By Amara Thornton (Research Officer, Ure Museum)

Last week, University of Reading Art Collections tweeted a picture of a painting called “Roman Wall from Sewingshields Crags”.  This painting now hangs in the MA student room in the Archaeology Department, but it was first offered to the Classics Department in 1946.

Two letters in the Classics Department archive tell the story of this painting.  In early spring 1946, the artist Faith Ashford, a former lecturer in Reading’s Department of Fine Art, wrote a letter to Professor of Classics Percy Ure.

“Dear Professor Ure”, she began. “I did a painting of ‘The Roman Wall from Sewingshields Crags’ which was hung in last year’s R. Academy.  It is at present in the Tate Gallery for Dr Rothenstein’s inspection but I somehow think that they will not want to keep it. 

I remember your little Museum. I should very much like it to be where students could see it, especially those at some distance from the actual thing. 

If you would care to have it I should be very pleased to present it to you.  It was a piece of real hard + accurate work – the distance + the weather both making it rather a trial of endurance.”  In a short postscript, she added “I do hope you can accept it.”

Classics Department archive.

A follow up letter came in August, written this time to Professor JMR Cormack, who had succeeded Percy Ure as Professor of Classics at Reading. Ashford wrote,

“It gave me pleasure to learn that you were having my painting for your department. … I think you will find it interesting – it gives the stretch of the wall from Sewingshields to Whnishields [sic] – the Cragloch [sic] bit is unfortunately hidden behind Hot Bank – but you will be able to locate Borcovicium (Housesteads).  There is a storm-cloud advancing + the Lough is curiously ridged by a gale of wind, an effect that I have only seen in Northumberland, tho’ a Scotch friend tells me he has often seen the effect in Scotland.  I don’t think it’s very bright, the N’land landscape tends to be grim instead, but there is a certain excitement about it.  I do hope you’ll like it.”

Unfortunately for us, no other letters exist in the Classics Department’s archive that indicate the reception of the painting on its acquisition.  At the time the painting was offered Ashford was no longer at Reading – both letters were written from her residence in Newcastle.  But while she was based in Reading she became an active member of its artistic community. One of the founder members of the Reading Guild of Artists, she displayed work alongside her Reading colleague Allen Seaby in the Guild’s fifth annual exhibition and in other Guild exhibitions. She also showed her work in London – not only in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1945 but also at the Wertheim Gallery (one solo show in 1936, and one show jointly with Godfrey Grantham in 1937).

The connection to the Wertheim Gallery reveals Ashford’s milieu as an artist. It was a recently opened contemporary art gallery close Royal Academy in nearby Burlington Gardens (when Ashford’s exhibitions were held, it was at No 8, in the Albany building). Its owner, Lucy Wertheim supported many now well-known 20th century artists, both men and women, including Frances Hodgkin. A few months after Ashford’s second show at the Wertheim, the gallery had an exhibition of marionettes that included pieces by pioneering experimental film-maker Lotte Reiniger (performances were also part of this exhibition’s programming). The gallery closed in September 1939, as gatherings of more than 12 people were banned and the rooms requisitioned for war.

It’s not clear where Ashford’s painting hung on its arrival to Reading; my best guess is that it was destined for the “Romano-British Museum” which Percy Ure had founded and managed his colleague Frank Stenton (Professor of History) in the early 1920s. This would have been the obvious place for it in subject terms. The “Romano-British Museum” was transferred to the sole management of the History Department in 1957, when the University’s new campus at Whiteknights opened.  Ashford died ten years later.

References/Further Reading

Asford, Faith, 1946. Letters to Percy Ure and JMR Cormack. Classics Department archive.

1934. Art Exhibitions. Reading Guild of Artists. The Times. 10 November: 10.

1935. Individual Art Shows. Mr. Alfred Hayward … Miss Faith Ashford. The Times. 18 September: 10.

1936. Art Shows. The Wertheim Gallery. The Times. 17 September: 10.

1937. A Marionette Show. Entertaining Caricatures. The Times. December 8: 14.

1971. Obituary: Mrs Lucy Wertheim – Engaging Young Artists. The Times. December 15: 17.