By Jacqueline Thalmann, Curator of the Picture Gallery
Studying in Oxford also means access to a number of world class museums, collections and objects – some of them better known than others. The lesser known ones have the stigma of inaccessibility attached, but it is often just a matter of less prominent placement and publicity and the uncomfortable fact, voiced by Goethe, that we only see what we know.
Have you, for example, seen Giampietrino’s important copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper or Mark Wallinger’s impressive sculpture Y, both in Magdalen College, or the El Greco in the chapel of New College? These are overlooked objects that surround us – just waiting to be noticed and seen.
Christ Church Picture Gallery and its collection somewhat share this fate – even though to a much lesser degree. However, until the opening of Pembroke College’s art gallery in 2013 – showing their remarkable JCR’s collection of mainly British 20th century art – Christ Church was the only Oxford (and Cambridge) college with a dedicated and open-to-the-public gallery and a world-class collection to fill it. In fact, Christ Church can be proud to have opened the first permanent public art gallery in Britain. It opened its doors in 1768, with the first catalogue of the paintings being published in 1771. The Ashmolean did not yet have paintings and the Bodleian’s art collection consisted almost exclusively of portraits, whose main pull was to entertain the visitors with the likenesses of the famous and infamous sitters, rather than their artistic execution.
Interior Views of the Red Gallery and Picture Gallery © Christ Church Picture Gallery
But the ‘art scene’ in Oxford changed when Christ Church accepted an exceptional bequest of almost 2,000 drawings and over 200 paintings by one of its alumni, General John Guise (1682-1765). The collection consisted mainly of Italian Old Masters, including all of the famous names: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carracci, Tintoretto, Veronese et al, especially among the drawings and some of the less famous and anonymous masters, whose works are no less enticing – visually and academically. The acceptance of this vast number of works also meant that Christ Church took on the responsibility of caring for them and showing them. They were not hung in private or semi-private college rooms, as would have been the easy option, but from the beginning, the idea was to share the works by displaying them together in a dedicated gallery space. This was ground-breaking: for the first time one could see paintings and drawings by the great Italian masters without having to travel to the continent or having to gain access to private residences and collections.
Michelangelo, Study for a left leg (JBS62v) © Christ Church Picture Gallery
John Guise’s awareness of the importance of the visual arts had been fuelled by one of his Oxford teachers, Dean Henry Aldrich, but also by writers and collectors like Jonathan Richardson who wrote in 1715:
” supposing two Men perfectly equal in all other respects, only one is conversant with the works of the best Masters […] and the other not; the former shall necessarily gain the Ascendant, and have nobler Ideas, […]; he shall be a more Ingenious, and a Better Man”
These thoughts have become even more poignant today in view of recent developments in art education. But let’s continue with the pioneering history of the collection: The then new Christ Church library, which was designed with an open loggia on the ground floor, was modified and the loggia was abandoned in favour of creating the necessary wall space to hang the incoming collection. This newly developed space was called the Picture Gallery (today it is known as the Lower Library) and was open to the public. The library itself (today known as the Upper Library), was the actual college library and only open to members of Christ Church and by permission. It is important to stress these distinctions in order to fully appreciate the sagacity and unprecedented act of – not only incorporating art into the Oxford education – but extending that to a wider audience. We even have a caricature by Thomas Rowlandson of an early guide to the collection – Mrs Showwell (1807).
Thomas Rowlandson (after John Nixon), Mrs Showwell © Christ Church Picture Gallery
Establishing the gallery, attracted other gifts and bequests: The Continence of Scipio, an important early van Dyck, was added in 1809, bequeathed by Lord Frederick Campbell; two gifts of Early Italian paintings, by the pioneering collectors W T H Fox Strangways (1828) and Walter Savage Landor (1897) widened the scope of the collection and more recently we added a collection of British 18th century drinking glasses and Russian metal icons to it.
Anthony van Dyck, The Continence of Scipio (JBS 245) © Christ Church Picture Gallery
The growing number of paintings and the library’s need for more space heightened the need for a new dedicated gallery building and this, the current building, sensitively designed by Powell and Moya, opened in 1968. It was almost too sensitively designed, without any façade or wall visible from the outside, the gallery sits, nearly undetectable, within the gardens and grounds of Christ Church. This outwards invisibility almost conceals its content: one of the most important Old Master collections in Britain. But, after finding the rabbit hole through which to squeeze (the entrance in Canterbury Quad), the visitor resurfaces in a light, modern and cleverly designed building to encounter some of the great masterpieces of Western art: be it Annibale Carracci’s Butcher’s Shop, a highly visceral, early (the first) monumental genre painting or the cerebral Wounded Centaur by Filippino Lippi, or Hugo van der Goes ‘religious close-up’ – or one of our drawings exhibitions (at the moment, until the 30th January 2017, Drawing in Red, an exploration of red chalk drawing).
Annibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop (JBS181) © Christ Church Picture Gallery
Having said all this, if you have not been visited the Picture Gallery, yet, do drop by. You will find us at the back gate of Christ Church, off Oriel Square. The porter at the gate can point you in the right direction – and while there is a small entrance charge – current and former members of the University and Oxford Brookes have free access, just show your University card at the gallery entrance desk.
More information about the Picture Gallery can be found here.