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February 2014

Posted on 10/02/2014

A Romantic Treasure from the Fine Art Collection



Indian Miniature, 18th or 19th century, acc. no. P0506

For February I have chosen this romantic Indian miniature as item of the month. It is one of 20 in the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College Fine Art Collection. It appears to show an Indian nobleman courting a noblewoman. As in Romeo and Juliet she looks down from the balcony of a palace but unlike the star-crossed lovers their courtship seems to have a large audience. Like the other miniatures, this exquisite painting is from the 18th or 19th century and came to Royal Holloway as part of the private collection of Lady Christiana Herringham (1852-1929).

When Bedford merged with Royal Holloway in 1985, Lady Herringham’s eclectic private art collection joined the one that Thomas Holloway had bought for his women’s college. As well as the Indian miniatures the collection includes Japanese woodblock prints and paintings by Herringham and other women artists. RHUL holds one half of this collection, the other was donated to Newnham College, Cambridge.

Independently wealthy, due to her father’s will, she used her money to improve the lives of women. In 1888 she was one of the founding directors of the Ladies’s Residential Chambers & Co. which built accommodation for ‘educated working women’ and she gave money to found scholarships for women going to Newnham College. She was a member of the Artist’s Suffrage League and the managing director of the Women’s Tribune newspaper as well as a personal friend of Millicent Fawcett. Her art collection reflects these interests as it includes a number of paintings by fellow women artists including the Manchester suffragette Annie Swynnerton, who, in 1925, became the first woman to become a member of the Royal Academy since 1768.

Although now relatively unknown, Christiana Herringham was a ‘mover and shaker’ in the Edwardian art world. She was close friends with the art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) and the artist William Rothstein (1872-1945) as well as being one of the few female artists to receive praise from Walter Sickert (1860-1942) for her translation of a 14th-century Italian treatise on art. Her interest in early Italian art led her to found the Society of Painters in Tempera in 1901. This group spearheaded a revival of the medium used before the discovery of oil paint. She was a skilled artist and painted copies of works by Botticelli (about 1445-1510) and his contemporaries, several of which are on display on the way into the Picture Gallery.

Herringham fought for other artistic causes too. It was her money which founded The National Art Collection Fund in 1903 to buy works of art for the nation that were at risk of being sold abroad. The charity is now known as The Art Fund and they currently have 92,000 members.

Encouraged by William Rothstein she undertook a project to restore Buddhist cave paintings in Ajanta, India. This involved gruelling journeys through India to reach the site and daily trips by ox cart and then by foot to reach the caves themselves which were dark, damp and home to a large number of bats. In order to copy the paintings swiftly she enlisted the help of another British, female artist, Dorothy Larcher, and several Indian art students. The copies were exhibited at the Festival of the Empire held in Crystal Palace in 1911. It was through this project that her interest in Indian art flourished and it must have been on one of her trips to Indian that she bought the collection of miniatures.  Her high regard for Indian art motivated Herringham, along with a number of leading artists and experts, to found the India Society in 1910. Ultimately, her copies of the Ajanta caves were given to the Society although their current whereabouts are unknown.

This group of miniatures is one of the sections of the RHUL Fine Art collection that needs greater research and cataloguing. In the future it is hoped that they can be properly photographed and the images and information about them made accessible via the internet. A new computerised collections management system which we will be purchasing this year will be the first step towards this goal.

Laura MacCulloch, College Curator


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