Female portraits to go on RIA’s walls for first time in 230 years

‘Women on Walls’ project aims to redress imbalance and inspire other offices to do same

Ever felt tired of putting up with something that just feels plain wrong?

Noticing that the august halls of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) were hung with portraits celebrating similarly august men, Michelle Cullen and Eithne Harley, from Accenture, not only wondered where the images of illustrious women may be, they decided to do something about their absence.

The Women on Walls project is two-fold: a series of commissions by the 2015 Hennessy Portrait Prize-winner Vera Klute are set to redress the historical imbalance, with portraits of the first women to be elected RIA members back in 1949; and a group portrait, by noted artist Blaise Smith, of eight contemporary women – all holders of European Research Council Starter Grants – is also being unveiled.

Connecting with the history of portraiture, both artists are including symbols in their work, clues to their subjects’ specialities.


These will be the first women to grace the walls of the academy in 230 years.

Realising that it’s hard to get inspired if you have no role models, Cullen says that part two of the project is all about spreading the message throughout Ireland’s offices and institutions.

The project launches on December 7th with the invitation to Tweet inspiring women using #WomenonWalls.

“We talk a lot about what women need to do to be leaders, and how women are underrepresented, but when you step back and see it across a number of different pillars: from the sciences, to corporate leadership, to theatre; you realise that more needs to be done.

“Research has shown that role models are vitally important to young people,” she says. “It’s about sending a message.”

Glib revisionism

Representing the role of women in histories, whether academic or otherwise, isn’t a question of glib revisionism.

It can also be a matter of re-telling stories that have been distorted by what, by now, ought to be out-dated power structures.

In 2013, Lego launched their first female scientist figure, creating new possible narratives in generations of play.

And if anyone wanted to argue that those women simply hadn't been there before, just look at figures such as Émilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749), the mathematician and physicist, who translated Darwin into French and expanded on his ideas; Marie Curie (1867-1934), the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences; and Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), founding visionary of computer technologies.

Art can be a powerful tool, as it invites you to think as well as look.

Like a thriller

When the science department of Staffordshire University in England commissioned Geoffrey Appleton to paint a portrait of Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), the resulting art work didn't just place Franklin in her rightful position in the story of science, its symbolism: a pair of men advancing from the upper corner, an X-ray photograph, a family portrait, the look of anxiety on Franklin's face; told the story of how she was, for a time, written out of the history of the discovery of DNA.

James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in 1962, but their findings had (in)famously drawn on an uncredited X-ray image known as Photograph 51, taken by Franklin, and shown without her permission.

It’s a story that reads like a thriller, as not only was her work uncredited in one of science’s major breakthroughs, she was also publicly belittled by Watson, and others, in various publications and interviews.

It was an injustice that has since been largely redressed, but which was fully supported by the system at the time.

Putting women on walls goes beyond the images to give women a vital voice, that reaches back into the past, but which will also go towards changing the conversations, and the future, for the better.

Now daughters, as well as sons, can look up and think: yes, that could be me.