On Sunday 19 June 2016, some 60 Bedford alumni and guests returned to their former home in Regent’s Park, now the much spruced up Regent’s University, to hear a fascinating lecture by Michaela Jones about Christiana Herringham’s life and art collection. Michaela received a Bedford Scholarship - the aptly named Herringham Scholarship - while studying for her Masters degree and this has now been extended to enable her to pursue a PhD focusing on the artist’s life and works.
The Herringham name is known to us through the Herringham building in Regents Park and the Herringham Collection in the Picture Gallery at Egham. But the name is that of her husband Sir Wilmot Herringham, an eminent physician who was Chair of the Council of Bedford College from 1920 to 1936 and who donated most of Christiana’s art collection to the College after her death, the remainder going to Newnham College, Cambridge. The remarkable life of Christiana herself is only now emerging from the shadows, stimulated by the “rediscovery” in 2014 by our College Curator of a portfolio of her paintings and photograph albums and an even more recently “rediscovered” collection of paintings and artefacts in Newnham College.
Christiana was a pioneer on many fronts. She was a talented and respected artist, despite giving up what little formal training she had to look after her 8 siblings on her mother’s death. She believed strongly that works of art should be accessible to the public, which led her to make numerous tempura copies of works by Renaissance artists, and to help establish the National Art Collections Fund - now the National Art Fund with over 100,000 members. She supported other women artists by commissioning and purchasing their works and she made history in 1922 when she became the first woman Associate of the Royal Academy for 150 years.
She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, campaigning mainly through lawful channels such as petitions and newspapers rather than joining more militant activities. She was also very practical: for example she was a Director of the Ladies’ Residential Chambers Company which provided respectable accommodation for women who were taking up the new professional jobs opening up to them, and she embroidered some of the suffrage banners herself.
Christiana was able to take advantage of the newly developed travel industry to visit, and fall in love with, India. Here she pursued her most adventurous project, copying the neglected Buddhist wall paintings in the Caves of Ajanta and displaying them, to surprised acclaim, at the Crystal Palace Festival of Empire in 1911.
So how did such a talented, recognised and well married person, disappear from view? Unfortunately on her return from India she began to suffer from “paranoid delusions”, and was quickly institutionalised for 18 years until her death 1929. One wonders how different her ending might have been with modern diagnosis and treatment.
There is much more to research about the provenance of both Colleges’ collections and about Christiana herself. We will follow this intriguing detective story with interest; and meanwhile Christiana rightfully has her own room named after her at 11 Bedford Square.
James Dixon, Christiana’s great great nephew, gave the note of thanks. He underlined how her life was a microcosm of Victorian society - the constraints on women but also the emerging opportunities for those confident and fortunate enough to embrace them, and how much depended on who you were and who you knew.
The lecture was followed by tea and cakes and animated conversations. Tours of the College buildings, led by current students, prompted hazy and sometimes conflicting memories. Was the brasserie formally the Post Graduate Common room? (Yes) Were the Refectory walls always decorated with those striking art deco designs? (No) What was there before the beautiful secret garden was created? (Gardener’s shed, veggie patch and general undergrowth seemed the consensus).
A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with warmest thanks to Michaela, the organisers Marta and Sue, the Bedford Society and Regent’s University.
Bedford Society Committee Member