General

An introduction to Oxford: What really happens at a History of Art Undergraduate Open Day?

By Clare Charlesworth, Academic Assistant for History of Art


Not even the rather dreary forecast of ‘summer’ showers could dissuade or dampen the spirits of some several thousand prospective applicants from visiting Oxford as part of Oxford University’s Undergraduate Open Days in June. The History of Art Department welcomed around 40 to its Lecture Theatre on Wednesday 28th June to find out more about the Undergraduate degree and what Oxford has to offer.

So, why study History of Art and why study it at Oxford? Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art and Head of Department, kicked things off by providing a bit of background. The History of Art undergraduate degree here at Oxford is a young one, with its first cohort of students only graduating in 2007. It is a small department, and a place where everyone knows your name. There is an unmatched degree of personal attention here within the Department in terms of contact hours with tutors, although it’s more about the quality than the quantity. Further, the Department is part of the wider University and therefore has access to an enormous array of resources including libraries, museums, galleries that are arguably unmatched in quality or for their inspiration.

Radcliffe             Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library © Department of History of Art

The content and structure of the course was then expanded upon by Professor Alastair Wright, a member of core academic staff and subject tutor at St John’s College. Students all take the same core courses in the First Year, and work on a research-based extended essay (see here for more information) , all of which require spending a significant amount of time in Oxford’s collections and galleries in front of artworks and objects. In the Second and Third Years, students are able to pick from a variety of optional courses from specialists in the Department and further afield (and not just traditional Western art!), culminating in the writing of their thesis. Previous thesis topics have included Space and Style in Inter-War British Cinema, Tattooing as an artistic medium within Contemporary Art, Exhibiting Encounters within an African Archive, and ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’ and British Visual Culture to name a few.

Professor Geraldine Johnson, another member of core staff and subject tutor at Christ Church, then led a discussion about the application process. It is a competitive programme but it is certainly not impossible to get a place! The application and interview process for the subject is actually relatively straightforward (see here for details on the application process). Much has been written and said about interviews at Oxford, so Professor Johnson took the opportunity to try and dispel some common myths and mysteries and provide some key facts in order to show that they really aren’t all that scary. For example, you won’t be asked to do any bizarre things during an interview, tutors aren’t trying to catch you out by seeing if you can give a ‘correct answer’, rather they want to see how you are able to argue your point and how you respond to questions or prompts. They should be seen more as informal conversations than a test, and you are interviewing the tutors just as much as they are interviewing you!

Left: Professor Geraldine Johnson at Christ Church Picture Gallery. Right: Professor Alastair Wright at the Ashmolean Museum © Department of History of Art

Students then had the chance to sit down with some of our current BA students and chat over coffee, tea, and biscuits (fun fact, the quintessential Bourbon biscuit is always a firm favourite amongst Open Day attendees). This provided the perfect opportunity for prospective applicants to find out more about what Oxford and the course is really like from a current student’s perspective; what was the application process like, are the interviews scary, which is the best college to pick (hint, it’s no easier or harder to get into a particular college), what clubs or societies are there to join – there are around 400 clubs and societies to choose from.

Next up, students were invited to take part in a ‘taster class’ led by Professor Craig Clunas, providing prospective applicants with an idea of what to expect from classes here in the History of Art Department. Not only did it provide an opportunity to explore the subject further by discussing images of artworks, it also allowed attendees from all over the country (and indeed from further afield as we welcomed individuals from Malaysia, Ireland, and Mexico) to get to know one another.

What would the study of art history be without actually looking at artworks themselves and Oxford really can boast of some truly fantastic museums and galleries. This time, one half of the students were whisked away to the Ashmolean Museum to look at Chinese paintings and 19th-century art with Professors Craig Clunas and Alastair Wright, and the other group accompanied Professor Geraldine Johnson to explore the treasures contained within Christ Church Picture Gallery. The Gallery comprises a superb collection of 14th-18th Century Italian art, including around 300 paintings, from the likes of Annibale Carracci, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Filippino Lippi. In previous years, prospective applicants have been given tours of exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Pembroke College’s collections of 20th Century British art.

CC_Ashmolean_Open Day_2017Professor Craig Clunas with students in the Ashmolean Museum © Department of History of Art

These short but action-packed gallery visits marked the conclusion of the History of Art Open Day, but students were encouraged to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring all that Oxford has to offer, including familiarising themselves with the various colleges that make up the collegiate University. There are currently 7 colleges that offer the Undergraduate History of Art degree; Christ Church, St Catherine’s, St John’s, St Peter’s, Wadham, Worcester, and Harris Manchester (for mature applicants of 21 years of age and over).

If any of the above has sparked an interest in the subject and you would like to find out more, there are still a small number of places available for our next Undergraduate Open Day on Friday 15th September 2017. Booking in advance is required, so email admin@hoa.ox.ac.uk to book your place! More general information about Oxford University’s Open Days can be found here.


Clare Charlesworth, Academic Assistant for History of Art, is responsible for answering any queries sent to the above email address, for organising the Department’s Undergraduate Open Days and is also, perhaps most importantly, the official Bourbon biscuit provider for the Department.

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Slow Looking

David M. Lubin, Oxford’s inaugural Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, delivered a guest lecture on “Slow Looking” to the Concepts and Methods of Art History class in November 2016. The following is an abridgement.


You find yourself with the luxury of an unstructured hour in one of the world’s great art museums. You can stand in front of anything you like, for as long as you like. Except that you don’t do that, because it would be boring; you can’t imagine looking at anything for that long. Not even for five minutes. Or three, or, let’s face it, two. You must hurry on to another painting, and then another. Why? Because you have a bad case of FOMO. When your friends want to know if you saw Masterpiece X or Y, you don’t want to embarrass yourself by confessing that you didn’t. You’re under strict orders from no less a tyrant than your inner self to hasten from painting to painting, room to room, gallery to gallery.

Many of us in the First World suffer a common affliction, and its name is time sickness. We might also call it time anemia, time bulimia, or time starvation. In capitalist society as first described by Max Weber, the clock is forever ticking, “free” time is never free, and personal leisure is something that mature adults have been taught to exploit for their own self-improvement or self-advancement, rather than waste in a frivolous, non-productive manner.

Appliances introduced in the early twentieth century to make housekeeping easier had the unintended consequence of increasing the homemaker’s sense of never-ending burden by raising, rather than relaxing, standards of cleanliness. Similarly, time-saving devices such as laptops, smartphones, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have transformed us into harried workers on an information assembly line that moves at breakneck speed. See Chaplin in Modern Times or Ethel and Lucy in the chocolate factory for a comic but sadly accurate demonstration of what it feels like to go faster than you want to go, albeit in their case in the realm of industrial rather than digital technology.

We can’t help but feel pressured by instant data and its fracturing of time into smaller and smaller units. As a result our psychic wells run dry. Art has traditionally been understood as a way to replenish those wells. In the past, one went to an art museum to muse, that is, to contemplate works of art in an unhurried manner. Art was to be viewed slowly, respectfully, allowing the forms, shapes, and colours on display to enter our personal space by accretion and thereby alter our ways of looking at the world, the past, the other, or ourselves.

Not any longer. In a memorable New Yorker cartoon, a middle-class couple dashes breathlessly into an art museum, calling to the guard, “Which way to the Mona Lisa. We’re double-parked.”

which-way-to-the-mona-lisa-were-double-parked-barney-tobey© Barney Tobey

On TripAdvisor, a user asks about the fastest route through the Louvre, explaining that her goal is “to get in right when it opens at 9am and hurry directly to the Mona Lisa so as to be able to view it for a few minutes before the crowds start pressing in.” She hurries so that she might have a taste of the serenity for which the painting is acclaimed. She rushes in order to enjoy the feeling of not being rushed.

Alas, that’s the goal of everyone else in the crowd that she believes herself to be distinct from or superior to. Of course not everyone standing before the Mona Lisa does so with serenity in mind. There’s also the narcissistic thrill of being able to proclaim to your legion of “friends” that you’ve checked a must-do, must-see off your bucket list.

SUBMUSEUMS-videoSixteenByNine1050.jpg© Guia Besana for The New York Times

Even Art Fund UK, an organization dedicated to promoting British art museums, succumbs to the speed trap with its fast-paced video “All the Art in London in One Day,” in which the filmmaker powerwalks through multiple London art museums in an effort to “see” as many pieces of art as humanly possible in a single day. Do you call that seeing? It’s certainly not thoughtful looking.

The “which way to the Mona Lisa” urgency felt by museumgoers and other art viewers today has its equivalence in the fast-food industry. We want to devour art as quickly as possible and then get on with our lives: I’ll have my Caravaggio with two Botticellis on the side and a helping of Monet, the sooner served the better.

The slow food movement started in Italy in the 1980s in response to the incursion of the fast-food industry into a land that prided itself not only on its great art but also its great cooking. The premise was that good things take time to mature: Rome, after all, was not built in a day. The movement values slowness in both the production and consumption of food: don’t use hormones and other artificial supplements to speed up food’s cultivation, and don’t rush the serving and eating of lovingly prepared meals.

The slow food movement spawned offshoot movements, such as slow design, slow economy, slow cities, slow cinema, and even slow sex. Why not slow looking, too?

Harvard professor Jennifer Roberts speaks eloquently about the importance of slow looking. See “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention” and a talk on the subject she gave to a gathering of educators.

Roberts learned her slow-looking techniques from her mentor Jules Prown, who taught generations of Yale graduate students how to slow down their looking. His 1982 essay “Mind in Matter,” which lays out techniques of slow looking, has become a staple of art history education.

The most brilliant slow-lookers of recent years include Roberts, Alex Nemerov (also a Prown student), Michael Fried, and T.J. Clark. Of a younger generation is Yale’s Jennifer Raab, whose recent book on the aesthetics of detail in the work of the 19th century landscape painter Frederic Church applies the principle of slow-looking to an artist who was himself famous for looking slowly and inducing viewers to do the same.

The godfather of slow looking, however, has to be Church’s almost exact contemporary, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. His description of Turner’s Slave Ship in volume 3 of Modern Painters is remarkably rich in its visual and verbal fluency.

Another peerless slow-looker is Ruskin’s disciple Marcel Proust, whose multivolume autobiographical novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu swells with micro descriptions of works of art, as well as buildings, home interiors, decorative objects, landscapes, cityscapes, and faces. No one looks more slowly or thoughtfully than Proust. In The Captive, the penultimate volume of the series, he famously describes the dying moments of an aging writer, not unlike himself, who gazes lingeringly at Vermeer’s View of Delft.

1109259.jpgJohannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis, The Haugue, The Netherlands. © Bridgeman Education

Slow looking is a form of mindfulness and, as such, an antidote to mindlessness and distraction. It teaches us to be present in our lives. In environmental terms, it’s a way of valuing what is local (the art immediately before us) over the global (everything that takes us elsewhere).

It’s difficult to maintain this reflective state of mind about an individual work of art when myriad high-culture and pop-culture goods, all competing for our attention, array before us like colorful sweets in a candy shop window. Moreover, slow looking runs counter to what we might call the postmodern work ethic, in which we internalize assembly-line norms and cost-benefit rationality in an unflagging and often unconscious effort to upgrade (“self-optimize”) our lives.

There are institutional reasons as well for the widespread resistance to slow looking. Those whom we might expect to be heartily devoted to it, art historians, are often loath to be caught performing it, as it smacks of formalism or, worse, connoisseurship, both of which have come to signify the bad old days of white male privilege.

To be sure, regarding a work of art as a world unto itself, to be appreciated solely for its beauty, structure, or uniqueness, rather than for what it can reveal about the social ideologies and signifying practices of its day, leaves a viewer open to charges of elitism, fetishism, and hedonistic self-indulgence. Much recent art history has sought, with good reason, to liberate art from its aura, which may legitimately be understood as regressive mystification. And it’s true, slow looking can be reactionary, a vestige of old-guard class hierarchy. It can emphasize aura at the expense of critical, deconstructive, or historical thinking about art.

But it needn’t. It doesn’t have to be the enemy of critical thinking. It can be its ally instead, supporting rather than forestalling revisionist views about classic works of art.

The introduction in the mid-1960s of carousel slide projection in art history classes further contributed to the institutional demise of slow looking. Now, as never before, instructors could whip through a plethora of art images in record time. Why go slow when a clicker at your fingertips provides the excitement of speed? Here, as in so many other sectors of modern life, quantity (in this case, of available images) outstrips quality (of looking), and the mechanical reproduction of images not only facilitates but also encourages slapdash viewing.

That’s too bad, because slow looking brings us into meaningful dialogue with works of art in a way that cursory looking can’t approximate. Being physically and psychologically present with an art object or even its photographic representation for a reasonable stretch of time allows us to experience it phenomenologically and hear what it has to say. Slow looking asks that you sit quietly and listen to an object that wants to speak with you, not to you or at you.

Make no mistake, I am not denying that slow looking can be fetishistic or a form of conspicuous consumption for those who savor expensive art the way they do pricey wines. Yet it can just as well be the opposite of that, the antagonist of bourgeois consumption. Philosophers have long pondered the social utility of art. Plato judged it disruptive of civic unity and therefore dangerous, whereas Adorno considered careful, attentive looking (or listening) to be emancipatory, a defiant act that resists the tightening of capitalism’s noose.

Wherever you come down on this question of the art gaze, however you assess its relevance to modern life, however you wish to wield it for yourself, let us conclude by contemplating the following image of childlike wonder in the face of art.

tumblr_men4r3EDm01qe31lco1_500© Rondo Estrello: Flickr

 

Editor’s note: Content revised August 2017


David M. Lubin was the Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor 2016-17 at Oxford University, and is the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War.

The 2017-18 Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor is Miguel de Baca.

 

 

History of Art UNIQ Summer School 2016

By Nathan Stazicker, BA History of Art Graduate 2016


During the long vacation Oxford is overtaken by tourists and summer school students, forming endless queues outside the Ashmolean and every college connected with Harry Potter. The students who attended the History of Art UNIQ summer school in the first week of July were just as keen to take in the city’s tourist hotspots but also spent their time in Oxford’s libraries preparing for tutorials. Accompanied by two current student mentors – myself and Issy – the 14 potential applicants had a packed week which, at times, felt like it was packing 8 week’s worth of stuff into just 7 days!

That’s not a criticism though, for the whole point of the UNIQ programme (which runs over 4 weeks every July) is to give sixth form students an insight into life at Oxford University, both social and academic. Sleeping and eating in colleges (for free!) – Wadham and St John’s this year – also provides a valuable experience of student life. The great value of UNIQ is that it shows students from state schools and areas of little progression to higher education that Oxford (and university in general) can be right for them. As a former participant of the programme back in 2012, it was a particular pleasure to take on the role of academic mentor this year and help to inspire the next generation of Oxford students.

As the sixth formers’ trains pulled into Oxford on a sunny Saturday afternoon they had little idea of what Oxford could offer them, who they would be spending the week with, or, indeed, what art history is. After seven days immersed in the History of Art Department however, this was far from the case! After an intense day of admissions preparation on the Sunday the students, Issy and I threw ourselves into exploring what Oxford has to offer art historians. Led by Prof. Craig Clunas we visited the Weston Library where we compared 16th century visual representation in the Sheldon tapestry map and Aztec scrolls before heading off for tours of St Catz and Wadham with Prof. Gervase Rosser. And Monday still had more to offer with an introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum and an evening of sports in University Parks (although some of the art historians took the opportunity to sketch rather than run around!).

During the rest of the week we had amazing tours of the Ashmolean with curators – where we also viewed modern Chinese artworks not usually on display, handled medieval manuscripts and Renaissance books in St John’s College library, visited the Christ Church Picture Gallery and climbed up to the lantern of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre! The aim of these visits was to introduce the students to some of Oxford’s collections, leading to a mini research project in the style of the first year object essay. Each group of students was given an object to research, ranging from an Ancient Egyptian scarab beetle to Uccello’s famous painting ‘The Hunt in the Forest’. Over the course of the week these objects were researched using books in the Sackler and Balfour libraries, which led to tutorials with members of the Department and a final presentation at the end of the week. This was a great morning, with each group speaking for 20 minutes and sharing what they had learned, teaching the rest of us a lot along the way!

Aside from the academic programme we enjoyed a comedy night and quiz night and a fabulous alumni dinner at Christ Church. Here we were joined by Ros Holmes, a Junior Research Fellow in the History of Art, and Louise Stewart, Cross Collections Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, both former students of the Department. With a Q&A session and a three course dinner there was plenty of time to chat and the students enjoyed both the fancy food and the chance to learn about opportunities after university.

On Friday afternoon the UNIQ students ‘graduated’ in the Sheldonian and received books courtesy of Oxford University Press before we headed off to the farewell BBQ. Everyone needed a rest after such an action-packed week but there was unanimous agreement at how enjoyable UNIQ had been. As they headed back home to embark on Year 13, there were more than a few who had their sights firmly set on a History of Art degree from Oxford. Thanks must be given to the students who made the week so enjoyable with their dedication, and to the hard work of all the Department and museum staff who gave up their valuable time, especially to Prof. Clunas who dedicated his week to UNIQ.


Nathan was awarded the History of Art Gibbs Prize 2016 for achieving the highest examination marks in his cohort. He also received the Good Citizen Prize for making the greatest contribution to the life of the Department during his course, over and beyond his academic work.

More information about Oxford’s UNIQ summer schools can be found here.

Thinking Colour

Lucy_Whelan_Thinking_Colour_header

 

By Lucy Whelan, with co-organiser Anita Paz. Lucy is a current DPhil student at the History of Art Department.


Reading academic calls for papers, I am often reminded of when the children in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree end up at Dame Slap’s school. The longer the children look at the questions written on the board, the more they realise they are impossible. “If there are a hundred pages in a book, how many books would there be on the shelf?” – Three blackbirds sat on a cherry tree. They ate one hundred and twenty-three of the cherries. How many were left?” – and “Why is a blackboard?”

The impossibility of the questions in calls for papers is – usually – not because they are sheer nonsense, of course, but because every question taken seriously opens a hundred more. Following Heidegger, real thinking is not monolithic, or answer-seeking, but playfully opening ourselves up to an encounter with the groundless and unfamiliar. In art history, asking questions of mute objects can sometimes have a similar effect. And there is no subject of interrogation more seemingly silent (or in excess of language) than colour, traditionally mistrusted as irrational, feminine, and carnal.

When my colleague Anita Paz and I were asked to lead a class for Hanneke Grootenboer’s History of Art and Visual Culture MSt option on Image and Thought last year, we wanted to discuss the different thinking tools or mechanisms that images have or use, and colour seemed like one obvious direction. How do images articulate thought, or even, how do they think, through colour? What is colour’s affective power? Can colour be a device for – or even a form of – thinking, for artist or viewer? These were the questions we wanted to explore, only we couldn’t find much written on them. So we decided to bring together those who have explored these questions, to consider the philosophical relations between colour and thinking. We invited Eric Alliez, David Batchelor, Laure Blanc-Benon, Natasha Eaton, Paul Smith, and Liz Watkins – and to our astonishment, all of them said yes.

Lucy_Whelan_Thinking_Colour_poster

The Thinking Colour Symposium poster

It turns out we weren’t alone in wishing to sound out the silence around colour. In addition to our speakers we had over sixty attendees, many travelling here from Europe, the USA, and even Australia. We were also joined by paper respondents both from Oxford – Hanneke Grootenboer and Justin Coombes (Ruskin School of Art) – and from wider afield, and by yet more speakers following a call for papers. And so we found ourselves on the day of the referendum result, 24th June, in the beautiful Danson Room at Trinity College, with voices from various perspectives and various countries, coming together to explore colour.

In our first panel, Natasha Eaton (History of Art, UCL) and Paul Smith (History of Art, Warwick) thought through the phenomenology of colour in different ways, moving us from Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of colour and colour wheels, to negotiations of the colour white in contemporary Indian art. Responses by Justin Coombes (Oxford) and Susanne Komossa (Architecture, Delft Institute of Technology) were both poetic and playful.

The second panel brought together thinkers who have expanded the ways we approach colour. David Batchelor’s paper was radiant, arguing visually and verbally for colour as a fall, a loss of consciousness, a place, while Eric Alliez (History of Art, Kingston University) looked at the painter Daniel Buren’s ‘colour-thinking’. They were responded to by Judith Mottram (Royal College of Art), who raised the question of the radical power of both colour and form, and Hanneke Grootenboer, who addressed the conceptual state of betweenness that colour inhabits, and its philosophical consequences.

In the third panel, Laure Blanc-Benon (University Paris-Sorbonne) and Liz Watkins (University of Leeds) explored the significance of colour in photography and film, as Laure asked how we would understand photography if colour photography had been invented first, and Liz looked at how colour shaped early non-fiction films made of Antarctic explorations. Both papers explored role of colour in media technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that was furthered by their respondent Regina Lee Blaszczyk (University of Leeds).

A round-table of shorter papers in the late afternoon acted like a kaleidoscope, collecting up our ideas on colour, and holding them up to the light. Tessa Laird from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary filmmaker’s and the power of colour to evoke a bodily unconscious and overspill various boundaries; Claudia Tobin (Royal Drawing School) looked at chromatic language in Virginia Woolf and what it is to inhabit colour; Sophie Knezic also from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary artist James Turrell through Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on colour’s intensity; Rey Conquer (University of Oxford) argued how colour helps us to think through poetic processes; and Elodie Ripoll (Universität Koblenz-Landau / EHESS, Paris) described what she designates as three elementary functions of colour words from a literary perspective. What ensued was a rich discussion of colour from various disciplines and perspectives.

Paul_Klee_-_Signs_In_Yellow_-_Google_Art_Project

Paul Klee, Signs in Yellow (1937). Public domain via Wikimedia.

My favourite moment from the day, without a doubt, was when an attendee suggested that we had been doing too much thinking colour, and not enough feeling colour. Because it made me realise how actually, by thinking with colour as much as about it, and through some particularly sensitive and sensuous papers, we had managed to do both. Sitting in a dark room overwhelmed by so many phosphorescent slides, we had experienced colour as ‘a kind of bliss’, as Barthes has put it, its jouissance. And, if we follow Heidegger, this too is a kind of thinking. For ‘joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought’. And by not rejecting these mysterious things as those to be ‘kept out of the wings of thought’, we widen the spectrum of thinking and make it polychromatic.

References

Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree (London, 1987)

Martin Heidegger, What is called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, 1972)


The Thinking Colour Symposium was co-organised by Lucy Whelan and Anita Paz. It was made possible by the AHRC-TORCH graduate fund, and their hosts Trinity College.

Please visit the ‘Past Event’ page for more information and paper abstracts: http://torch.ox.ac.uk/thinking-colour-symposium.

Student Placements: Working in the Ashmolean Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department

By Ella Letort, Second Year BA History of Art Undergraduate


One of the Oxford History of Art Department’s great strengths is the extent to which it makes use of the city’s world-class collections. From the start of our degrees, students are familiarised with the art and objects offered by local museums and galleries. Oxford’s collections remain at the core of the undergraduate programme’s layout, with tutorials frequently held in the University’s Ashmolean Museum, as well as a first year extended essay requiring independent research on an object held within the city. Second year collections placements, organised through the Department, aim to build upon this by offering us the opportunity to see Oxford’s museums and galleries in fresh light through a placement within one of the many available departments.

Giovanni

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591-1666), St Francis kneeling, c. 1615. Charcoal crayon, heightened with white, on buff paper. Reproduced with permission. © Ashmolean Museum Prints and Drawings Department

My placement alongside the Ashmolean Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department, taking place one afternoon per week throughout Hilary and Trinity terms, has fitted comfortably around academic work while being substantial enough to accommodate individual projects. Thus far, my work has largely involved digitally cataloguing etchings and engravings from the School of Fontainebleau – a period in which I had, and have, little expertise. One of the reasons for my application to the Print Room was the appeal of close encounters with works of art; mounted prints and drawings can be handled with gloves, and this encourages up-close observation. My lack of specialist knowledge certainly necessitated careful examination of the prints and written sources at hand. Far from being monotonous, this method of cataloguing has been, for me, an exercise in observation and has given me the chance to work closely with objects I would not have otherwise encountered. Each print presented its own challenges; often the work of art would require further research or, at times, the identification of the artist or subject matter. This enabled me to feel that, although my role within the Print Room was relatively small, I was nonetheless able to make a contribution to the Department.

From the very start of my time working alongside them, the staff have been exceptionally welcoming and helpful. As well as cataloguing, I was given numerous opportunities to view works of art relating to current courses of mine, which reflects the Department’s commitment to fostering greater interest in the arts with as many people as possible. For example, I was able to study John Ruskin’s watercolours – which are part of his Teaching Collections, and are housed in the Ashmolean’s Print Room – alongside the second year ‘Victorian Intellect and Culture’ module. Besides the support it provides to History of Art students, the Print Room’s diverse collection caters to the varied interests of University academics as well as members of the public, both of whom could frequently be found viewing the prints and drawings on offer during my working hours.

The collections placement has deepened my knowledge of how large museums and galleries like the Ashmolean work; in particular how they strengthen the academic and public understanding of art across Oxford. The cataloguing and research skills I’ve taken away from my time in the Prints and Drawings Department have put me in good stead during interviews for summer internships and have lead to future opportunities. The History of Art collections placements not only help undergraduates to engage further with the collections they frequently use, but also offer us a foot up in a competitive career sector with a growing demand for prior experience.


The Ashmolean Museum’s Print Room is home to one of Britain’s finest collections of European graphic arts. Find more information on their holdings, opening hours, and contact details here

John Ruskin’s Teaching Collections have been digitised by the Ashmolean and made available online here.