Brilliant London women nominate their heroines



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Inspired by the National Portrait Gallery‘s 'Brilliant Women' exhibition, the Time Out team chose the female Londoners we would most like to see sparkle at our dinner table, and asked them to nominate their own dream guests, living or dead

  • Brilliant London women nominate their heroines

    A brilliant woman: Queen Boadicea

  • Tell us who you'd invite.

    Lady Antonia Fraser, historian

    1. Queen Boadicea

    Scourge of the Romans. ‘I’d begin by asking “Should I call you Boudica?” in order to settle that one, and then go on to question her about her sacking of the City of London: “Did it feel good?” I expect her to answer: “You bet it did.” '

    2. Mary, Queen of Scots

    ‘I’ve always maintained stoutly that she was innocent of [her second husband, Henry] Darnley’s death and she didn’t write the Casket Letters [which incriminated her in that murder] but I have a fantasy that she might laugh lightly and royally, with the words “Of course I did” to both questions.’

    3. Michelle Obama

    Lawyer and wife of US presidential hopeful Barack Obama. ‘We need beauty as well as intelligence, and she would supply both, as well as being, I hope, the face of the future.’Antonia Fraser’s ‘Love And Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King’ is published by Phoenix at £9.99.

    Brett Rogers, director, Photographers’ Gallery

    1. Madam Yevonde

    Photographer. ‘In the 1920s and ’30s, she re-imagined the great society beauties as Greek goddesses, giving them an identity outside their social roles at a time when that’s pretty much all women had.’

    2. Sue Davies

    Gallerist. ‘She founded the Photographers’ Gallery, mortgaging her house and putting in everything she had. In 1971, it became the first publicly funded photography gallery in the world. She helped establish photography as an independent art form and she also had tremendous fun, with great artists dossing down in her office.’

    3. Wangari Maatthai

    Activist. ‘She founded the Green Belt movement in 1977, inspiring Africans to plant trees to prevent soil erosion. She’s won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’d love to talk to her about how being divorced for being too educated helped lead her to politics.’

    Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Art Gallery

    1. Jane Austen

    Writer. ‘Her acute observations of social etiquette and the political and sexual motivations it suppresses and exposes would make her a delightful and acerbic companion; and she could give an insider’s guide to eighteenth-century Britain.’

    2. Eva Hasse

    Artist. ‘She turned sculpture into environment and combined surrealism with minimalism. I would love to hear about the artists she hung out with in 1960s New York, a generation that changed contemporary art.’

    3. Mae West

    Comedienne. ‘For good belly laughs, she’d require no script to get the party going.’

    4. Hannah Arendt

    Philosopher. ‘This German-Jewish intellectual could tell of her escape from Nazi Germany, her controversial friendship with [philosopher] Martin Heidegger and the insights she gained from her notorious report on the Eichmann trial.’

    Zandra Rhodes, fashion designer

    1. Elsa Schiaparelli

    Fashion designer. ‘She was vastly original: the first woman to really marry ideas with fashion. She turned fashion into art and set the trend for surrealist fashion, which is still popular today.’

    2. Diana Vreeland

    Fashion journalist. ‘I first met her in 1969 at American Vogue. Her personality was so overwhelming that when she spoke to you, you forgot everything. At dinner, she would drink only vodka – I know, she actually did come to dinner in the ’80s.’

    3. Anna Piaggi

    Fashion icon. ‘Piaggi dares to express herself, she does not think of practicality or effect. She lives design – she is the pure undiluted essence of fashion. Age cannot wither her.’

    4. JK Rowling

    Author. ‘The books are like family portraits brought to life, they use so many amazing details. I don’t know what she looks like, but her imagination is incredible.’

    Camila Batman-ghelidjh, founder, Kids Company

    1. Kate Moss

    Model. ‘Given her past, I thought I’d suggest she focus on helping the children of substance abusers whose lives are devastated by parental drug use.’

    2. Shelia Hancock

    Actress. ‘She’s a no-nonsense yet emotionally sophisticated woman with a phenomenal sense of humour; her tragedies have only strengthened her resolve to remain delicious.’

    Lisa Appignanesi, author

    1. Lou Andreas-Salomé

    Writer. ‘The femme fatale Nietzsche and Rilke fell for; she was also Freud’s confidante. What gossip she’d have!’

    2. Marilyn Monroe

    Actress. ‘I’d love to see what she was like away from the male gaze.’

    3. Paula Rego

    Artist. ‘Maybe this great fabulator of women’s lot could reproduce the dinner in one of her fairy-tale operas on canvas.’

    Jude Kelly, artistic director, Southbank Centre

    1. Harriet Tubman

    Freedom fighter. ‘She was a runaway American slave who organised safe houses to help other slaves escape from South to North. Was she optimistic about the future? America is about to choose between a black man and a woman for president – how would she vote?’

    2. Victoria Wood

    Comedienne. ‘We were at university together, so we are sort of friends, although we don’t see each other very often. She is an extremely clever, funny and thoughtful woman. I would like to hear her talk to the other women… something would definitely end up as comic material, thus giving the evening an afterlife.’

    3. Aung San Suu Kyi

    Burmese pro-democracy leader. ‘She is under house arrest, so it would give her a chance to escape for a bit. She hasn’t got a piano and she is a pianist – so she could play and we could have a bit of a sing-song.’

    Julia Peyton-Jones, director, Serpentine Gallery

    1. Queen Elizabeth I

    ‘For me, Elizabeth I is pioneering. She is one of the most powerful women in English history, a position she held through ability, tenacity and charisma. She ruled for more than 45 years in a world that was incontrovertibly male, with resolute dignity, steering this country into its first artistic golden age.’

    2. Rosa Parks

    Civil rights campaigner. ‘Through a single act of courage – refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus in 1955 – she proved that an ordinary person can change lives. She worked tirelessly as an activist and transformed the lives of millions by helping to remove the walls of oppression and social and political prejudice.’

    3. Zaha Hadid

    Architect. ‘In a male-dominated field, she designs such outstanding landmark buildings that references to her gender are academic. Her work is at once startlingly new and instantly classic; her vision admired worldwide.’

    Katie Mitchell, theatre director

    1. Marguerite Yourcenar

    Gay French philosopher. ‘For some reason she was obsessed by the Roman emperor Hadrian. She wrote ‘The Memoirs of Hadrian’ [a John Boorman film of the book is in production], a very beautiful story in which Hadrian writes a survival kit for his successor Marcus Aurelius about how to cope with power and love. It’s such a strange relationship between a French female philosopher and the man who used to run the Roman Empire.’

    2. Sylvia Plath

    Poet. ‘She was such a great writer. I’m convinced that she would be much more coherent than a lot of the stuff written about her would suggest. I’d like to meet the woman without all the guff that surrounds the legacy.’

    3. Francesca Woodman

    Photographer. ‘I’d love to talk to her about her work, which is honest and lyrical with idiosyncratic metaphors for the female experience. They’re all three workaholics who’d need feeding up. What fun!’
    Do you agree? Tell us which brilliant women you'd invite
    .'Brilliant Women: Eighteenth-Century Bluestockings' is at The National Portrait Gallery until Jun 15.

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Users say


I assume Antonia Fraser doesn't think Michelle Obama is a Londoner.


I think Maggie Hambling is brilliant. I first loved her Max Wall painting,(NPG) then her 'Oscar' opposite CX station, it's fab, then the Anglian beach 'Shell' sculpture and her recent paintings are also great. She deserves all the recognition she can get. I'm a real fan of hers and hers is 'just my style'!