Dr Imogen Tedbury has recently been awarded one of five collections research fellowships, to undertake a year-long research project on ten of our portraits depicting our early Principals and academic staff. We caught up with Imogen to find out more about this project and her role within the Arts Collections team.
1. Could you tell us about yourself and your role within the Arts Collections team?
I am an early career curator, working with Laura MacCulloch the College Curator to look after the College’s Picture Gallery and art collections. I manage our opening hours and public programmes, research and care for our collections, and collaborate with colleagues across the College community to make our art accessible and enjoyable to all. Before joining Royal Holloway Art Collections team in September 2018, I was a Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and before that I was at the Courtauld Gallery, the National Gallery and the Watts Gallery. My Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD, undertaken between the Courtauld and the National Gallery, explored British tastes for art from Siena.
2. We understand that you recently received a grant from the National Portrait Gallery’s Understanding British Portraits Network. What was the grant for?
I was awarded one of five collections research fellowships to undertake a year-long research project on ten of our portraits depicting Royal Holloway and Bedford College’s early principals and academic staff, an understudied feature of the College’s art collections. Both colleges commissioned portraits of their female leaders from famous society portraitists, such as Sir William Orpen, Philip de Laszlo and Francis Dodd, and these paintings are an unusual feature of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College’s art collections. These commissions attest to the Colleges’ pride in their Principals, who were all pioneering women leaders in the field of academia and education. The portraits also challenge assumptions about women’s portraiture and allow us to trace intersections between the professionalisation of women and modern British portraiture.
The project will have two outputs: a new permanent display of the portraits in the College, and a small accompanying catalogue, available in print and online. The fellowship will fund this publication and fund my research trips, enabling me to visit the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Centre for the Study of Irish Art in Dublin, as well as the art collections of historic women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, such as Somerville, Girton and Newnham. The grant will also fund a temporary backfill to cover my role while I am researching and writing.
3. You were just one of two projects to have been awarded extra funding. What are the plans for the further funding?
I was awarded an additional £4,000 to develop and co-produce a short film, which will serve as another project output. This short film will introduce the women Principals, the parallel histories of Royal Holloway and Bedford College, and the portraits in the new display. It will also elucidate some of the research methods behind the project and delve a little deeper into the women’s stories. The film will be aimed at current and prospective students, to showcase our history and art collections and to highlight curatorial and heritage career practices.
4. How does it feel to be one of five Professional Research Fellows for the Understanding British Portraits Network?
I am thrilled to have the time and support to research this special feature of our art collections, a project that is long overdue. As an early career curator, it is wonderful to be part of this cohort of fellows from museums across the UK and to benefit from the expertise and advice of the Understanding British Portraits Network and steering committee. Some interesting details have already come to light, including a surprising personal connection – my father’s godmother was the senior student who gave a speech at the unveiling of Orpen’s portrait of Miss Ellen Higgins in the 1920s!
5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway and within the Arts Collections team?
In a small art collections team there is always a lot to do, and every day brings something different. Day to day, I most enjoy giving talks about the art collections, which always lead to interesting conversations about our paintings – with students, staff and visitors from all walks of life. I also like thinking about all the people who have looked at our pictures over the centuries – including my grandmother, who attended Royal Holloway in the 1920s. It is wonderful working in a university collection, where there is a willingness to experiment and try new ideas, like the ‘welcome home party’ we organised when Edwin Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market came back from conservation.
6. What is your favourite painting in our Picture Gallery and why?
David Roberts’ Pilgrims Approaching Jerusalem(1841) is my favourite painting in our collection. Roberts captures the golden haze of late afternoon sunshine as a procession of pilgrims flock back into the city after bathing in the River Jordan on Good Friday. He painted several versions of this scene, of which ours is the earliest oil on canvas. As well as the Christian pilgrims, Roberts also includes three Muslims at prayer in the lower right of the canvas – it’s not exactly an accurate detail, as the figures are directing their prayers towards Jerusalem instead of Mecca (!) but their presence indicates Roberts’ intention to present Jerusalem as a multicultural, diverse city, a home to people of different faiths coexisting peacefully.
7. If you could be present within the scene of any painting, which would you choose and why?
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government (1338-39) is one of three frescoes he painted in the sala del pace (room of peace) of Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, where the government of the medieval republic sat in council. Lorenzetti presents everyday life in a bustling medieval city and its surrounding countryside, complete with dancing girls, shoemakers, princesses, builders on scaffolding, vineyards, happy pigs and rolling Tuscan hills. To be present in that fresco would be to experience the Middle Ages with none of the dangers and disease – Lorenzetti saves those horrors for the fresco opposite, the dystopian Effects of Bad Government…