The Somerville Annunciation

Somerville Annunciation

The Somerville Annunciation is a 19th century Italian terracotta relief derived from the Annunciation lunette in the Ospedale degli Innocenti or ‘Foundlings’ Hospital’, Florence by Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525).

The annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) is a common subject in Christian art. The Somerville Annunciation depicts the Angel Gabriel blessing Mary. The other principal symbols being the ‘annunciation lilies’ representing purity, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit.

Somerville College Chapel’s sculpture of the annunciation has an interesting history. When E.G. Kemp originally, and anonymously, offered to fund a religious building at Somerville in 1932, she wanted it to house ‘a wonderful work of art – the annunciation by Della Robbia.’ This was to be placed in a room in the building that had bookshelves and comfortable chairs where students could discuss their plans for charitable and religious works abroad. As part of the negotiations on the terms of the donation, Kemp’s wish to display the ceramic (and her vision for an informal meeting room in addition to a room for prayer) was not granted, and the sculpture remained above her fireplace in her flat in London until her death on Christmas Day, 1939.

In her will, Kemp (a wealthy art collector who, in addition to being among the first students to enroll at Somerville, later studied Fine Art at the Slade School) bequeathed her significant collection of Western and Eastern Art to the Ashmolean Museum; all of it save the Annunciation, which was offered to Somerville. In early 1940 the Chapel’s architect Courtney Theobold removed the ceramic from Kemp’s home and placed it above the north door in the Chapel (which is used as the fire escape today). He noted at the time that it was badly damaged and the terracotta was reconditioned at the Ashmolean museum.

The subject of the annunciation – the divine mission of a woman, Mary – was of great personal significance to Kemp. Kemp was a Baptist with strong feelings about the importance of women in Christianity. She saw the annunciation as representative of the importance of women’s role in spreading God’s message. Her last book, Mary, with her son, Jesus (1930) is given over to an exploration of the life of Mary; her earlier work on women Baptist missionaries, There followed Him, Women (1927), also stresses the importance of women. In it she writes that ‘Woman must all through the ages and throughout the world be the Christ-bearer to all humanity, and first and foremost to her sisters… In the middle of last century the position of woman was contemptible in most countries and the petty conventions of society made it difficult for her to use many of those high qualities and gifts which she possessed.’

The provenance of the Somerville Annunciation before Kemp’s ownership is currently unknown but it has been verified by a leading expert as a 19th century piece. Examples of Andrea Della Robbia’s work (whose workshop became inherited by successive generations) can be found in the Ashmolean ceramics gallery along with other derivative, later ‘school of Della Robbia’ pieces. A cast of the Annunciation in the Ospedale degli Innocenti on which the Somerville Annunciation is based can be found in the cast gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Somerville Annunication (detail)

The Somerville Annunciation

The Somerville Annunciation (detail)

The World Congress of Faiths, 1937

Chapel Leaflet 1937

In July 1937 the pioneering interfaith organisation The World Congress of Faiths held a residential conference for delegates representing the world’s religions at Balliol College and Somerville College. Somerville College Chapel’s donor, E.G. Kemp, was a member of this organisation and was eager that the delegates should use the new College Chapel. In a letter to Helen Darbishire, then Principal of Somerville, she exclaimed: ‘How pleased they [the delegates] will be to find a Chapel [where] they can meditate and pray – a better setting than in London.’ Kemp was referring to the first conference of the World Congress of Faiths held at University College, London, in the preceeding year.

Kemp printed the leaflet (above) independently of the College authorities to promote the use of the Chapel for prayer and meditation by the congress delegates, and to explain the symbolic meaning of the stained glass window by George Bell. The leaflet soon proved to be controversial, and Darbishire contacted Kemp  asking her to refrain from distributing it. Darbishire gave her reason for this as the factual inaccuracy of the sentence ‘Somerville College was founded in 1879 as a place of Religion, of Learning, and Education.’ She explained in a strongly worded letter to Kemp that the phrase ‘place of Religion, of Learning, and Education’ was not part of the original foundation, but a later clause included in the College statutes of 1926.

The attendees of the 1937 conference included a number of notable national and international religious figures, for example: Yusuf Ali (translator of the Qur’an into English), Dame Edith Lyttleton (novelist and activist), The Begum Sultan Mir Amiruddin (Indian social and educational activist), Muang Aye Muang (of the World Buddhist Mission, Burma), and Aylmer Maude – Tolstoy’s biographer, friend and translator.

The proceedings of the conference describe that in addition to the formal papers and discussions, devotional services were conducted for members of other religions by Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist delegates. Yusuf Ali noted of these, that: ‘There may be differences of opinion as to whether people can enter into the devotional spirit of a religion to which they do not subscribe, but there can be no doubt that, given the right atmosphere, we are enabled to enter into the basic ideas underlying every earnest man’s [humankind’s] prayer and longing to reach the spiritual.’


On the trail with E.G. Kemp

In 1940, the Ashmolean Museum received a sizeable bequest from the founder of Somerville College Chapel, E.G.Kemp. This included, among other things, a sum of money equalling £8,000;  three oil paintings, perhaps most notably The Holy Family by Ambrosius Benson (c.1550); and a collection of her own watercolours completed while she travelled in Asia.

In order to give an indication of her experiences and interests, I reproduce a very small sample of Kemp’s own pictures below, accompanied with extracts from her travel books.

Copper Image, Suifu, China.

‘A Roman Catholic priest is deeply interested in the local divinity, which is certainly
an interesting specimen of art, if nothing more; but the priest is firmly persuaded that it is St. Thomas [the Apostle Thomas, or ‘doubting Thomas’], and takes all his friends to see it. The god is enshrined in a temple on a hillside overlooking the town. It is a most beautiful situation, but somewhat spoilt by the fact that it is entirely covered with graves. Hills are frequently utilised for this purpose, and contain thousands of graves. The gaudily painted figure is 18 feet high and 5 [and a half] feet broad, made of fine red copper. It stands on a large bronze turtle, from which, unfortunately, a good part has been stolen; the head alone is in excellent preservation. It was erected some hundreds of years ago by the Lolos or Ibien, an aboriginal tribe who then held possession of this part of the country. They believed that he was a saint who came over the seas on a turtle, and this certainly corresponds with the legend of St. Thomas going to India. It is a very truculent-looking saint, not lightly to be parted from his sword. The figure is well fenced off from view by large bars, though one has been removed, so that people can push through and get a closer look at him. While I was busy sketching, a priest came up to look, with his long hair fastened on the top of head by a carved wooden pin. The priests do not plait their hair, but simply twist it up into a sort of “bun.” A woman came up with offerings – fowl, sweets, etc. – which, after they had been offered to the god, she would take home and eat with the greater relish. This is certainly a way of killing two birds with one stone, as she was too poor to have eaten chicken on ordinary occasions. As we came down the hill we met the chief mourner of a funeral, wearing the coarsest sackcloth, which he could scarcely prevent from falling off, as it is incorrect on such occasions to gird it round the waist.’ The Face of China  p.196-197.


Mosque [Ashiho, China, May 1st, 1907], reproduced in The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan, p.144‘Near the mission there is a pretty Mosque, built exactly like a Buddhist or Taoist temple, which provides schools for boys and girls. … My sketch [of the Mosque at
Ashiho] was done under considerable difficulties, for the boys had just come out of school, and would jostle up and down, and round about me on the mound of earth where I was sitting, raising such a dust that at last I was driven defeated from the field.’ The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan, p.146.


Opium Refuge, reproduced in The Face of China, p. 80.

Opium Refuge, reproduced in The Face of China, p. 80.

‘Shansi [Shanxi] is one of the worst provinces of all as regards opium smoking, and the poppy is largely cultivated. In the accompanying sketch a group of patients is seen, who have come to a mission refuge to try and break off the habit. They are allowed to smoke
tobacco, but are mostly resting or sleeping on the khang; the brick bed seen in every inn and in most private houses. On the floor in front of it is seen a small ound aperture*, where the fire is red, which heats the whole khang.’ The Face of China, p.80.

*Unfortunately, my poor photography has cut this out; it is just in front of the man in white at the front right.

Camel Inn (1893), The Face of China, p. 74.

Camel Inn (1893), The Face of China, p. 74.

‘On the roads [near Pao-Ting-fu, China] we met long strings of camels carrying packs, the tail of one animal being attached to the nose of the one behind. They have inns
of their own, being cantankerous beasts, and are supposed to travel at nights because of being such an obstruction to traffic. Certainly if you lie awake you can generally hear the tinkle of their bells. They are the most attractive feature of the landscape in the north, whether seen in the streets of Peking, or on the sandy plains of Chili. My sketch was taken in the summer when the camels were changing their coats, so that the one in the front has a grey, dishevelled look, corresponding with Mark Twain’s description. He says that camels always look like “second-hand” goods; but it is clear that he cannot
know the fine stately beast of North China.’ The Face of China, p. 74-75

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.