24. Mary Bridgman, by an unknown artist

by Anna Clark – 4 February 2021
Anna Clark discusses how a portrait of the sister of St John's College's founder adds to our understanding of the intersection between gender and social class
Mary Bridgman.png Mrs Mary Bridgman, Sister of the Founder, unknown artist, H 40 x W 29.2 cm, oil on panel, 16th Century

If you have seen the College's numerous portraits of our founder, Sir Thomas White, looking down from the walls as we dine in the Hall or study in the Library, this likeness may be familiar to you. The sitter depicted is the remarkably similar-looking Mrs Mary Bridgman, his sister. She lived in Oxford and married John Bridgman, a mercer and Bailiff of the City of Oxford. (It has been suggested that the Founder first came to Oxford to visit her.) Their son William was one of the first scholars at St John's and another son, Edward, later became a Fellow. After John Bridgman's death, Mary married William Matthew, who held the posts of both Mayor of Abingdon and Mayor of Oxford. Matthew was also a mercer and had a shop in All Saints Parish, the area around where Turl Street and High Street meet today.

The apocryphal story often told in the College alleges that Mrs Bridgman looked so like her brother, a busy merchant tailor based in London, that she was the model for some of his many portraits. The similarities in silhouette, including her unusual headpiece, which follows the lines of White's cap, are undeniable. However, there are many portraits that commemorate White's wide-ranging civic patronage, which can be found in Bristol, Canterbury, Chester, Coventry, Exeter, Gloucester, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Reading, Salisbury, and Winchester. More likely is that these portraits were not taken from life and were instead copied from one another over a longer period of time. However, the stylistic similarities between our portrait of Mary Bridgman and one other copy of White in the St John's collection merits further investigation and will hopefully form part of my doctoral project.

My research investigates portraits of female patrons to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century colleges across Oxford and Cambridge, and it is exciting to find an example as interesting as Mary Bridgman here at St John's. Beyond her connection to St John's through her brother, the presence of this portrait in our collection can tell us much about the relationship of women from the merchant classes with the early modern colleges of Oxford. Women were restricted from entering colleges by statute, except in certain circumstances, such as for the collection of laundry or service tasks. However, the College Archives demonstrate that Mary Bridgman had an active relationship with the college. After the death of her second husband had made Bridgman a widow for the second time, she continued trading as a mercer. She regularly supplied the college with 'potts. trenchers. parchement paper and Inke' until shortly before her death in c.1587. She also lent linen and dishes for significant college events.

The display of her portrait in a space in which she was prohibited, and where the many other merchants who interacted with the college are not visually represented, is likely a result of her special status due to her familial relationship to the founder. However, it is clear that Bridgman was a well-known figure in the College and thought deserving of commemoration as a result of her own support for the young foundation. In 1580 the Visitor, an appointed overseer and regulator of the college, wrote to St John's asking the officers to '[c]ommend me to olde Mrs. Mathewe. I would have you often resort to her and put in remembrance of the good will she hath shewed to the College, & trust that she will leave some monument thereof, if God take her away'. The acquisition date of Bridgman's portrait is unknown, but it may have been donated by her daughter Amy Leech after her mother's death, perhaps fulfilling the Visitor's hope for some commemorative bequest. It would have been one of the first images to depict a real woman connected with the College (there was also portrait of St Catherine in the collection around this time).

Mary Bridgman's portrait was part of the growing representation through portraits of women in academic spaces in the sixteenth century, and has much to tell us about how female images functioned as part of male-dominated college communities. However, many of these women were of high status, such as members of the aristocracy or land-holding gentry. The presence of Bridgman as part of this group is important for our understanding of the intersection between gender and social class in this period. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, the few female university portraits in existence depicted elite women. Bridgman is indicative of the increasing, but conditional, access to involvement in these institutions by members of society who had been historically excluded. Against the backdrop of St John's 2000 Women Exhibition last year, it is a privilege to be able to study the early history of women's participation in the visual culture of the College.

 View the painting on Art UK here.

Anna ClarkAnna Clark is a second year DPhil student at St John's College. She works in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery researching the histories and afterlives of portraits of early modern female patrons in Oxford and Cambridge Colleges.