‘1879’ and the Chapel Organ

Somerville College Chapel Organ circa 1940

The completed organ (Harrison and Harrison) and oak case (Courtenay Theobald)

The College archive holds much useful information about the Chapel and its history. Letters received have been kept, as have records of letters sent. There are consequently a number of bulging files of letters, carbon copies, postcards and telegrams. Some of this material is mundane; some of it is quite fascinating. In keeping with the Chapel’s controversial history, many of the letters are marked ‘confidential’, and one has even been sealed and re-sealed with sealing wax to ensure absolute discretion! In this blog, I hope to gradually relay some of the stories that have emerged from reading this correspondence.

When the Chapel was opened in 1935 it did not have an organ. It was not until 1937 that an organ was fully installed and dedicated. The oak case was designed by the Chapel’s architect Courtenay Theobald; the organ itself was supplied by Harrison and Harrison of Durham.  Unlike the Chapel, which was donated and paid for entirely by E. G. Kemp, the cost of the organ was funded by a number of members of the College.

In a confidential letter to a former student, Miss Margaret E. Roberts, dated 4th July 1936, Helen Darbishire, the Principal at the time, wrote that she lent the College £2,000 to cover the cost of the organ, under the condition that she would receive £50 repayment per annum until her death.  This prompted Miss Roberts (who also has a memorial tablet dedicated to her in the Chapel) to begin a fund-raising initiative to try and lessen the burden of this loan. She was joined by the four other surviving Somervillians who had first attended the College in its opening year, after which they named themselves collectively ‘1879.’ A document in the archives lists the names of 231 old members who answered 1879’s requests for money; donations which the fundraisers felt were a way of showing ‘in some practical way our thankfulness for the gift of the College Chapel by a former student.’

Reading Emily Georgiana Kemp’s Books

The Author as Chinese 'Female Travelling Scholar'

E.G.Kemp's self-portrait, from the frontispiece of 'The Face of China'

The donor of Somerville College Chapel, Emily Georgiana Kemp, wrote a number of books over her lifetime. By reading these it is possible to learn much about her experiences, and their role in forming her unique vision for Somerville College Chapel.

Emily travelled extensively and documented her adventures with her own watercolours. These are reproduced as colour plates in the following travel books: The Face of China (1909), The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan (1910), Wanderings in Chinese Turkestan (1914), and Chinese Mettle (1921). Each of these books follows the format of a travel journal or diary, often demonstrating Emily’s fascination in the various religions and places of worship she encountered. They also show her continued preoccupation with the welfare and education of women.

Emily wrote two books about the work of missionaries: a biography of her sister, Reminiscences of a Sister, S. Florence Edwards (1919), and a general account of the work of women Baptist missionaries, There followed Him, women (1927). In these she expresses her belief in the importance of women in Christianity, a theme expounded most overtly in her last book, Mary, with her son, Jesus (1930).

Emily, unlike her sisters, was never a missionary, but she loved exploring and encountering different people and places. She writes in Reminiscences of a Sister that her ‘imagination was fired with stories of adventure’ by accounts of missionary work she heard as a child at her parents’ home.  It is because of her love for travel, and the countries she visited, particularly China, that her memorial plaque in the Chapel reads ‘friend of China’ as opposed to ‘missionary’, and why her books are given over to documenting her travels rather than giving an account of evangelisation. An unfavourable review of her first book published in the Burlington Magazine in 1909, states:

‘Slightly attached to sundry evangelising bodies, she shows a moderate interest in the Christianising of the Chinese, and a much livelier interest in their country, manners and customs. On these she chatters shrewdly and agreeably, according to her own fancies.’

According to our College records, Emily also published a book on Buddhism in 1910 which she translated from German. Unfortunately, I have so far not found any corroboration of this, or the text itself.

Emily Georgiana Kemp

Portrait head of Miss Emily Georgiana Kemp by Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)

Portrait head of Miss Emily Georgiana Kemp by Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)

This sketch by Alphonse Legros is a portrait of Somerville College Chapel’s founder, Emily Georgiana Kemp (1860-1939). Emily left a significant bequest of Western and Eastern Art to the Ashmolean; she also donated the Chapel to Somerville during her own lifetime.

Emily was one of the first students to study at Somerville and upon leaving led an adventurous life, writing a number of travel books about her journeys in Asia. Over the next few weeks, more stories and images related to the donor of Somerville College Chapel will be posted.

Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) was Slade Professor of Art at
University College London, under whom Emily studied Fine Art between leaving Somerville and embarking on her first trip to China. This picture is dated 1892 by the artist – when Emily was a student at the Slade School.

A number of Legros’ works were left to the Ashmolean in Emily’s bequest, including the oil ‘Interior with an organist and procession’ and a sketch of her sister, Lydia Peto Kemp.