On the Oxford Art Trail: Finding Art in Unexpected Places

Chris Beer

Oxford has a rich museum heritage: the Ashmolean museum is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded at a site not far from its current location in the 17th century. Yet for all its rich concentration of established collections, Oxford can also reward the keen art browser should one deviate from the beaten path. We explore the unexpected and hidden artistic havens in one of the most architecturally beautiful and historic cities in the UK.

In 2011, a suspected original Michelangelo was relocated to the Ashmolean from its original hanging in Campion Hall, demonstrating what an Aladdin’s Cave of riches is hidden within the colleges. Christ Church has a permanent picture gallery within the college, which has a particularly impressive representation of Renaissance artists, including Tintoretto, Carracci, and Lippi. Just over the road, Pembroke College takes in more modern productions in their JCR art collection, unique to undergraduate bodies at Oxford University. Sadly, they sold their Francis Bacon in 1997, but their collection still includes other distinguished 20th century British artists like John Piper – whose stained glass work can be found in the St. Mary the Virgin church in Iffley – and Wyndham Lewis, housed in a gallery space purpose-built in 2013.
Christ Church and Pembroke’s pieces can be taken in during a general visit to their respective colleges, but the hidden paintings at other colleges will require a pre-arranged appointment with either the bursar or another member of staff – information on specific details can be found on the BBC’s Your Paintings project website. Worcester, Nuffield, and Wolfson colleges all have strong collections of modern British art.

Many of the colleges’ paintings are renditions of principals past and present, but Hertford’s portrait of Neville Murphy is by the distinguished Stanley Spencer and well worth a viewing, along with an older piece depicting the Protestant reformers. Magdalen have perhaps the best selection of portraits, as depictions of Cardinal Wolsey, Edward Gibbon, Joseph Addison and Seamus Heaney can be found adorning the walls. New College possess a painting of their former fellow AD Nuttall which is, perhaps unexpectedly, by the Pop Artist Richard Hamilton and therefore extremely striking. A bizarre and jaunty sculpture of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein confronts visitors to the New College chapel and they also have an El Greco painting of St. James. Even if attempts to see a college’s paintings are unsuccessful, their chapels are usually open to the general public – Keble contains ‘Light of the World’ by William Holman Hunt and Corpus Christi’s chapel has a Rubens altarpiece – one of only two in the UK. The frontage of the science buildings on South Parks Road is itself an impressive assortment of Victorian brickwork, but the New Biochemistry Building, viewable from either Dorothy Hodgkin Road or Sherrington Road, is a testament to 20th century architecture. Presenting the viewer with an array of multi-coloured and transparent glass panels, it is a testament – one hopes – to the beauty and transparency of modern-day scientific research.

Tragic mask, 1st century BC to 1st century AD, Ashmolean Museum

Should you happen to walk down Broad Street and look upwards, don’t be alarmed to see a figure bearing down on you from the top of Exeter College. This is in fact an Antony Gormley piece, ‘Another Time XI’, one of his ambiguous bronze statues surveying the Oxford cityscape from up high. Gormley’s statue is not the only piece of guerrilla art to be found amongst Oxford’s sedate buildings – just a few miles out of the city centre, tucked away at 2 New High Street in the suburb of Headington, is the local landmark known as the ‘Headington Shark’. To paraphrase Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, it shows the beauty in the chance encounter between the roof of a semi-detached house and the body of a fibreglass shark. Commissioned by Bill Heine and designed by John Buckley, it was erected on the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing and the sheer incongruity of the piece in Headington’s leafy streets delivers a powerful statement. Indeed, Oxford, on occasion, is surprisingly permissive towards the interaction of art and the city’s buildings. Joined to Headington by Divinity Road, the multicultural Cowley Road is of note for the murals adorning buildings across much of its length, mostly painted in celebration of the Cowley Road Carnival in previous years. A particular highlight can be seen at the intersection of Cowley Road with Stockmore Street, a vast mural depicting the historical site of Angkor Wat, a knowing wink to the owners of the adjacent fish and chip shop, who are from Cambodia. East Oxford is also home to 50 Aston Street, a Victorian terraced home which has been transformed by the murals painted on nearly every surface of the house. Unfortunately, the house has now reverted to traditional décor, but an intriguing historical parallel can be found on Cornmarket, Oxford’s main shopping street. The room above Betfred’s offices is covered in designs, albeit from the Elizabethan period. The room is not currently open to the public, so it is advisable to contact before you visit. The space used to be part of the Crown Inn, where William Shakespeare may have stayed during trips between Stratford and London. The Oxford Preservation Trust is currently negotiating a lease on the space with the City Council, but there are still preserved fragments of medieval wall paintings in the Pizza Express on Cornmarket. Should a quick lunch at Pizza Express not provide enough refreshment during your Oxford excursion, you can always wander into The Jam Factory on Hollybush Row. A restaurant-cum-bar, its walls are a dedicated space to the display of works by local artists and they also host intermittent drawing and crafts classes. Closer to the city centre, the Old Fire Station hosts its own exhibitions, making abundant use of the building’s space. Located in the same premises as the charity Skylight, they work closely with the city’s homeless in order to give them an artistic platform upon which they can make their voices heard. Surprisingly hard to locate is the Art Jericho gallery, which always has an interesting exhibition on display – find it on King Street behind the Jude the Obscure pub. Oxford has a luxury of curatorial riches on its doorstep with the Pitt-Rivers, Ashmolean, and the constantly surprising Modern Art: Oxford Gallery, but it also rewards the inquisitive eye, so take a more extensive look at the city on your next visit. Don’t forget that in March 2015, the Weston Library extension of the Bodleian will be finished, giving constant public access to some of the UK’s oldest manuscripts and printed works. Follow the Art Trail By Chris Beer

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