Honoured at Oxford

The story behind the University's portrait of Dr Norma Aubertin-Potter

T wo contributors to this article stand out.

Gabrielle Matthews, Senior Assistant Librarian at The Library, All Souls College Oxford,
Image: Gabrielle Matthews.
Gabrielle was the person who nominated Norma for this special recognition as part of the Diversifying Portraiture Project at the University of Oxford.

Emily Carrington Freeman
Image: Emily Carrington Freeman.
Emily is a graduate of Balliol College Oxford and the artist commissioned by the University to produce Norma's portrait.

Gabrielle Matthews:

When an email landed in my inbox in May 2016 about nominations for the University of Oxford's Diversifying Portraiture initiative, one name immediately came to mind: Norma. Librarian, historian, artist, and lifelong Kidlington resident, Dr Norma Aubertin-Potter was an obvious choice, and the selection committee agreed.

Dr Norma Aubertin-Potter

The University of Oxford's Diversifying Portraiture project was devised as a way of celebrating achievements of people connected with the university in different ways who challenge stereotypes. Portraits were created in various mediums to show how different kinds of people have influenced the university – important in an academic setting that celebrates diversity, but where so many portraits and much of the iconography is of long-dead white men. The project highlights the vital role people with non-traditional academic or personal backgrounds play in the success of the University of Oxford.

I decided to nominate Dr Aubertin-Potter for the project because she is a pioneer who helped make it possible for women like me to be librarians. Although it is a female-dominated profession, at the time of the project, 75% of professional library staff were women, but men were two times as likely to be in senior posts. Dr Aubertin-Potter, and women like her, helped to normalise women in senior library positions – although her path was not an easy one.

Norma left school at sixteen and started working whilst studying for a Diploma in Bookselling – she took a post as a library assistant in the then Codrington Library (now named the Library) at All Souls College, Oxford in 1969 – by 1994 she had completed her PhD in History at Oxford Brookes University, and had attained the post of Librarian-in-Charge in the prestigious library – one that supports the research of the Fellows of All Souls College, but also local and international researchers, and Oxford students. Holding over 200,000 books, included in which are vast collections of manuscripts, early printed books, and other important historical items – the library is an important one, and Norma was the first woman Librarian-in-Charge.

Dr Aubertin-Potter has, over a long career, negotiated significant changes in both the college and the university. She casually mentions incidents that flabbergast younger generations of librarians: the one that comes to mind most frequently is that she was required to formally request permission to wear trousers to work. A force of nature, Norma is stoic about the many challenges she faced, including dealing with library users who simply refused to speak with a woman; she managed with grace and quiet determination, and, occasionally, a well-placed sarcastic comment. She has been involved with the training of more than eight graduate trainee librarians, most of whom have gone on to rewarding careers in the library and information profession. In her retirement, Norma continues to work in the Library, cataloguing modern papers and working with archival material part-time, where she is a much-valued member of the library and college staff.

Dr Aubertin-Potter's portrait, done by Emily Carrington Freeman, shows the librarian in her element. One of the largest works produced for the project, Norma is depicted in vivid colour on the gallery of the Great Library of the Library, All Souls College. Carrington Freeman has draped the immediate background in blue velvet, pinned with a bulldog clip, and early printed books in leather bindings line the shelves behind Norma. In her lap rests her PhD gown; at her feet sits an antique coffee pot – Norma is an historian who specialises in a few topics, including servants working in Oxford from 1438 to around 1920, but has also written a comprehensive work on Oxford's early coffee houses with Alyx Bennett. Around her neck is a fish pendant – a much-cherished gift from her mother when she became Librarian-in-Charge in 1982.

Emily and Norma hit it off immediately, which was useful considering the amount of time they spent together as the portrait took shape.

'During the process, the real source of constant inspiration and joy was Norma herself,' Carrington Freeman noted. 'It feels like such a risk signing up to spend so much time with someone you don't already know, but in this instance it couldn’t possibly have worked out better. Norma is truly deserving of such a grand painting; I just hope that I did her justice.'

'I vividly remember going for tea with her and her saying that her only stipulation was that I got her nose in the right place,' Carrington Freeman said. 'I learned so many interesting things from and about Norma during the process of painting her. We spent a very great amount of time together, and it is very hard to do that without getting a profound sense of someone, more so perhaps because I was looking at her very intently. Scrutinising the soul? Perhaps.'

Although Norma found sitting for a portrait an interesting experience, she also noted that it is not as easy as it looks. 'I found it exhausting', Norma said of sitting for the portrait, which was done over about ten sessions. 'I am filled with admiration for the Queen who would sit for two or three per year. I used to fall asleep!'

The portrait currently hangs in Oxford's Examination Schools, where I imagine students are inspired to pay better attention to lectures or to focus on their exams by Dr Aubertin-Potter's image.

'I think it is funny that someone who left school with no qualifications should have their portrait with the great and good,' Norma explains. When I went in to see it in the Exam Schools and students recognised me, I felt a surge of emotion, of pride, and of achievement.'

Emily Carrington Freeman:

We were afforded the priviledge of working on the balcony of the Library. Here are some photographs taken during and after the sittings.

Setting up. Still at the preparatory stage, complete with charcoal drawings.

Our view from the balcony.

Beginning to sketch out.

A day or so after it was finished ...

... all done!

The portrait now hangs in the University's Examination Schools, High Street, Oxford.

SEE ALSO by Norma Aubertin-Potter:
My Father and the Merchant Navy
Honoured at Oxford
My Lockdown Books
To Zoom or to Teams
Future Historians and the Pandemic of 2020

The University's Diversifying Portraiture project may be found here.

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