Remembering Lisa Jardine with Professor Amanda Vickery
On Tuesday 25 February, Professor Amanda Vickery came to the Intellectual Forum to deliver this year's Lisa Jardine Memorial Lecture. Lisa made a significant contribution across many fields and areas as a Professor of Renaissance Studies, author, broadcaster, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryonic Agency.
Amanda's lecture centred around the post-war beauty contest, which was interwoven in the leisure and parochial culture of the working and middle classes. Using case studies of Miss Great Britain, Amanda took the audience on a visual tour of women's beauty competitions and standards of the post-war era. She stressed that Miss Great Britain was a commercial brand, not a formal qualification. There was no national authority - no British Beauty Board - regimenting rival contests. It was down to the organisers to sustain their claim.
Amanda also explained that the Miss Great Britain contest was a highly visible performance of ideal femininity, hall-marking that which was desirable and normal for post-war women in every country in Great Britain. She told us how the contest spotlighted national and provincial attitudes to physical appearance, sexuality, and sensuality, as well as women and men’s accepted roles. She noted that the very title ‘Miss Great Britain’ raised a key issue for this project – that of national identity, ethnicity and race. Against a backdrop of anti-Jewish riots in the north-west in 1947 and successive waves of immigration from the Caribbean from 1948 and Pakistan in the 1950s and 60s, Miss Great Britain sustained highly specific conventions of femininity: white, Anglo-Saxon and ladylike in the 1940s and 50s, graduating to white, Anglo-Saxon dolly birds in the 1960s and 70s. She also highlighted that, despite the presence of black musical celebrities and Jewish variety performers on the judges’ bench, the acknowledgement of non-WASP ideals of attractiveness was very late and grudging. She concluded that the consistent feature was the universal acceptance of extreme gender asymmetry. ‘Mr Modern England’, a muscle competition on the central pier, did not catch on. Amanda observed that these contests exposed just how thoroughly accepted and unproblematic was the transaction between female beauty and male power – even in its banal local council manifestation.
Dr Julian Huppert, Director of the Intellectual Forum, commented afterwards: "It was a great pleasure to have Amanda with us, to pay such a tribute to Lisa - even wearing some of her former high heels! Her talk was a fascinating description of how attitudes to women’s beauty have changed over the decades, using an amazing archive of records of Miss Great Britain."
Before the lecture, some commemorative candlesticks were unveiled, to mark the 40th anniversary of the admission of women to Jesus College. Professor Duncan Kelly, the current holder of the office of Keeper of the Plate, commissioned Andrew Fleming, a young, prize-winning silversmith who was then Artist in Residence after completing his degree at the Glasgow School of Art, in late 2018. His brief was to design something commemorative, decorative and functional to add the College’s silver collection. Looking back over the archives and pieces connected with Jesus College, it seems like this might, in fact, be the first silver commission in such a fashion to have been undertaken in the College’s history (though the archivists may find otherwise!).
Professor Kelly said: "We wanted someone young, starting out on their career and connected still with an institution of higher education so that this would be of significant benefit to their career as well as being of obvious importance for the College. And we needed someone who could try and connect the long and varied history of Jesus College generally, and the foundational role of women here, in particular, tying them together into something that would work as a 40th-anniversary piece. This was a difficult brief in the first place, given the rather few full-time silversmith degrees still supporting this sort of work, making it the case that only a relatively few eligible people can be found who might have already finished their degree, but who would still have a significant connection with full-time education. Andrew has turned out to be an excellent choice.
"Andrew’s commitment to and engagement with urban forms and architecture, alongside silversmithing, allowed him to combine these considerations in a unique way. His 4-sided candlesticks, representing the original dimensions of the nun’s cloisters, the 4 notches on the sides that recall old-style clock candles though now with each notch representing a decade rather than an hour, and an overall angular effect that is similarly inspired by North Court, one of the most modern parts of the College and whose architecture is most connected to the broad time frame of the admission of women as undergraduates to this college, offers something that speaks to each aspect of the brief as we discussed it. The College will be delighted to add these new pieces to its permanent collection, which will serve as both a physical reminder of a significant moment in its modern history and an opportunity to reflect on the continued ways in which we can work to make this a still more inclusive institution for everyone."