Behind the scenes

13/07/2018

The exhibitions team are working hard behind the scenes to confirm loans and logistical arrangements for the delivery of the many portraits that will make up our exhibition Ladies of Quality & Distinction. Here, our collections manager Alison Duke recounts a recent visit to Westminster College in Cambridge to check over a portrait of Selina Shirley, Countess of Huntingdon.

‘Many of the portraits in our exhibition are coming from private lenders who often need a bit more support than institutional lenders as they tend not to have specialist staff. This means we have been fortunate to go on several outings to view some of the works being loaned for the exhibition.

'Recently, our curator Kathleen and I visited the Cheshunt Foundation at Westminster College in Cambridge to see the portrait of Selina Shirley, Countess of Huntingdon. The painting by Italian artist Andrea Soldi hangs in their beautiful library with lovely panelling and old wooden bookcases. It’s unusual as it shows not only Selina, but also her husband and two children. Most of the other paintings in our exhibition will just be of the ‘Lady of Quality’ in question.

'In addition to meeting Helen Weller, their archivist, to discuss the practicalities of the loan, we undertook a condition check of the painting for them. As we didn’t have a printed image of the painting I was required to dust off my poor drawing skills and do a quick sketch so I could mark it up as I examined it. A case of ‘don’t give up the day job’!

'We were all relieved to find that the painting is in good condition and a few areas which looked as if there were issues with the varnish turned out on close examination to be simply a light effect from the glorious sunshine streaming through the windows.

'Following the condition check, we walked through the building discussing how our transport company Gander & White would get it out of the building and into their truck. Fortunately there are several entrances and a very wide staircase so it should be very straightforward. Helen then kindly gave us a tour of Westminster College and told us a bit more about its history. The Countess of Huntingdon founded a ministerial training college in 1768 at Trevecka in Wales, which was renamed Cheshunt when it later moved to Hertfordshire, before a further move to Cambridge. She was clearly a woman of varied interests.

'Helen then took us into their lovely chapel with fantastic stained glass by Scottish artist Douglas Strachan and explained that the chapel was a war memorial in memory of William Black Noble who died at Ypres in 1917.

'Helen had invited us to stay for lunch and meet Rev Samantha White, the Cheshunt director, and on entering the dining room we were introduced to portraits of two further ‘Ladies of Quality’ – Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. They were twin sisters, biblical scholars of note, linguists and explorers who travelled widely across Europe and the Middle East during the Victorian period, and were founding benefactors of Westminster College, giving the land that the college now sits on. It seems that everywhere we go are wonderful women of note.’

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