Frances Gray

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Frances Gray, High Mistress 1902 to 1927, (c. 1863 – 1935)

Since the summer of 1922, Frances Gray’s portrait has adorned the Old Library. The artist was Philip de László, in the anglicized form of his Hungarian name, László Fülüp. By the time he painted the High Mistress, the artist was the most famed portraitist of his day, though damaged in spirit and finances by accusations of treason during the Great War. Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the Emperor Franz Josef I, Pope Leo XIII and Theodore Roosevelt had been amongst his sitters. A fine portrait (1911) of William Palmer, Earl of Selborne, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1900 to 1905, is owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

To finance Miss Gray’s portrait, Margaret Mackenzie, the school’s first head girl and Hilda Wenham, Second Mistress, turned to former pupils for contributions. The timing was somewhat unusual, in that heads usually have their portraits done, if at all, after retirement. The gilded inscription, which records Miss Gray’s time as head (1904-27), therefore post-dates the picture. Photographs of the portrait were sold (at 7s 9d) and the profits given to Dame Colet House, the League’s charity in Stepney.

In a pose reminiscent of John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Gray turns towards the viewer. Her gaze is lifted towards a far horizon, educational or spiritual. An unidentified volume is in her hands, symbolic of learning, we may suppose. She wears a gown, either in the style of a Renaissance scholar or a Cambridge graduate. Cambridge women were not, of course, admitted to the same degree as men until 1947 but in any case, Miss Gray did not take finals when at Newnham. Hence the qualifying phrase after her name: Classical Tripos, Cantab.  But the tones suit her habitually formal clothes, for she favoured snowy lace fichus and dark velvet dresses. Probably sixty when sitting for de László, she did indeed have the silvered hair shown in the portrait. The artist has, nonetheless, given his subject a little unobtrusive flattery; if we compare the portrait to a photograph of some three years later, we can see that he has sharpened and refined the facial features. On the oak panel which carries the gilded frame are the opening words from Frances Gray’s finale to the Masque: ‘Oh let us render thanks to God above! What hath one to fear who follow’d Him in all His ways?’.

This image is significant to the school’s history. It captures the founding head’s devotion to St Paul’s and the way she sought to place its education within a humanist tradition flowing from John Colet. It was his mother which inspired both the Masque and the study written by Miss Gray’s first head girl (Mary Mackenzie, Dame Christian Colet, CUP, 1923). The portrait also shows Frances Gray’s unbounded ambition for the future: ‘our school cannot die. It must go on living century after century. Nothing but a cataclysm which would lay all social order in ruins could bring us to an end’ (Gladly, Gladly, 1933, pp 93).

Howard Bailes, Archivist