Reading an object and its spaces: The bust of Constance Naden

The bust of Constance Naden, in situ at the Cadbury Research Library © Clare Stainthorp 2011.

Through the bust of Constance Naden (1858-1889) – poet, philosopher, and committed student of science – it is possible to read both the model’s life and the history of the University of Birmingham.[1] Soon after Naden’s death at the age of 31, her friend and collaborator Robert Lewins commissioned William Henry Tyler to create the bust.[2] It was to stand in the Mason College of Science as a memorial to Naden’s intellectual and social contributions to the institution in the first decade of its existence. As well as studying the sciences there between 1881 and 1887, she edited and contributed poetry and prose to the student magazine and was involved in a variety of student societies.

Barely a month after Naden’s death, a column by the ‘Lady Correspondent’ for the Sheffield Daily Telegraph describes the bust as a work-in-progress. Relating her visit to  the sculptor’s studio, she informs readers:

[The bust] is likely to give great satisfaction to Miss. Naden’s many friends in Birmingham. The rough clay cast I saw on Saturday is a striking likeness of Miss. Naden as I saw her only a few weeks before her last illness. By a careful study of [Naden’s] character from her poems and the facts of her life, Mr. Tyler has made up for his lack of acquaintance with his subject, and has delineated in the expression of the face the distinguishing traits of the young scholar and poetess. The likeness has been worked up from a cast of the face taken after her death and the capital likeness taken in Birmingham which has been reproduced in several papers connected with women’s work. The graceful poise of the head and the skilful arrangement of the simple classic drapery are very pleasing. Some books, which in the marble, will bear the titles of Miss. Naden’s works, and a spray of laurel leaves, form a fitting pedestal.[3]

Tyler’s supposed ability to create a more accurate likeness by reading Naden’s poems is fascinating, suggesting that her friends believed that Naden’s self shone through her works despite her refusal to employ the authorial ‘I’ in the vast majority of her published poems.

The classicism of the bust – both the drapery and the lyre that took the place of laurel leaves in the finished pedestal – implies Naden’s place within an august lineage of creative thinkers. This decision places it at odds with the industrial modernity of Mason College, an institution that focused on teaching science, which had only recently become an academic discipline rather than the subject of vocational and industrial experiment. However, it is a choice that is echoed by the scientists rendered as classical statuary that adorn the façade of the Aston Webb building (the main building on the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus completed in the early twentieth century).

Drawing together the arts and sciences was integral to Naden’s ambitions and the carved books on which the bust rests reveal this interplay. Her poetry is prioritised: the two spines facing outwards record the names of her poetic volumes. The spine inscribed with ‘Induction and Deduction’ – Naden’s Heslop prize winning essay on the history of philosophical and scientific method – is turned away from the eyes of a cursory observer. Although, unusually, the bust sits on a turntable so that the informed or intrepid viewer can move the back of the sculpture into view. Naden’s bust originally stood opposite that of Thomas Heslop (which had been unveiled in 1886), on either side of a doorway into the German section of Mason College library.[4] The symmetrical positioning ensured that those encountering the sculptures within this space would read the individuals as equals who merited equivalent levels of remembrance and engagement. Indeed, this may account for the emphasis placed on Naden’s poetry, signifying the arts in balance with the sciences as represented by Heslop (a physiologist who contributed the majority of the Mason College library’s original collection).

Mason College library in 1897 with the busts of Thomas Heslop (left) and Constance Naden (right) in the background. UB/MC/N/1/2 © Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

In 1900, Mason College became the University of Birmingham. The Edgbaston campus opened in 1909 and the university expanded across two locations, with the Mason College building – facing the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery across Victoria Square – housing the faculties of Arts and Law. The Naden bust therefore remained in the heart of the city. In the early 1960s the Arts Building opened on the Edgbaston campus, leaving Mason College to be demolished in 1964 so that the (infamously) brutalist Central Library could be built in its place.

The bust was thus moved for the first time, being taken to the Birmingham outpost of the Shakespeare Institute, Westmere House. The first documented account of how people responded to and interacted with the object in situ refers to this location. In 1987, James Moore recounted how:

After the removal of the college to Edgbaston […] the sculptures were separated. Heslop now inhabits the room named after him in the University Library, which holds rare books and archives. Constance stands forlornly on the staircase in the Shakespeare Institute, “so calm, so child-like, so marble-cold.” She is best remembered today by those who adorn her and, in search of passing luck, unselfconsciously rub her nose. But as a hat rack or talisman, the graven goddess ill serves her donor’s purpose.[5]

Westmere House

Exterior and interior of Westmere House after recent restoration © Clare Stainthorp 2016.

One wonders how much these students knew of Naden’s life and works, and if her academic excellence – achieving first class grades in all her exams and becoming the first female associate of Mason College – fed into the development of this ritual.

In 1992, the Shakespeare Institute moved to Stratford-upon-Avon and Naden’s bust took up residence in the Heslop Room in the University of Birmingham’s main library, reunited with her opposite equal once more. In the same year, the sculpture officially became part of the Research and Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham.

UoB Main Library Redbrick

Exterior of the former University of Birmingham Main Library © Redbrick 2012.

Upon the opening of the Cadbury Research Library in 2010, the bust took up its current position in the special collections’s reading room at the base of the Muirhead Tower. An adjoining room houses the institution’s calendars (1880s volumes cataloguing Naden’s exam results and academic prizes) while the nearby archives hold all her published works. Fittingly, upon my 2015 discovery of Naden’s adolescent manuscripts, these too were acquired by the Cadbury Research Library. As a result, Naden’s personal notebooks – the first glimpse of her thoughts untouched by the publication process – can now be read under the gaze of her most public incarnation.

Photo of the Cadbury Research Library reading room taken from the vantage point of the Naden bust © Cadbury Research Library 2012.

Naden’s bust began as a commemorative object that memorialised the loss of a young woman and attested to her impact on the intellectual community of late nineteenth-century Birmingham. Over the twentieth century the object lost much of its personal resonance and Naden’s writings lay mostly unread for decades. Her bust thus became an icon of good luck, divorced from Naden’s individual achievements, the plinth’s details left unparsed. In the last decades of the twentieth century, as academics sought to reposition women writers within the history of literature, Naden’s works began to be brought back to light, and a project extended by my forthcoming book: Constance Naden: Scientist, Philosopher, Poet (Peter Lang). The bust’s greyish tinge arose from a misguided attempt at cleaning the marble during its time at Westmere House, but the university’s Research and Cultural Collections are pursuing ways of undoing this damage.[6] A similar narrative of blurred features brought back into focus underlies this object and its history, and it now sits in a reading room overseeing research that continues to rejuvenate Constance Naden’s legacy.

Clare Stainthorp’s book Constance Naden: Scientist, Philosopher, Poet is to be published by Peter Lang in summer 2019. She was the 2017/18 Nineteenth-Century Matters Fellow at Cardiff University, after completing an AHRC-funded doctoral research at the University of Birmingham. Clare’s article on her discovery of Naden’s adolescent notebooks has been published in Victorian Poetry, and her work has also appeared in Journal of Victorian Culture, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Literature Compass.


[1] Details of the sculpture are recorded by the University of Birmingham in the Research and Cultural Collections catalogue. For an extended consideration of this bust and its cultural history, see Sarah Parker and Clare Stainthorp, ‘Tracing the Sculptural Legacy of Constance Naden: Memorialisation, Gender and the Portrait Bust’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 23.4 (2018), 508-26.

[2] There is little detailed information on William Henry Tyler, save a brief listing in the database of Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain & Ireland 1851-1951 and in The Benezit Dictionary of Artists (2006) XIII, p. 1300.

[3] ‘From our Lady Correspondent. London, Wednesday’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Thursday 30 January 1890, p. 5.

[4] Details of the Heslop sculpture are recorded in the University of Birmingham Research and Cultural Collections catalogue.

[5] James R. Moore, ‘The Erotics of Evolution: Constance Naden and Hylo-Idealism’, in One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature, ed. George Levin (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 225-57 (pp. 255-56).

[6] Personal correspondence with Helen Fisher (University Archivist, Cadbury Research Library). Thanks are also due to Chris Penney (former Head of the University of Birmingham Special Collections) for providing additional details about the bust’s movements during the 1990s.