Founded in 1348, Gonville & Caius College is the fourth oldest college at the University of Cambridge, and one of the most distinguished. It has a particularly strong reputation in the sciences: notable members include William Harvey (who discovered the circulation of the blood), John Venn (of 'Venn Diagram' fame), Francis Crick (who together with James Watson first described the structure of DNA), and, of course, Stephen Hawking, who has been a Fellow of the College for more than fifty years.
And yet in spite of these impeccably scientific credentials, Caius (pronounced ‘Keys’) also owns some fascinating art. Over the centuries it has amassed a collection of more than 150 paintings, and like most other Oxbridge colleges, it continues to commission portraits of outgoing Masters to this day. The most recent, of the current Master Sir Alan Fersht, is currently being completed by Michael Gaskell, a distinguished painter who has been shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award no less than six times.
The collection is dominated by portraits of old men wearing robes, and if truth be told, even I as the College's Keeper of Portraits sometimes find them hard to tell apart. Nevertheless, there are some real treats to be found. We own fine pictures by Peter Lely, John Opie, Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, all of whom were important figures in the history of British art. We also own an evocative portrait of the young(ish) Stephen Hawking that tends to get our visitors excited. But though the majority of our sitters are male, we are also lucky to own some superb Tudor portraits of women.
The most remarkable of these depicts Joyce (or Jocosa) Frankland: a woman who was as generous as she was unfortunate. Frankland didn’t only outlive two husbands but also her only son, who was killed in a riding accident in 1581. That tragedy flung her into the pits of despair, until the Dean of St Paul’s offered her some advice. ‘Comfort yourself good Mrs Frankland, and I will tell you how you shall have 20 good sons to comfort you in these your sorrows… If you would found certain fellowships and scholarships to be bestowed upon studious young men.. they would be in love towards you as dear children’. Frankland followed the advice, and went on to make hugely generous donations to Caius, as well as to other colleges in Cambridge and Oxford, becoming one of the great female philanthropists of the sixteenth century. A touching portrait of Frankland hangs in pride of place above High Table in the College Dining Hall, together with pictures of her parents, Robert and Joan Trappes.
If I had to choose my three favourite pictures in the College's collection, I would select William Orpen’s magnetic portrait of Sir Hugh Kerr Anderson, which is a velvety symphony of reds, pinks and chubby cheeks. I would also choose an anonymous seventeenth-century portrait of the great William Harvey, which almost certainly isn’t of Harvey but comes creepily to life during candlelit dinners. And last but not least, I’d plump for Paul Gopal-Chowdhury’s austere portrait of Michael Oakeshott. The great political philosopher is shown in profile, seated at a table in front of an incongruous vase of flowers, and a copy of his 1975 masterpiece, On Human Conduct. I like to think of it as Caius’s answer to Whistler’s mother!
Dr James Fox, Fellow of Gonville & Caius College and Director of Studies in History of Art at the University of Cambridge
What's new on Art UK? Sign up to the newsletter and we'll tell you: art, stories and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every fortnight. Subscribe now and receive a discount code for £5 off all catalogue orders from the Art UK Shop