The smiling portrait of Blanche Athena Clough – hidden for 90 years

The portrait of Blanche Athena Clough (1861-1960), Newnham’s fourth Principal, hangs on the wall of the SCR. She is portrayed in sombre mood, unseeing as she looks straight ahead lost in thought. By the artist William Nicholson, the portrait shows her as a distinguished administrator; her hands are folded on a table and a book and some papers are spread out before her. It hardly shows the warm and sympathetic personality for which Blanche Athena was remembered by students and colleagues alike.

Now, a re-discovered painting, hidden for 90 years, shows the Blanche Athena Clough that her colleagues knew – and suggests that the sombre expression was a very deliberate, and second, choice.

The well-known portrait, with the sombre expression, was commissioned to mark the retirement of Blanche Athena Clough as Principal of Newnham in 1923, and signed and dated in 1924 by Nicholson.

Two years ago, the portrait was lifted off the wall in the SCR where it had hung for almost a century. Lining the canvas, a second canvas was discovered and around its edges a layer of greenish-grey pigment could just be seen. This suggested to paintings conservator, Julie Crick, the possibility that another work by the artist might be on its other side.

Julie’s hunch was to prove correct. On separating the two canvases she found there was indeed a second painting – the artist’s original, abandoned version of the portrait. While the lower half remained unfinished, with one sleeve and the hands sketched in broad outline only, the head was fully worked up and showed a rather different expression on Blanche Athena’s face: here, by contrast to the finished version, her eyes are alert, catching the light from the window as she appears to look out on to the gardens she was instrumental in creating, with a half-smile playing on her face.

We will never know of the conversation that went on between artist and sitter and what led  Nicholson to decide to alter Blanche Athena’s expression so crucially. Having painted a thin ‘veil’ of white pigment over the head, as if to alter just that part of the portrait, he then abandoned the whole painting and started again – but someone chose to preserve the original beneath the replacement.

Now framed and hanging in the SCR near the finished portrait, the find is a rare example of an artist’s discarded earlier version of a work to be preserved in this way. It leaves us with more puzzles than it answers about this complex woman.


With thanks to Hannah Jones and Henrietta McBurney-Ryan