Is this the most important collection of women’s art in Europe?

In 1992, the president of Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University wrote to 100 artists asking them to donate works for display. As Jessica Lack discovers, the Women’s Art Collection has now grown to some 600 works, charting the history of art made by women through the 20th century

Harriet Loffler, curator of the Women's Art Collection, with Sun Stars Dawn, 1996, by Gillian Ayres. In the fireplace is Angel of the Annunciation, a 1930 sculpture by Renee Hetherington

Harriet Loffler, curator of the Women’s Art Collection, with Sun Stars Dawn, 1996, by Gillian Ayres. In the fireplace is Angel of the Annunciation, a 1930 sculpture by Renee Hetherington. Photo: Lesley Lau. Artwork: ©️ The Estate of Gillian Ayres R.A., CBE

It looks like something from a sci-fi film, a fantastical vision of glass, raw concrete and steel. At its centre is a giant dome rising into the sky flanked by four smaller cupolas, beneath which is a sunken courtyard filled with light, lush plants and shimmering water. Everything is pale alabaster, muted greys and vivid greens.

This is not the palace of some intergalactic empire but the women’s college Murray Edwards at Cambridge University, built in 1964 by the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who went on to design London’s Barbican complex.

Imagined as a manifesto for the education of women, the building is punctuated by moments of transcendence: rising staircases, ecclesiastical-looking windows and the vast concrete dome, all designed to inspire students to aim high.

Rose Wylie, Billie Piper (A Combo Painting), 2014 at The Women's Art Collection, Cambridge University

Rose Wylie (b. 1935), Billie Piper (A Combo Painting), 2014. Mixed media and collage. 24.7 x 25.5 cm. The Women’s Art Collection. Photo: Wilf Speller. Artwork: © Rose Wylie. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Unlike other Cambridge colleges, Murray Edwards actively encourages visitors to wander through its long interconnecting corridors, enjoy its gardens and marvel at its chapel-like library. It is the ultimate expression of the modern movement’s rational ideology: civilised, peaceful and egalitarian.

Central to this ideology is the college’s art collection. Founded in 1992, it is considered the most significant collection of women’s art in Europe. The works date from 1900 to the present day, beginning with a drawing by the 19th-century American Impressionist Mary Cassatt and most recently including a 2022 portrait of the Persian opera singer Monir Vakili by the Iranian-born artist Soheila Sokhanvari.

Curator Harriet Loffler explains that the collection reflects the democratic philosophy of Murray Edwards. There is a relaxed eloquence to the hang: Rose Wylie’s billboard-sized Billie Piper is suspended on the back wall of a staircase; diners in the great hall eat under paintings by Paula Rego, Lubaina Himid and Maggie Hambling; and the library promotes the college’s feminist message through posters by the Guerrilla Girls. Outside, hard-edged sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Naomi Press are softened by the informal gardens.

Above and right: Mary Kelly, Extase, 1986. Laminated photo positive, silkscreen and acrylic on Plexiglas. Two of six panels, 122 x 92 cm each. The Women’s Art Collection. © Courtesy of the artist, Vielmetter Los Angeles, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

The idea for the collection took shape after Mary Kelly’s residency at Murray Edwards in the mid-1980s. In 2018 it received museum accreditation — ‘a huge moment’, says Loffler

The collection was the brainchild of former college president Valerie Pearl and curator Ann Jones following a residency by the pioneering feminist Mary Kelly. The American artist came to Murray Edwards in the mid-1980s, not long after her controversial exhibition at the ICA in London, Post-Partum Document, in which she painstakingly analysed her relationship with her baby son.

Her work at the college was equally ambitious, exploring the experiences of the post-modern woman through the prism of the five passionate attitudes attributed to hysterical women by the 19th-century psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot. It set a precedent for challenging feminist work.

Paula Rego, Ines de Castro, 2014, at the The Women's Art Collection, Cambridge University

Paula Rego (1935-1922), Inês de Castro, 2014. Oil on canvas. 122 x 145 cm. The Women’s Art Collection. Artwork: © Dame Paula Rego. All rights reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images

In 1992, Pearl wrote to 100 artists asking if they would consider donating work to the college for permanent display. About 75 responded, among them Alexis Hunter, Maud Sulter and Paula Rego. Since then, the collection has grown to 600 works, charting the history of women’s art through the 20th century. ‘The process has been relatively organic,’ says Loffler. ‘Many of the artists were recommended by other artists in the collection. We see this a lot: generations of women supporting other women.’

The art speaks of the absence of women artists in the history books. ‘We have many who were associated with certain schools and movements during their careers but have been forgotten since,’ says the curator. These include the Abstract Expressionist Anne Ryan, who pioneered the use of collage in her prismatic works; the modernist painter E.Q. Nicholson, sister-in-law of Ben Nicholson; and Daphne Hardy Henrion, who is better known today for her relationship with the writer Arthur Koestler than for her acutely observed sculptural portraits.

Rose Garrard, Models Triptych: Madonna Cascade, 1982, The Women's Art Collection, Cambridge

Rose Garrard (b. 1946), Models Triptych: Madonna Cascade, 1982. Fresco panel, wood and acrylic paint. 180.5 x 97 x 133 cm. The Women’s Art Collection. Artwork: courtesy of the artist

In 2018, the Women’s Art Collection received museum accreditation. ‘That was a huge moment, because it acknowledged the quality of the art and its importance as a resource,’ says Loffler.

That said, the curator is keenly aware that there are gaps in the collection. She has worked with her colleague Naomi Polonsky to improve representation of artists of colour. ‘It stands at about 8 per cent, so we have established an acquisition fund to rectify this,’ she says.

The curators are also focused on gender. ‘The question of how we fully represent women is hugely important,’ Loffler says. ‘The college welcomes and supports all students who identify as women, and it is important the art reflects this.’

Murray Edwards College's vaulted library at Cambridge University

The college’s vaulted library. Photo: Lesley Lau

Caring for a collection of this size has its headaches. ‘It is not easy, because we have art where food is being consumed,’ she observes. ‘But that is very much part of the college ethos — it is that generosity of openness that makes the collection so unique.’

Would the college ever consider having a gallery dedicated to the collection? 'Absolutely. It would make a real difference to have a dedicated, contemplative space to display the art,’ she says. ‘How we conserve art for the long term is an ongoing discussion. Some environmentalists argue that we have to accept art has a life span.’

Dora Carrington, Iris Tree on a Horse, circa 1920s

Dora Carrington (1893-1932), Iris Tree on a Horse, circa 1920s. Oil, ink, silver foil and mixed media on glass. 11 x 14 cm. The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art. This work is included in A Spirit Inside at The Lightbox, Woking, until 14 January 2024. Artwork: © The Estate of Dora Carrington

Loffler believes the best option for now is to use facilities already in existence: ‘It is about being more expansive, loaning out artworks to other museums and organising touring shows.’

Currently the Women’s Art Collection is collaborating with The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art on an exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking, exploring how women and non-binary artists have depicted the female spirit. The show takes its inspiration from a collage by Dora Carrington of the Bloomsbury poet Iris Tree depicted as Joan of Arc, riding a white stallion, her famed cropped hair set against a midnight sky.

Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

According to Loffler, Tree loved the work and carried it with her like a talisman. ‘It is the perfect object to speak about the wider themes around female resilience and rebellion,’ she says. ‘Themes that are very much in evidence in our collection.’

The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, is open to the public daily. A Spirit Inside is at The Lightbox, Woking, until 14 January 2024

Related lots

Related auctions

Related stories

Related departments