Only a fraction of Oxford's oil paintings are on public view, but for the first time they can all be explored together in a free online collection.
Magdalen Tower by William Turner
By Olivia Gordon
Oxford University’s wealth of oil paintings can be seen in one free online collection – Art UK. It's the online home for every public collection in Britain and currently shares 212,000 oil, acrylic and tempera paintings from 3000 art venues.
The charity, which launched in February, spent ten years photographing the national art collection to give the public access. Britain is the first country ever to undertake such an initiative.
Oxford colleges have, says Art UK’s director Andrew Ellis, ‘generously opened up their private collections to give the public greater digital access to their treasures.’ He adds: ‘In this respect, Oxford colleges have embraced this project more wholeheartedly than have Cambridge colleges, some of which have not yet participated in the project!’
On top of this, a number of Oxford institutions have already been instrumental in helping make the nation’s art more accessible to the public. Oxford’s Astrophysics department helped Art UK develop Tagger, a scheme where members of the public can help make the Art UK database searchable by tagging paintings with key words. And Oxford University Press has given Art UK users a library card to access its publications for free, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Grove Dictionary of Art.
Oxford University and several Oxford colleges also contribute financially to Art UK.
Andrew Ellis aims to bring all Oxford colleges’ collections onto the website and says: ‘Oxford University partnerships have been exemplary examples of how academic input can benefit charitable initiatives around engagement, learning and public access to our cultural heritage.’
The painting was acquired from Sotheby’s in 2008 when an old member of University College spotted it coming up for auction. It had been in the possession of the Toke family since the reign of George II and depicts brothers Thomas and John Cockman, who came up to University College in 1691 and 1699 respectively. Thomas, a clergyman, went on to become Master of the college, supported by John, a doctor. Thomas’s daughter married into the Toke family, who sent generations to study at the college and preserved the painting. It is thought the other figures depicted with college chattels were academics who were loyal to Thomas, and that they sat for the painting somewhere in what are now staircases XI-XII of Radcliffe Quad.
Reverend Richard St John Tyrwhitt (1827-1895), ‘Mer de Glace’
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Natural History Museum’s architect intended to complement the carvings and ironwork of the museum with mural paintings. In the end, the only murals were painted in what was then the geological lecture room and is now the museum director’s office, by Richard St John Tyrwhitt, a protégé of John Ruskin. Tyrwhitt had not visited the Mer de Glace glacier in the Alps, or his other subject, the Vesuvius volcano, but prepared oil paintings based on photographs and then reworked them on a bigger scale on the wall.
John Walker (1939-), ‘The Shape and the Disgruntled Oxford Philosopher’
The Whitworth Gallery
The abstract painter John Walker was an artist in residence at Oxford University from 1977-79. He tells Oxford Today: ‘St. Catherine’s was my home, where they made me feel very comfortable. My studio was part of the Oxford Museum of Modern Art complex. The painting was based on an English professor at the university (whose name I can no longer remember) who just didn't seem to be happy to have me in residence. So I painted him scurrying behind one of the forms I was painting at the time. At least I think he was scurrying - he may have been lurking.’
Alan Sorrell (1904-1974), ‘Group in Summer Common Room’
This is a companion piece to Alan Sorrell's earlier painting of C.S. Lewis, Gilbert Ryle, Tom Boase, and a small group of other Magdalen fellows having dessert after High Table in 1954 (which can also be seen on the Art UK website). This painting, in contrast, depicts dessert in Magdalen’s Summer Common Room. Those depicted include the Serena Professor of Italian Studies, Cecil Grayson; the classicist Colin Hardie, who served as the Public Orator of the University from 1967-73 and was a member of the Inklings with Lewis and Tolkein; Brian Lloyd, lecturer in Pathology, who went on to become the founding director of Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes); the nutritionist Hugh Sinclair; and Robert Stanier, the Master of Magdalen College School.
John Nightingale, professor of Modern History at Magdalen, notes: ‘Alan Sorrell worked up both conversation pieces from a series of individual sketches of each fellow which are retained in the college archives - like all such paintings, it belies the time and care put into its composition. And the same could be said about the Oxford ritual of dessert more generally. On one level it can be seen as representative of the leisurely world of claret and conversation lived by dons in this former age. But as with the painting itself, this studied facade belies a reality in which Magdalen's fellows in the mid-50s were very much in the vanguard of developing the University's new more intensive culture of research and teaching.’
Henry Jamyn Brooks (1839-1925), The Head of the River
Little seems to be known about this painting and it is not clear how it came into Brasenose’s possession, but it appears to show Oxford University sportsmen doing rowing practice outside their river clubhouse. Brooks was a painter known for depicting meetings and events, as well as painting Queen Victoria. He may also have painted General Pitt-Rivers. Brooks’ wife was from Abingdon, near Oxford, and Brooks had a studio there from 1969-1877.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Every May day morning at 6am, for hundreds of years, the choir of Magdalen College has climbed the college tower and sung from the top of it. No one is sure when the tradition started, but it has become an Oxford institution. Hunt’s painting of one such morning was helped by a ‘perfect drawing’ of the plan of Magdalen tower and its choir arrangement by Magdalen’s then organist, Dr. John Varley Roberts. The finished work shows the bearded Dr. Roberts conducting on the left, and in the back row of singers are several eminent Magdalen fellows.
Charles McCarthy (1950-), ‘That There May All Be One’
Charles McCarthy went to the Dragon school in Oxford and lived in Oxford for around ten years while he established his career as an artist. During that time he became friends with Wolfson’s first Domestic Bursar, Cecilia Dick, and after she died in 1994, the college commissioned a painting from him, to be dedicated to her memory. Wolfson’s Jan Scriven says: ‘its central themes of unity from diversity and of a welcome to the shared meal made it very fitting addition to Wolfson’s contemporary art collection.’
William Green Junior, ‘A Scene at an Oxford Book Auction’ (1747)
On public display in the Bodleian’s exhibition ‘Bodleian Treasures’ at the Weston Library until 19 February 2017
This painting in oil on canvas offers a rare glimpse into the sale-rooms of Oxford in the eighteenth century. Auctions of books are recorded in the city from 1686, at several locations. Auctions provided an important source for the Bodleian library's book acquisitions, as they continue to do today.
The painting once belonged to William Fletcher (c.1738-1826), a prominent Oxford mayor and antiquarian, who lived at 46 Broad Street, where the Weston Library’s shop stands today. He had a large stock of books and the auction depicted may relate to his own business, although the location of the auction is not clear. It’s thought that the painting may have remained in the house until the 1930s, and passed through various owners, one of whose executors presented it to the Bodleian in 1980.
Art UK is offering Oxford Today readers a discount on its two-volume Oil Paintings in Public Ownership: Oxford University and Colleges catalogue. Usually priced at £20 per volume, Art UK is offering two volumes for the price of one + p&p of £6.95 for a limited time only. Please call 020 7927 6250 and quote Oxford Today to take advantage of this discount.
All images © Brasenose College, Museum of Natural History, Wolfson College, Magdalen College, Birmingham Museums Trust, The Whitworth