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Leading women

"I am rooted but I flow" - A Bloomsbury Bloom


Arielle Tse, winner of the University of London’s public art competition to create a lasting memorial to its first women students admitted 150 years ago, reveals the ideas behind her installation, "I am rooted, but I flow".

On 15 May 1869, garden roses and peonies were in high bloom. It was the day when the London Nine sat for the University’s first General Examination for Women. Nearly 150 years later, this very moment is commemorated through a lasting memorial, sited in the heart of Bloomsbury.

The journey of my narrative for the memorial goes through four chapters, using gardens and flora as motifs. In the centre of present-day academia, I hope it will be a public art piece that goes beyond mere remembrance, and engages with the people that surround it in a poetic, meaningful response rooted in contemporary experience.

A visualisation of Arielle Tse's installation in Torrington Square

Chapter 1: Spread of a Bloom

Blooms were all over the area’s gardens during the warm London weather this summer. The scent of that scene inspired me as much as the double meaning in the name, Bloomsbury, where the work will be sited. The motifs of flowers carry many connotations: of virtue and celebration, but also fragility and ephemerality. When linked with women, flowers and gardens have conventionally been associated with delicacy and sexuality. However, women and flowers alike are also conveyors of emotion and intellect, qualities well embodied in the first General Examination for Women in 1869 and in the granting of the vote to some women in 1918. Delicacy does not necessarily indicate fragility, but a sensitivity to what is around us. I grew up with a saying: the love of fallen blossoms is not unfeeling, for their passing will flourish and flower into another spring.

These thoughts formed the basis of my narrative, and led me to visualise the installation as a space defying past ideas that women were too delicate for achievement, and affirming the social legacy brought to us by the pioneering women from a century and a half ago.

Images of a Bellflower, Peony and Tea Rose

Chapter 2: Philosophy of a Garden

Flowers were frequently used as symbols of Victorian gender expectations, as were gardens. In the Victorian era, women were often instructed to cultivate themselves as if they were metaphorical gardens. Some of the most significant handbooks given to young women in the past were very much like gardening manuals; for instance, in the 1860s, Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies and Of Queen’s Gardens provided instructions on how to behave so that women could fulfil their family roles. Victorian social politics relegated women to the private sphere; similarly, religion and art have long utilised images of nature to reinforce women’s domesticity, such as in the Garden of Eden.

Thus, through a spiral pavement that expands outwards from the sundial, I hope to cast the garden as a space that cultivates young women beyond traditional frames of femininity.

Three Polaroid-style images of Gordon Square in summer

Chapter 3: Engagement of a Thought

Bloomsbury heralded – and continues to harbour – generations of writers, artists and scientists, and is also known for its graceful squares. One would see people gathering in gardens to read, speak and relax — an unmissable sight on fine summer days. Historically, gardens were also where intellectuals exchanged thoughts and discussions. A famous example would be that of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of writers, artists, and philosophers, whose members included notable alumnae such as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Dora Carrington. They used to meet in gardens during the time predating their notable achievements, and their works and outlook influenced much of later literature, aesthetics and modern attitudes.

The garden therefore becomes a site where both scholarship and social good are pursued. In taking the form of a new, symbolic garden laid with a swirling path, the installation will engage those who visit it, while also interacting with a wider audience from the institutions that surround it, creating a shared public space continuing this aspect of Bloomsbury’s history.

Nine brass petals embedded in the Terrazo, symbolising the first nine women admitted at the University of London

Chapter 4: Power of a Voice

While devising the installation, a line from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves particularly struck my thoughts: “I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me… I am rooted, but I flow.”

Woolf’s character Jinny is rooted in being herself, but flows as an evolving part of a whole. Reading beyond Woolf’s words, I felt that this can also be heard as a voice of the Leading Women celebration, that of the nine women who were the first to step through the doors to British university education, the many thousands who have followed, and the generations of excellence to come.

Memorials often implore the viewer to remember, yet perpetuity goes against the human psyche. Hence, while the garden performs my narrative, these words perform its title and will be inscribed in the paving. They will stand as a reminder to those who read it at any point in the future — reminding visitors of history, of literature, as well as of the invaluable individuality that we as young women hold within our complex webs of connections across the University – and to give us courage to achieve our aspirations.

The Princess Royal and Arielle Tse discussing the installation in Senate House on Foundation Day

Arielle Tse is a final-year undergraduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, and is based in London and Hong Kong. She can be found on Instagram @arielletse.