University of London unveils portrait of first female VC
The University of London has unveiled an official portrait of its first female Vice-Chancellor, Dame Lillian Penson, who in 1948 became the first Vice-Chancellor in the Commonwealth.
As part of an event to mark International Women’s Day, an official portrait of Dame Lillian Penson was unveiled by Professor Wendy Thomson, current University of London Vice-Chancellor. Professor Thomson commissioned the work, by renowned artist Adebanji Alade, because no official portrait was painted of Dame Lillian when she stood down as VC.
Lillian was a trailblazing academic leader who dedicated her life to education and social justice. Her tenure as Vice-Chancellor was marked by a commitment to academic excellence, student welfare, and promoting international cooperation.
She helped establish colonial university colleges and brought them into ‘special relationships’ with the University of London as preparation for them to become independent universities, and she played a key role in the establishment of the University of London's International Programmes, which now serves over 45,000 students worldwide.
Although she remained Vice-Chancellor of the University of London until 1951, Lillian never had an official portrait painted. Now, one will finally hang at the University’s iconic Senate House in her honour.
Background on Dame Lillian Penson
Born in 1896 in London, Lillian Penson began her academic career at the University of London, first at Birkbeck College then at University College. She graduated with a BA in History in 1912.
After serving as an administrative officer at the Ministry of National Service from 1917 to 1918, she taught at Birkbeck from 1921 to 1930, and part-time at East London (later Queen Mary) College from 1923.
In 1930 she was appointed Professor of Modern History at Bedford College, where she specialised in colonial history, and her publications include The Colonial Agents of the British West Indies and the 11-volume British Documents on the Origins of the War.
Lillian's career in academia really took off when she was appointed the first female principal of the all-women Westfield College, University of London, in 1939. During her tenure, she oversaw the integration of Westfield into the University of London and fought tirelessly for women's education and equal opportunities for female academics.
From the late 1930s Lillian became increasingly involved in the governance of London University. This culminated with her appointment in 1948, becoming the first woman to be Vice-Chancellor, not only in the United Kingdom, but the wider commonwealth. Her tenure as Vice-Chancellor was marked by a commitment to academic excellence, student welfare, and social justice, which she maintained until 1951.
Lillian was also an advocate for international cooperation and understanding. She helped establish colonial university colleges and brought them into ‘special relationships’ with the University of London as preparation for them to become independent universities, and she played a key role in the establishment of the University of London's International Programmes, which now serves over 45,000 students worldwide.
Beyond her academic achievements, Lillian was a committed social reformer, and she worked to promote women's rights, racial equality, and the welfare of refugees and migrants. Her tireless efforts earned her numerous awards and honours, including the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Adebanji Alade has sketched and painted almost all his life and he currently works full time as a painter from his studio on Lots Road in Chelsea, London. Whether he works indoors or outdoors, he strives to bring the life, vitality and movement of ‘the sketch’ into his paintings.