By John Garth
Stand in the middle of the new commercial gallery in Broad Street and you are surrounded by artworks that play with time.
There are figures by Burne-Jones and a photogravure by Rossetti, injecting medieval vitality into the Victorian gloom. Picasso draws himself as a Greek god between wife and muse, or hurls down lightning variations on Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Across the street you see Alfred Waterhouse’s Balliol façade. Turn to the back of the gallery, and a grand canvas shows an Ophelia like, and yet unlike, Sir John Everett Millais’ iconic mid-nineteenth-century masterpiece.
This Ophelia floats on her back in the stream, flowers adrift beside her. But she’s not Millais’ china-boned original: she is sturdier, fleshier; her face fits no Victorian aesthetic ideal, and rather than a lace dress she wears a plain bed sheet. This Ophelia is by James Gabriel, one of the self-styled Oxfordians, the group whose art dominates Aidan Meller Fine Paintings.
The group, comprising not only Italian Gabriel but also Bethany Meyer, Sebastian de Grey and George Oak, coalesced around the studios where they worked in proximity as independent artists. They became involved with the new gallery’s parent company Meller Merceux three years ago; the Oxfordians name came later – both a cannily commercial label and a useful guide to their reference points. The Broad Street gallery gives them an enviable platform.
Aidan Meller, whose purchases for sale in the gallery underwrite their efforts, fizzes over the stories behind the art. He outlines Ophelia’s dilemma: whom to trust – her father, or Hamlet? ‘The story is about someone who’s got all these different pressures on her, and she’s just trying to work out the right way to go forward. What James Gabriel has done is go, “Well, actually that’s no different from today.” There’s a question of who are they listening to, who are they trusting as a voice.’
Other contemporary artists might address similar concerns by appropriating the imagery of social media and its associated tragedies, or through conceptual art. But the Oxfordians stick rigorously to the figurative, and evoke Pre-Raphaelitism to varying degrees. Other paintings show Oxford’s patron saint Frideswide, painted by Sebastian de Grey with an unromanticised realism which Aidan sees as distinctively modern. Elsewhere, playfully questioning national identity, is Gabriel’s Italian-born son draped proudly in a Union Flag.
‘They’re ambitious to do more and more contemporary things, to do with this issue of identity and where we are going,’ says Aidan. ‘But they’re doing it in a very different way – which is a real poke in the eye to the conceptual world which is so prevalent today in contemporary art.’
That’s not to say that this is a wildly uncommercial experiment. The Oxfordian pieces on show are marked from £2,000 up to £16,500 for Ophelia. Despite prices for the modern greats ranging as high as £46,000 — for a Matisse drawing from 1903, just before he became famous — Aidan expects the entire stock to turn over in about six weeks. Oxford’s cachet brings some trade through the door, but most is done by email and digital images, with an increasing number of buyers in China. Naturally, Oxford’s associations with a nostalgic, figurative tradition will do the Oxfordians no harm, whatever the contemporary relevance of their art.
The gallery opened at the start of October, but Meller Merceux has been in operation for 14 years, with a long-established gallery in the High Street concentrating on the moderns from 1880 to 1970 – notably Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and from Britain Hepworth, Moore, and Sutherland. Aidan has his mind set on a third gallery, so the Pre-Raphaelites and the Oxfordians could each have their own space – but he admits that at present the Broad Street gallery allows an interesting dialogue between the two eras.
Dialogue is also the keynote of the galleries’ relationship with Oxford academe. ‘Because we’re doing something a little bit different, we’ve got attention from the University, from the Ashmolean, from Modern Art Oxford,’ says Aidan. The company sponsors the Edgar Wind Society, the cross-departmental History of Art group, and organised a first annual dinner last November in which half the diners were art students and the other half were collectors. ‘The cross-pollination was fantastic. The conversations they had!’
John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War, a HarperCollins paperback, ebook and audiobook.