry of destruction, today these figures read strongly as victims: forced into a state of aggression.  A second, but earlier grand canvas by Hambling, Hebe and the Serpent (1979), on loan from a private collection, addresses a rather mysterious subject, with a female figure (herself perhaps over-brimming but not obviously a cup-bearing Hebe) in the melting upper register, and an extremely menacing hard-edged phallic snake growing up from the frame in the lower, or cthonic register.  The smooth quality of the broad areas of paint and hard and blurred figural edges are very different from the nervous, broken rhythms and slashing impasto of Hambling’s recent Portrait of Mrs Anne Lonsdale (2002), hung with her charcoal drawing of  past-President Dr Valerie Pearl (1995) in the upper part of the long Fellows’ Drawing Room. Hambling’s range is considerable, and in addressing mythic or narrative subjects she is line with a powerful group of works in the collection which deal with myth, complex personal and intra-personal or political narratives and, of course, feminist symbols, stories and commentaries.


 The Shape of the Collection[10]

Monica Sjöö’s two large symbolic compositions, presently installed on a diagonal axis in the Dining Hall, draw on female archetypes by drawing in dry paint which evokes the chalkiness and permanence of fresco. The earth-mothers arranged in a tight organisation around a circular central mandala in Earth is Our Mother (1984) project the cult solemnity of an essentialist counter-icon.  Although the tall Byzantine Marian figure on the right dominates her sculptural counterparts representing African, American and Indian goddess-cults they are all tied into the unity of a symbolic landscape of rocks and vaginal caves.  Hooded rocks are pregnant with imminence in Dancing Women, Dancing Stones (1993) and the ritual dance takes place on a wide-open plain, with a spiral earth maze on the right repeated in the sun disc which the standing figure on the left holds above her head as a variant form of Egyptian Hathor with a reflecting sun fixed between her cow’s horns. An open plain which acts as the indeterminate locus of mythic action or dreamlike states (evoking le Douanier Rousseau) also appears in Jennifer Mellings’ Lilith and Eve at Twilight (1991) where Lilith, the consort of Adam Cadmon in the form of a sleeping leopard, faces away from a standing Eve.[11]  By contrast, huge hieratic female heads dominate Amanda Faulkner’s painting Alive as You or Me (1987).  Mythic disproportions of scale allow these rock-like heads with their basilisk stare (one Medusa-like head is either devouring or regurgitating an infant) to dominate a frieze of dislocated body parts, which transforms itself into spatial depth on the right in a dreamlike manner.

Female anguish finds sculptural relief in Evelyn Williams’ All Night Through (1984) where the tumbled sheets of a lonely vigil have become solidified into the ropes and furrows of a stormy sea. A watery element also dominates Eileen Cooper’s Seasick (1989) where a male head floats dreamily between two female bodies, one heavily material, one spectral.  The struggle subdued could be characterised as the subject of Sarah Cawkwell’s Large Plait No.1 (1992) where the hands which have just ordered the subject’s head of hair are also preventing a stealthy rape of the lock! This very forceful drawing is supported by secondary graphic rhythms of opening and closing as analogues of plaiting and loosening, in centrifugal markings inscribed on the body in light pencil or heavy centripetal charcoal strokes which activate the background.  The gigantic scale and bold technique add grandeur to a quiet intimate moment, demonstrating that the personal can indeed be the political and the public. An equivalent ideology lies behind Maud Sulter’s Phalia, from the ZABAT series (1989) where the highly acclaimed writer Alice Walker appears as a muse, benignly sporting a huge bouquet of flowers in a large cibachrome print. The Muse of Comedy is usually spelled Thalia so one can speculate on the Pha[l]lus within Phalia and certainly the upstanding spikes of gladioli suggest a little extra subliminal comedy in this commentary on the Euro-classical hegemony of  references surrounding creativity. In Psyche Awake, Eros Asleep (1991), just such a myth about the psychic loss underlying creativity, Jacqueline Morreau holds in abeyance the moment when Psyche will unravel herself from the close physical interdependence with Eros and hold aloft the fateful candle which will destroy him.

Women’s consciousness and instrumentality in change are present in Rose Garrard’s iconic feminist work Madonna Cascade (1982) which holds the wall at the end of the South Walkway, another important colonnaded gallery space.  It features an appropriated self-portrait by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Judith Leyster set into an over-large frame which melts and cascades in accelerating rhythms to the pavement.  In like mode, Icarus falls to ground in an etched meditation on war by Sylvia Melland (1964), and he lands amongst the debris of destruction entangled in wirey lines as buildings erupt and implode behind him.  Politicised subject matter is also present in Ana Maria Pacheco’s double etchings from the suite Every Man Wears a Head on his Shoulders III and IV (1981), based on The Devils of Loudon read as a commentary on Brazilian politics. The corrupt, eyeless head bearing its shark teeth in No.III morphs into a sinister gas-masked figure in the paired print from the series, and both are lit by diagonal shafts of light which reveal the ominous, framed heads as if through a prison window. Social commentary is more straight-forward in Ghisha Koenig’s small bronze panels for the Blind School series (1987) which picture the group activities of blind children in the classroom, and which are poignantly small in order to be held in the hand and reveal their stories to the non-sighted.

Ghisha Koenig was moved by strong political convictions to make representational art and there is an important group of naturalistic works in the New Hall collection, which either celebrate facial or bodily likeness in portraiture, or record land and townscape, or are direct studies of nature, plants and animals. These works are of course never uninflected or unemotive, however soberly or imaginatively they aim to catch (or embellish) a perceptual moment. This is so in Ann Dowker’s Karina by the Window (1990) where the artist’s daughter is timelessly fixed in the painted solidity of her own room or Sandra Fisher’s Portrait of Jake Auerbach (early 1980s) in which the young Auerbach, isolated on a chair in the centre of the canvas, is the unabashed subject of an in-the-studio portrait, as is Joe in a Red Shirt (1993) pictured by Susan Wilson in a closer view.  Marlene Rolfe plays games with reflecting mirrors and photographs in order to bring all members of Family (1991) into the frame, and she scours her own domestic environment for unexpectedly low views of radiators and light sockets.  Of those artists who have wandered out-of-doors with sketchbook in hand to pay homage to nature, Margaret Ollett captures the spiky and slightly threatening skeletons of wintry trees in two passionate studies of forms in Cassiobury Park (1989),  just as Janet White confronts danger, death and decay in her pastels of North Sea coasts and bleached skeletons. The hidden menace of natural forms is picked up in Nicola Hicks’ Pig Skull (1992) which emerges from the washed background of the paper into a volumetric presence in the way her naturalistic animal sculptures used to be assembled from fragile raw materials such as straw and mud.

The poetics of representation are present in a small group of historic works by women artists whose careers spanned the twentieth century.  Nan Youngman (1906-1995) for example, paints a joyful Sunflower (1970) and Gwendolen Raverat (1885-1957) fixes a Cambridge view into an archaising circular vignette in the woodcut Mill Lane (c.1950).  Elisabeth Vellacott (1905-2002) who drew and redrew the Cambridgeshire landscape around her studio in Hemingford Grey as a portraitist might study a familiar face, celebrates the precise forms of Trees – High Summer (1966) in the palest of pencil lines. She lovingly and accurately records the rhythms of branches and foliage of these trees as if mapping an exact portrait of arboreal growth.  Vellacott often painted her cat as a feline alter ego, free to roam the woodlands, and Mary Fedden similarly does so, fixing Lulu into a hieratic pose within a still life of 1993. Her tiny painting of blustery Whitby Harbour (1992) catches a boat tossed on foamy seas just before it reaches quiet harbour, with practised simplicity and sophisticated reduction of means.  A similar sense of abbreviated skill dominates Madeleine Jorgensen’s (1900-1960) quick oil sketch of the Australian artist Clifton Pugh (c.1952), on loan to the collection.

Mary Fedden’s work presently inhabits the relatively domestic space of the long Senior Combination Room, and shares its pale brick wall with Laetitia Yhap, an artist of a completely different generation who has also managed to evoke an exceptional sense of place through the practice of rigorous selection and apparent naivety.  Knife in Mouth (1988/89) in a long thin horizontal format to match Fedden’s Whitby Harbour, captures the pebbly and tarry textures of a South Coast fishing harbour, evoking the smells as well as the sights of the working seaside.  Other landscape drawings in the collection, by Jane Joseph and the younger sculptor Maud Cotter present foreign landscape through a combination of fresh observation and practised manner.  Maud Cotter responds to the dramatic volcanic landscape of Iceland in a series of intense expressionist conté drawings (1990) and Jane Joseph summons a Footbridge in the Spanish town of Cuenca (1986) in partially abstracted etchings based on contrast of blocks of tone and fractured lines.

Abstract works form a large part of the New Hall collection, ranging from the vigorous colour relationships and baroque swathes of palpable brushwork in Carol Sutton’s narrow canvas Floral Tops (1986) to the flat brightness of Liza Gough Daniel’s circular Forgotten Beauty Spots (1994).  Painted in egg tempera on panel, the forms evoke camouflage as well as cloud studies and float in an ambivalent spatiality behind a dislocated triangle. Such ambiguity is very far from the strict geometries and authoritative colours of Jean Spencer’s constructivist paintings, or Dilys Jackson’s taut abstract bronze sculptures. It is interesting to compare Spencer’s white Square Relief (1976)  with Untitled II (1990) by Jean Gibson which is hung near it in the Council Room.  Although the latter is also a formal work of relief geometry, the manner in which unruly clusters of bubble forms seethe out from slits in the chalky integument is, by contrast, menacing and emotive. Others of the small group of hard-edge and minimalist works within the collection are also invigorated by the unruly suggestibility of optical effects. A small print by Tess Jaray Vault (1991) bends structural geometry in a taut moment of flexible inflexibility, and Summer 1991 No.V (1991) by Vanessa Jackson, who also operates within a framing process of strict decision-making, is enlivened by the spatial indeterminacy of strips and twisted bands encircling a central textured area.  Spatiality is, of course, like scale, the stuff of non-figurative art in its dependence on colour and form, and plays an important part in Jo Ganter’s large intaglio print Sienna (1997) where vertical marking float above behind and through a planar element of semi-solid sienna.  The vibrating horizontal line of Rebecca Fortnum’s huge canvas Dehiscence (1992) opens up or closes in on itself according to its location against simple areas of greenish colour, and the proportions of these masses are the contemplative subject of the painting.

Generally the non-figurative works are on a larger scale than works based on perception, although Mali Morris typically draws frames within frames in watercolour on small pieces of paper, such as Star Yard in Africa (1992), whereas Carol Bernstein’s cancelled frames, floating in a space activated by gestural markings, are on a grand scale.  I recognize how misleading it can be to use terms such as abstract or non-figurative, because of course formal and abstract preoccupations permeate all aspects of art making, as in Zarina Bhimji’s framed and decorative mirrors in her colour Polaroid Untitled (1989) which dissect and dissolve an architectural reality while displacing the camera’s eye/I from its own reflective centrality. Ineke van der Wal’s Red Diptych (1991), Anne Bruce’s The Field (1967) and  Julia Ball’s May (1990) all, in their very different ways, deal with a liminal position where nature becomes abstraction, and abstraction is denatured.  And in a similar approach towards and away from the (female) body, Felicity Shillingford, Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, Gwen Hardie, Brece Honeycutt and Rebecca Price suggest sexuality or issues of gender through processes of revealing and obscuring embedded within partially abstracted formats.  Dame Barbara Hepworth’s Ascending Form (Gloria) (1958) evokes hollowed-out archaic boat forms as well as a human presence in its textural abstraction, while Annie Collard’s curved strips of bright painted steel, Festive Feeling (1988) suggest the deliberate abstraction of the springing pose of a crouching athlete.  Within this context of suggestion and counter-readings, Kate Barton’s Cultural Science (Blue) (1998), which appears to aestheticise clustered cell-shapes floating on a blue ground, might also be dealing with the uncontrollable division of destructive cells, and signal a very painful personal reading. In a similar but more generalised conceptual vein, Vit Hopley deliberately invades a chair in a grassy garden with the discomforting geometries of an imposed diagram in Suddenly Science Falls Silent and Mythology Speaks (1992) while Jo Stockham wittily interpolates geography into a globe that also signifies an alchemical alembic, an analogue of the body, in the monoprint Human Geography (1990).

In trying to give an overview of the Women’s Art at New Hall I have fallen into the classic danger inherent in all catalogue introductions of having brought into prominence some parts of the collection and not others, and of having described some works and left many, many others unmentioned, including works which I much admire. I have, for example, not had the space to respond to any of the textile pieces or ceramics which play such an important part in a lived-in collection where college ritual co-exists with domestic imperatives, or comment on tropes of confidence or female vulnerability which appear in some of the self-portraits or thematic works. I can only apologise for such omissions and draw the reader’s attention to the very full catalogue by Ann Jones in which practically every donated or loaned work is reproduced.

began with a reminder that initially the collection had been contextualised within gender discourses, and I then attempted to re-contextualise it within an architectural and sociological framework as well as adherence to certain over-reaching types of practice. Without wishing to render asunder these constructions, I cannot resist framing a series of questions which have grown out of my looking at and pondering over the collection. Should the collection grow until all the architectural spaces are filled?  Or should the collection be finite?  As the majority of the work donated in the 1990s came from a particular generation of women artists, should this core group be reinforced by soliciting additional representative works to strengthen a coherent collection?  Is such a view strengthened by the fact that the educational and architectural restraints of the collection preclude time-based media such as film, video, installation or other new media?  Or, because one or two generations of women artists are so well represented, should only younger and older work now be coming in?  It is obviously not for me to suggest answers to such open-ended queries which no doubt inform New Hall’s curatorial policies.  They are meant to signal a belief that, because this is a young, dynamic and very particular art collection which has grown out of such revolutionary ideas and has not been fixed in stone or reified in any way, the very existence of The Women’s Art Collection engenders a lively and evolving debate.


[1] Parts of the collection affected by recent building renovations have been rehung by New Hall Fellow David Scrase, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

[2] 1990s extensions to the college include the entrance rotunda, new residence block and Kaetsu building by Austin-Smith: Lord.

[3] Founded as a women’s college in 1954 New Hall continues to have an entirely female student population, although there are male as well as female Fellows.

[4] By ‘Egyptian’ I’m implying a hieratic organisation of formal elements, as suggested by the central bisecting staircase in the barrel-vaulted library, not a collage of Pharaonic decorative motifs. The building evokes for me the stripped geometrical transformations of architects Louis-Etienne Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux,  for whom the term ‘Egyptian’ would have had this association. Obviously the dome and barrel vault also stem from Middle-Eastern models and vernacular traditions.

[5] The two public circular stairs are balanced by two private service stairs. A circular lift has recently been inserted in one public access stairwell.

[6] There are also a number of works on loan from individuals and institutions, notably the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

[7]  Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Susan Emanuel, ‘The Market for Symbolic Goods’, in The Rules of Art, Polity Press 1996, pp.139-73.

[8] Kim Sloan’s catalogue for the exhibition ‘A Noble Art’: Amateur Artists and Drawing Masters c. 1600-1800, The British Museum, 2000 charts the complicated manner in which both male and female amateur artists participated in very complex exchanges of gifts  and systems of valorisation outside of a monetary economy.

[9]  Jacques Derrida argued that the “true” gift is beyond economy in relation to Marcel Mauss’ seminal work The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies.  See Jacques Derrida, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1992 and also Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills, The Gift of Death, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1995.

[10] In attempting to supply an overview of the collection, I am comparing works from the collection as a whole in formal or thematic contexts, as well as occasionally commenting on the physical juxtapositions of the present installation.

[11] Lilith in leopard guise evokes the standing lion in Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy (1897) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York set in a mysterious empty plain with mountains behind.