By Jennifer McManamay
Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing ’57 didn’t know each other despite both arriving on campus in 1953. Laing studied chemistry and left for George Washington University after two years, never taking a course with the art history professor. In 1971, Barton, who chaired the art department for much of her 18 years at Sweet Briar, had a hand in recruiting Laing for a vacancy in art history just as she was leaving.
Bridging these slim karmic gaps is Winnie Leigh Hamlin ’58, who knew one as a teacher and the other as a contemporary — and who grasps the profound influence of both women. That’s why she gave the College $1 million to establish the Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing ’57 Endowed Professorship in Art History. The new chair was announced in August along with the appointment of the first person to hold the title of Barton-Laing Professor in Art History, Christopher L.C.E. “Chris” Witcombe.
“We can all remember the teacher who made the biggest difference in our lives, the one who inspired us to work our hardest and to explore new fields,” Hamlin says.
Over the years, Hamlin has heard from Laing’s students, too. “I realize that they appreciated her as much as we did Eleanor Barton,” she says. “Hopefully, starting the Barton-Laing Professorship will motivate others who benefitted from their courses to contribute to the fund in their honor, or to establish a professorship named for the professor who most affected their lives.”
The gift supports one outstanding faculty member and can be used for salary, research or professional development — a significant benefit to any department.
Laing could hardly have been expecting the tribute when the phone rang last summer. “When Heidi [McCrory] called I thought she was going to ask me for money,” she said.
Instead what she heard from the vice president for alumnae and development was validation and appreciation for her years of service. “I was very honored,” she says.
And pleased, too, with the support for what she sees as a quintessential liberal arts major. Art historians must understand the culture that produced a work of art and be able to interpret and articulate what they are seeing, which is not so easy, she says.
Elizabeth Glassman ’71 echoed the rigors of the discipline, noting that today more than ever it’s important to be able to decode the images in front of us. “Art history educates you on how visual images take their meaning and helps you create the larger context for that meaning.”
Glassman is president of an international art organization, and credits Barton with nurturing her passion for art history. “Being in her class as a young college student was like lifting a veil on a whole new world of history, images, ways of looking at things,” she says.
She remembers a tall woman with great presence who seemed at once distant and yet generous. Barton was patient with students even as she pushed them. And she stressed seeing original works, although it meant a three-hour drive to the National Gallery of Art. Her emphasis on learning how to look has stuck with Glassman.
Thirty years later Emily Pegues ’00 and her classmates hustled to keep pace with Ninie Laing, now professor emerita after retiring in 2002.
“You used to have to sprint to keep up with her because she went walking down the National Mall at Mach speed,” Pegues said, describing a brisk, organized person who was apt to tell you to “pull up your socks and get on with it.”
Like Barton, students say Laing was tough but kind. And funny.
“She was teaching you but she was also keeping her eye on the big picture of trying to develop young women. And she did that both in teaching but also as an example,” Pegues said from London, where she is studying for her doctorate in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
“I think students [wanted to be like her] and in every aspect,” she says. “She was always doing interesting things, she had classes bulging with students who wanted to be there. I think in some ways my being here is trying to emulate Ninie.”
Pegues isn’t the only one. Amy Barton ’90 switched from biology after taking an elective with Laing. “I wanted to be the type of professional art historian she represented,” Barton says. “Today I investigate and make discoveries about the 19th-century art in the U.S. Capitol.”
There seems no mystery to how these women inspired their students. Each was accomplished and widely published.
Barton earned her art history degree from Vassar in 1938, her master’s at New York University and her Ph.D. from Harvard. She was considered an authority on sculpture and wrote her dissertation on Alessandro Algardi, for which she spent a year in Rome as a Sachs Fellow. She taught at Smith for 11 years prior to Sweet Briar and later at the University of Hartford. She died in 1987 in Windsor, Conn.
Laing was a certified medical technologist at the GWU hospital when she completed her undergraduate degree in art history at the university. Encouraged to go to graduate school, she won two Woodrow Wilson Fellowships to support her doctoral studies and dissertation at Johns Hopkins. A medievalist with a focus on manuscripts, she later studied the decorative arts and architecture of England and America.
She had discovered her love for art history while traveling abroad; she stumbled on teaching in graduate school. The passion for both is what unites these two women and it’s what made them so compelling to students. It’s why among the professional accolades on her curriculum vitae, none means more to Laing than the 1990-91 SGA Excellence in Teaching Award.
“I fell into the thing that I absolutely adored,” Laing says. “I love art history and I love telling other people about it. I still love the discipline.”
IF YOU WISH TO GIVE
To join in honoring Barton and Laing, gifts may be made to the Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing ’57 Endowed Professorship in Art History, Sweet Briar College, P.O. Box 1057, Sweet Briar, VA 24595. Call (434) 381-6131, (888) 846-5722 or email [email protected] for more information.