Paintings are not a threat to black students

Oxford’s Oriel College has removed an 18th-century portrait, amid claims it is offensive to minorities.

Lauren Smith

Topics Culture Identity Politics UK

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Oxford University’s transformation from iconic educational institution to adult crèche is well underway. Recently, it emerged that Oxford’s Oriel College has removed a painting of an 18th-century duke, amid fears that students may be offended by it.

The painting of Henry Somerset, the fifth Duke of Beaufort, depicts the duke with a black servant in the background. It typically hangs in the senior library of Oriel, but at the end of last month it was moved out of the college to Badminton House, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Beaufort. Oriel has claimed that this relocation is temporary and part of a standard refurbishment. ‘The intention is’, a statement from the college reads, ‘that the painting will return to the senior library’ once the works are completed. But one source has told the Daily Mail that the painting was removed ‘in case it offended a student’.

Last week, the Telegraph revealed another potential culprit behind the painting’s removal – a South African PhD student and Rhodes Scholar named Alexander von Klemperer. Apparently, von Klemperer, who has since left Oxford, wrote to the college while he was studying neuroscience to demand that the Somerset painting be taken down. He also went after another painting, of British diplomat Charles Augustus Murray, which similarly depicts a black person in the background.

Von Klemperer – who happens to be white – claimed that both images were ‘racist depictions of people of colour as subservient and to some extent dehumanised’, and as a result could ‘further lead to feelings of alienation by people of colour or of African descent’. ‘The college has an imperative to remove these portraits from the senior common room’, he said.

This isn’t the first time that Oriel has been at the centre of a history-based race row. Oriel is home to that now notorious statue of long-dead colonialist, former Oriel student and Oriel benefactor Cecil Rhodes, which has for years been the target of ‘anti-racist’ protesters. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign tried, and failed, to have the statue removed, claiming it made black students feel ‘unsafe’.

Ultimately, Oriel announced Rhodes would stay, but only really on a technicality: apparently, removing the statue would be too costly and time-consuming. Instead, it opted to ‘contextualise’ Rhodes’s legacy by putting up extra plaques about his colonial escapades.

(Ironically, Rhodes’s philanthropy came back to bite him. The Rhodes Scholarship programme – set up with his money after his death, inviting international students to study at Oxford – brought some leading Rhodes Must Fall campaigners and von Klemperer to Oxford.)

Of course Rhodes’s philanthropy does not excuse his brutal colonialism. Nor does that painting with the servant depict race relations as we would now like it to be. But the idea that historical statues, paintings or artefacts can inflict harm on non-white people in the here and now is the truly regressive idea here.

The calls to pull down, cover up or ‘contextualise’ these artworks is unbelievably patronising. No one needs to be told that many people in the past held unpleasant views on race, slavery and colonialism. And it is beyond outrageous to assume that ethnic-minority groups are unable to cope with being exposed to these historical images. These ‘anti-racist’ crusaders – many of them white – seem to believe that black people are so fragile that seeing an old painting or statue is enough to send them into a panic or make them feel ‘unsafe’.

Oriel maintains that the Somerset portrait will return following renovations. But academics at the college remain unconvinced. Here’s hoping it does hold on to it. Not because it represents a hugely important – or indeed flattering – aspect of British history. But because keeping it would send a clear message that Oriel treats its students – including its black students – as grown-ups. Anything less would be an insult.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

Picture by: Oriel College.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics UK


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