The Laurence Binyon Prize: Exploring Photographic Art in Tokyo

By Hannah Debson, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture (2019)

The Laurence Binyon Prize

The famous historian of Chinese art Laurence Binyon created a prize open to Oxford students of all disciplines, to encourage students to engage with the arts in other cultures. Specifically the prize enables travel to Asia or another area outside of Europe. This type of academic grant is unusual, given that it requires your topic of interest to be completely independent from any current academic projects, and as such it encourages students to follow passions and interests beyond their studies. There is a competitive application, consisting of a detailed proposed itinerary and statement of purpose, for the prize money of up to £1000 to be put towards an art-focused trip abroad. This prize is a fantastic opportunity and I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in it to apply!

Hopefully this blog will inspire anyone who is considering applying to take the plunge!

Tokyo and Art

As one of Japan’s most vibrant urban centres, Tokyo has steadily developed as a national and international artistic hub. Although I visited a range of museums – from the dynamic installations of the Mori contemporary art museum to the delicacy of ancient Japanese craftsmanship at the Nezu Museum – the focus of my trip lay in photography.

Since the 1970s independent photography galleries began appearing across Japanese cities, spreading and accelerating in Tokyo in the 1990s. Tokyo therefore provided a fascinating entry point from which to investigate the lively and diverse mixture of fine art photographers that have taken inspiration from Japanese and urban culture.

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

My exploration began, unsurprisingly, at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, a colossal building established in 1995, holding a vast collection of over 35,000 photographic works, both by international and Japanese artists. The exhibition that I visited there was titled ‘Reading Images: The Time of Photography’. This exhibition selected images from within the Museum’s collection which explored the concept of time, either visually, implicitly or through narrative. One entry by Midorikawa Yoichi used long exposure to reveal the flight path of fireflies, creating a somewhat frenetic swirl of white lines dotted across the print. This creates a sense of speed which juxtaposes against the ‘frozen’ nature of a photograph, much in the same way as famous Japanese photographer Hiroshi Hamaya’s 1931 ‘Nightscape of Ginza’.

1Midorikawa Yoichi, ‘Fireflies’ (1957)

Another work that proved particularly powerful in this exhibition was Taguchi Kazuna’s ‘Look how long I’ve grown waiting for you’: a set of four hazy portraits of a woman looking softly out at the viewer. On inspection of the accompanying information you learn that this woman is in fact a fictional creation, built through a lengthy production process. Kazuna first creates a woman’s face from hundreds of magazine images, then she paints the created face before photographing and printing the digital image in a dark room. The result is a soft focused image receding into the shadows, inviting the viewer to question reality, fantasy and provoking a sense of mystery.

2Taguchi Kazuna, ‘Look how long i’ve grown waiting for you’ (2007)

Exploring smaller galleries

Moving beyond the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, I moved onto a host of smaller galleries, of which one of the most interesting was the Photo Gallery International. Nestled in the back streets in Higashi Azabu, this small but well-known gallery was born out of a meeting between American photographer Ansel Adams and Japanese photographer Yasuhiko Sata in the 1970s. Its single exhibition room held a range of works, where the theme of time continued to be important. For example, in Narumi Hiramoto’s print of a metronome, forever suspended by a hand that is either stopping or starting it. In stark contrast, the stoic, graphic nature of Atsuto Shimada’s architectural photography appeared to stand for simplicity and permanence, a sentiment that was front of mind when I visited Mount Fuji a few days later.

Beyond the gallery

As I moved around Tokyo I explored as many facets of its culture as I could, from the maid cafes and manga bookstores of Akihabara to the bustling streets of Shibuya to Edo Castle in central Tokyo. I also experienced an array of traditional Japanese experiences, including a tea ceremony and staying in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) nestled at the base of Mt Fuji.

3The night sky in Shibuya, Tokyo © Hannah Debson

The food became a key part of my experience, and the abundance of seafood began to dominate my culinary experience. Interestingly, it was this element of Japanese culture that may have influenced Michiko Kon’s avant-garde photography. Her fascinating, and somewhat disturbing black and white prints incorporated sea-life interspersed with human or animal segments to create obscure, dark and grotesque multimedia prints. After spending time with her work, she became one of my favourite artists on the trip.

squidMichiko Kon, ‘Squid, Hands and Flowers’ (1991)

Tokyo’s photographic scene proved to be diverse and thoughtful, and certainly deserving of more attention. I look forward to following the careers of some of the photographic artists I discovered on my trip, and to returning to Japan again in the future.

Further information about prizes and funding can be found here.

Small Pieces of Advice for MSt History of Art and Visual Culture Students

By Mary Caple, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture (2019)

When I was asked to put together a blog post for this site, I tried to think of what I would have wanted to know going into the History of Art MSt degree. Most of the tips that follow might seem obvious at the outset; these are pieces of advice repeated to postgraduate students all over the country at the start of each academic year. There is so much going on – many student magazines! committees! museums! – that differentiating one from another and figuring out which speaks to you can take months, and by then you’d be a third of the way through your course. What I hope will be useful here are some suggestions for places to seek out support and new experiences particular to Oxford, and to those of you who might have similar interests to my own.

Seek out art history through different disciplines

A lot of your year will be spent thinking about and discussing historiography, but that’s no reason not to look outside the disciplinary box. Stitch together something that resonates with you. Griselda Pollock recently reflected that her own development as an art historian has taken her through science, theology, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and economics, ‘with and through art made across a multitude of situations, perspectives, bodies, minds, agonies, and desires.’ Although it might be difficult to see over the art history department’s horizon (particularly in a short time), seeking out other disciplinary perspectives may give you the inspirational bolt of lightning for a research paper or approach to a dissertation chapter you needed. The internet is full of syllabi to help you make inroads into postcolonial theory, media studies, or whatever it is that might help you think about art in new ways. Keep an eye out for seminar termcards for talks or do as we did, and make a group of keen beans with whom to share and attend events you come across. Find things you like and come at them from all angles – for me, this ranged from the economics of copying 16th century paintings to photographing sculpture to museum rehanging as interpretive strategy.

2019-02-01 12.16.43Visiting Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge on a break from the archives © Mary Caple

2019-02-01 13.46.20Photograph of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s studio by Paul Laib, Kettle’s Yard archives © Mary Caple

Take advantage of opportunities for financial support

While the thought of adding yet another deadline to a tightly-packed year might make you cringe, the university offers lots of opportunities for financial support hidden within plain sight. Most colleges have travel funds offered once a term for archival work, field research, and conferences. The History faculty and History of Art department have small pots of money available as well. Take advantage of it! Students from my cohort went to Germany, Italy, and the U.S. As art history relies so much on images of artworks, it can be easy to underestimate the value of going to see something, taking it in in person, and seeing what else might be available in archives. For my research, archivists at Tate in London and Kettle’s Yard were incredibly useful, helpful contacts, who pointed me towards documents I might not have found in catalogues or online.

Although the Fees, funding and scholarship search usually only includes yearly scholarships, if you’ve missed out on funding you could still be eligible (look for your country of birth, subject, etc), keep them in mind in case you think of returning for a DPhil.

2019-04-13 10.40.04Photos on display at the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives © Mary Caple

IMG_8991Artwork from the Wolfson picture loan scheme in my room © Mary Caple

You don’t have to look far for hands-on experience

Oxford’s colleges have incredible, often underrated art collections. A quick search on Art UK pulls up some of the expected (portraits of bygone Oxford dons) but also incredible sculpture, painting, and more from the 14th century to today. Get in touch with whoever manages the collection and learn from them, these are amazing works you get to live with for only a short time. Some colleges allow students on their arts committee – this is a fantastic opportunity to gain experience mounting exhibitions, contributing to institutional strategy, devising budgets, and collaborating to care for artworks on behalf of a community. At Wolfson I was happy to show the work of the fantastically talented glass artist Jochen Holz, bringing his work to Oxford for the first time.

One of the great things about many student-run publications at Oxford is that many of them only ask for commitment one term at a time. Here you have a chance to build your own skills – sub-editing, design, commissioning pieces as an editor, meet students outside your departmental and college community, and develop adapting voice to purpose in your writing and editing. Isis, the Oxford Review of Books, Cherwell, and the Oxford Student all recruit termly.

The Ashmolean’s Krasis program was a really rewarding experience for me. As a student fellow, I participated in a series of workshops led by DPhils, Junior Research Fellows, and a curator from the museum. Although I spent plenty of time in my course seminars discussing artworks, it was rare to spend two hours in front of something, exploring the effects of that presence. The program has been created specifically for Oxford’s workload-heavy students – as there was very minimal preparation involved for the sessions I felt I could fully enjoy them.

2019-02-10 18.50.49Something to aim for © Mary Caple

IMG_8821Oxford gardens © Mary Caple

Your lungs need fresh air

Make a habit of getting a solid amount of fresh air a few days a week, whether on a walk with friends or your college welfare dog if you are so lucky.  For me, jogging was not only an outlet to combat the stress of deadlines, it also provided a way to explore Oxford more than I did on any given day zig-zagging between libraries and home to bed.

Further information about the MSt History of Art and Visual Culture course can be found here.

8 Bits of Advice for BA History of Art Students

By Madeleine McCarthy and Michael Kurtz (BA History of Art 2019)


1. Learn to love the Sackler Library

It’s easy (cool, even) to go your whole degree without really using the purpose-built art history library, especially if your college has a well-equipped internal library. But if you give the Sackler some time and let it become one of your spaces in Oxford, it can be a saving grace. After all, what it lacks in glamour, natural light and beauty it makes up for with large desks, comfortable chairs and every history of art book you will need. Having a place to escape to (from the occasionally claustrophobic environment of college) and get my work done in peace was one of the things that got me through.


2. Prioritise reading

The pressure each week to produce an essay often makes it tempting to skimp on reading. You should definitely ‘read smart’ (don’t try to read every text let alone every page from the reading lists) but reading and noting key texts thoroughly is crucial. When you write essays or prepare for exams, your own arguments and visual analysis will come easily if you already have an in-depth understanding of the arguments of previous art historians. Once you’re in the Oxford routine, you’ll be able to write an essay in a couple of hours – especially if your reading and ideas are clear in your mind beforehand.


Christ ChurchHall Staircase Christ Church © Josephine Bailey


3. Communicate with your tutors

Oxford can be a bewildering place full of unnecessary mysteries, but I never had a tutor who wasn’t keen to change this. Whether you want advice on essay writing technique, tips for extra reading, or your work is being affected by issues outside of the classroom, your tutor would always rather you sought help and communicated. The tutorial system is the best aspect of Oxford academia because it fosters close interaction, mutual interest and respect between staff and students – so make the most of it!


4. Do access work

Art history has an image problem (ha ha). The stereotype of the subject as a reserve of the most privileged sections of society can hamper its transformation into a more open, socially conscious field. For this reason, it is important to consider widening access to the discipline as a central aspect of your involvement. No number of radical Marxist essays will cut it if you aren’t actively engaged in improving your immediate academic context. Apply to work on open days, the UNIQ summer school or one of the many other outreach programmes during your time.


5. Write about art you love

Throughout your entire History of Art course it will be necessary to discuss case studies and particular art works in your essays. Yes, you will have to mould your choices to fit the topics of your essays but I would strongly advise choosing works that you genuinely engage with and find stimulating. This will make studying and writing weekly papers much more enjoyable. As well as this, weekly essays are often used in revision for final exams so it will be much more pleasurable to look back to writing that you enjoyed producing, and if you like your chosen artworks the whole topic will be much more memorable. Your passion shows and will be recognised!


Sloanes HouseSir John Soane’s Museum © Josephine Bailey


6. Make time for extracurricular activities and breaks

Art is great – where would we be without it? However, you have to be careful to not let such an interesting and exciting subject become a chore or a burden. Over-working can cause this. I do not know one person at Oxford who spends 100% of their time on their degree work. Always take breaks, spend time with friends and definitely take part in extracurricular activities which you already enjoy or are new to you and seem exciting. Both the university and your college have so much to offer.


7. Make neat notes

Normally in tutorials, classes and lectures you are concentrating on listening and discussing and only manage to scrawl down a few, illegible notes. Try your best to neatly write up these notes at the end of the day. Firstly, this makes reading over them during revision much more easy and bearable. Secondly, it consolidates your understanding of the topic and plants it more firmly in your brain. Finally, it makes you feel ordered and clear-headed.


8. Enjoy yourself

The three years of the course goes so quickly and now that I am finished with my degree I actually miss it quite a lot! Although it can get stressful, try to take a step back every so often and appreciate what an interesting course you are studying in such a beautiful city. Make the most of the Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers, Modern Art Oxford, the Weston Library exhibitions etc. Make the most of all the fascinating collections you have access to. Keep loving art!

final examFinal exam © Josephine Bailey

Further information about the BA History of Art course can be found here.

Reflections on ‘Pilgrimage and the Senses’ Conference

By Helena Guzik and Sylvia Alvares-Correa (DPhil History of Art)

PilgrimageSenses_wordmark_square_300pxH_web-cropOn Friday, June 7th, Oxford welcomed over 70 international delegates to the “Pilgrimage and the Senses” conference, hosted in the historic St Luke’s Chapel in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. Organised by Oxford History of Art DPhil Students Helena Guzik and Sylvia Alvares-Correa, with assistance from Shanti Daffern (MSt Student, Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford), the interdisciplinary conference shed light on how sensory perception shapes and is shaped by the experience of pilgrimage across cultures, faith traditions, and throughout history.

While pilgrimages are grounded in physical experiences—a journey (real or imagined), encounters with sites and/or relics, and commemorative tokens—they simultaneously demand a devotional focus on the metaphysical. A ubiquitous and long-lasting devotional practice, pilgrimage is a useful lens through which to examine how humans encounter the sacred through the tools of perception available to us. Focusing on the ways in which pilgrimage engages the senses contributes to our knowledge of how people have historically understood both religious experience and their bodies as vehicles of devotional participation.

Given the recent surge in both sensory studies and pilgrimage studies, the time seemed ideal for a conference combining these fields. The call for papers generated a groundswell of interest: in the end, 15 papers were chosen from the over 150 submissions received from 34 countries. What resulted was a dynamic programme, featuring a mix of senior scholars and early career researchers. Through their papers we journeyed from early Solomonic Ethiopia to Renaissance Italy, from medieval Jerusalem to modern India, from the early Islamic Middle East to contemporary Britain. Our speakers traveled equally great distances, flying in from as far afield as Chile, India, Thailand, and the United States.

The day was divided into five thematic panels: “Texts and Travellers”, “Sacred Soundscapes”, “Perceiving in Proximity”, “Embodying Pilgrimage”, and “Objects and Memory”. Speakers approached the conference theme from a number of disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, art history, history, literature, religious studies, and sociology. Together, the papers demonstrated how sensory engagement helped amplify, ritualize, record, and recall the experience of pilgrimage.

The first panel, “Texts and Travellers”, chaired by Professor Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), explored the ways in which textual material facilitated or documented the sensory experiences of pilgrims, whether real or imagined. DPhil Student Raphaela Rohrhofer (University of Oxford) got things started with an examination of the role played by the sense of sight in The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode, the anonymous fifteenth-century translation of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de la vie humaine (1331). Professor Anthony Bale (Birkbeck, University of London) looked at medieval pilgrims’ accounts of the Holy Land to understand how perceptions—particularly visual—of the sacred topography of the Holy Land shaped emotional responses and constituted a form of geographical knowledge. We then shifted to Africa to learn from Dr Jacopo Gnisci (University of Oxford) about how manuscripts facilitated contemplation of the loca sancta in early Solomonic Ethiopia.

IMG_7818Conference co-convener Helena Guzik delivers the welcome remarks.  © Eleanor Townsend

After a break for hot drinks in the Andrew Wiles Building, we returned for our second panel on “Sacred Soundscapes”, chaired by Professor Gervase Rosser (University of Oxford). Dr Blaíthín Hurley (University College Cork) launched us into an examination of the lively soundscape described in fifteenth-century canon Pietro Casola’s pilgrimage account. Professor Guangtian Ha (Haverford College) detailed a series of vocal rituals in the pilgrimages of China’s Jahriyya Sufi community, revealing how organised use of the human voice forges identity, cultivates piety, sustains sanctity, and builds community. Finally, Professor Kathryn Barush (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley) brought our focus back to our own backyard in her consideration of how the British Pilgrimage Trust is making effective use of ancient pilgrimage song and chant—a musical site of communitas—to translate the practice of British pilgrimage from the past into the present. Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the BPT, was in attendance, and got the entire room to take advantage of the chapel’s acoustics by participating in an impromptu rendition of Jerusalem.

For our third panel, “Perceiving in Proximity”, chaired by Professor Kathryne Beebe (University of North Texas), we drew our focus inward, to sensory experiences involving direct bodily contact. DPhil Student Fuchsia Hart (University of Oxford) analysed Ibn Qulawayh’s tenth-century The Complete Pilgrimage, one of the earliest pilgrimage guides in the formative period of Shi’i Islam, to examine the roles of scent, smell, and taste in pilgrimage rituals. Dr Adam Bursi (Utrecht University) then explored early Islamic proscriptions for and against what to touch at pilgrimage sites.

Following lunch we returned for our fourth panel, chaired by Professor Peter Frankopan (University of Oxford), on the theme of “Embodying Pilgrimage”. PhD Student Medardo Rosario (University of Chicago) analysed the text of Francisco López de Úbeda’s 1605 La pícara justina (The Spanish Jilt) to show how protagonist’s embodied pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela gave her agency to escape the moralising and marginalising restrictions of seventeenth-century Spanish society. Dr Shruti Amar (King’s College London) examined the experiences of female pilgrims at the Shravan festival of Jharkhand, focusing on how caste politics influence sensory perceptions of the journey. Finally, Dr Tatsuma Padoan (University College Cork / SOAS, University of London) took us on an anthropological journey to Mt Kiso Ontake in Japan to explore the phenomenon of spirit possession, considering bodies themselves as moving sites of sensory encounters with the sacred.

After another break for caffeine, we returned for our final panel of the day, on “Objects and Memory”, chaired by Professor Jaś Elsner (University of Oxford). PhD Student Kristen Racaniello (City University of New York) looked at seventh-century pilgrim flasks and their potential to capture the sensory experiences of shrines for the pilgrim to carry home. A dual presentation by Professor Olaya Sanfuentes (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) and Natalia Keller (Museum of Solidarity Salvador Allende / Adolfo Ibañez University) delved into the rich sensory world of fanales, illuminating how these glass bells which encase miniature figurines of the Christ Child acted as vehicles for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South American nuns to experience a mental pilgrimage to paradise. Last but not least, Professor Juliet Simpson (Coventry University) addressed the modern afterlife of medieval beguinages, treated by nineteenth-century travellers and artists as nostalgic and touristic sites of sensory pilgrimage.

The day’s events culminated with a keynote address by Professor Kathryn Rudy (University of St Andrews), introduced by Professor Henrike Lähnemann (University of Oxford). We journeyed from Belgium to India to witness how objects from different faith traditions were used to evoke and recall the sensory experience of pilgrimages, such as a sixteenth-century shirt embroidered with Holy Pilgrimage shrines in Mughal India which served as both a visual and haptic stimulus.

Throughout the course of the day, the papers showed how visual, tactile, and olfactory stimuli could serve as mnemonic devices helping pilgrims recall their own journeys or even to conjure visualizations of journeys that were never physically enacted. You could drink your clay amulet, wear your embroidered shirt, or trace your fingers around a painted miniature of a shrine. We learned how shrines can encompass not only mountains and architectural structures, but even the human body itself. We heard how the soundscapes of pilgrimages—both harmonious and cacophonous—were used to cultivate personal piety and to help forge a common group identity, even linking a pilgrim to those who have come before them.

From the lively conversations overheard throughout the day and which continued into the evening, it is clear that the theme sparked many ideas for future projects and avenues for collaboration. The rich and varied papers that the conference call solicited attest to the potential for this topic to be carried further, and we sincerely hope this conference will inspire further inquiry into these themes.

OPSN_pilgrimagesenses_5Conference co-convener Sylvia Alvares-Correa explains the history of Godstowe Abbey to our group of pilgrims. © Helena Guzik

Finally, no pilgrimage-themed conference would be complete without the chance to make a local pilgrimage. On Saturday, June 8th, interested speakers and their guests were invited on a 15km pilgrimage, beginning at St Leonard’s Church in Eynsham and culminating at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Along the way we visited the remains of Godstowe Abbey—burial place of King Henry II’s “Fair Rosamunde” and a favoured picnic ground of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell—as well as St Margaret’s Church and St Frithuswith’s Holy Well, a popular pilgrimage destination with a rich history. The sunny, windy day allowed for a leisurely walk through the Oxfordshire countryside, along with some delightful detours for kite-flying, strawberry picking, lunch at the Trout pub, and an impromptu performance by Henrike Lähnemann on the harmonium at St Margaret’s. As everyone knows, the best parts of pilgrimages are unplanned.

“Pilgrimage and the Senses” was generously sponsored by The Oxford Pilgrimage Studies Network, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), the History of Art Department, the Centre for Early Modern Studies, and Camino Pilgrim ™ The Confraternity of St James. The organisers would also like to thank our colleagues in TORCH, the Mathematics Institute, the St Luke’s Chapel team, and the staff of the Vaults & Garden Café for making the day run so smoothly. Finally, an enormous thank you to all our speakers, panel chairs, and attendees for contributing to the conference’s success.

For the full programme and paper titles, please visit the conference website

‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Oxonian History of Adolphe Braun’s Sistine Chapel Series

By Sofia Garré, (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

This research project was made possible by generous funding awarded by the Edgar Wind Benefactors Committee and the John Fell Fund. It concerned the provenance of a set of photographs by Adolphe Braun of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, housed in the Visual Resources Centre. Also of interest was the possibility of a connection with Professor Edgar Wind, first Professor of History of Art at Oxford, who specialised in the work of Michelangelo.

Last year, like many fellow Master’s students, I was busy writing my dissertation, preparing for exams and sending out job applications. However, when the opportunity to investigate Adolphe Braun’s 1869 photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel came up, I happily embraced the possibility of making the term a little busier. Currently held at the Visual Resources Centre in the Department of History of Art these 125 carbon-print photographs have been digitised and are now available to view online on the Digital Bodleian site.

The prints were initially released in 1869 by the French photographer Adolphe Braun, whose company was among the earliest to make photographs of artworks available to a wider public. In fact, at the time of their release, Braun’s prints constituted the first photographic survey of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, making the images interesting not only from an aesthetic perspective but also from an historiographical one. Given this premise, it is not surprising that the department should want to find out more about the acquisition and subsequent uses of Braun’s series. It is precisely with this intention in mind that I first approached the photographs, though – this time, quite surprisingly – I soon realised that very little information existed on Braun’s series, its acquisition and its movements within the University.

Part of my surprise in this lack of documentation stemmed from a very practical consideration: Braun’s photographs, mounted on boards that are nearly half a metre tall, are hard to miss, particularly as they are housed in six, equally large, book-shaped cases. The cases themselves are covered in red leather bearing the crest of the Earl of Eldon, which provided me with a crucial piece of information on the origin of the series.

0002.jpgAdolphe Braun, View of the Sistine Chapel, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The Eldon family made important contributions to the study of the Italian Renaissance at the University of Oxford. In 1845, the Second Earl of Eldon contributed £4000 towards the acquisition of drawings by Italian masters, and most notably by Michelangelo and Raphael. Twenty-three years later, in 1868, his son donated an additional £1200 to guarantee the maintenance of the drawings and the University’s continuing dedication to the illustration of Italian art.[1] Thus, it seems reasonable that the Eldon fund would have been used by the curators of the University Galleries, founded in 1855 and indicated as recipient of the second donation, to purchase Braun’s photographs.

Placing this reasonable hypothesis on firmer foundations, however, was a less straightforward endeavour than I had foreseen. The prints are unaccounted for in University publications such as the University Calendar, which limits itself to a laconic mention of the donations made by the Earls of Eldon in the issues published between 1855 and 1871.[2] Equally, I have not been able to uncover any definitive reference attesting to the precise moment of the prints’ acquisition. There are no comprehensive accounts of the University acquisitions in the nineteenth century and no extensive list of the artworks purchased using the Eldon Fund currently exists in the Ashmolean Museum or in other University archives.

Only the issue of University Gazette published on the 14th of June 1870 suggests, however vaguely, the presence of Braun’s photographic series, situating it at the north end of the Great Gallery in the University Galleries. There, the document claims, were ‘cases containing prints, with illustrations of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, provided out of the funds placed at the disposal of the curators by the present Lord Eldon.’[3] The reference to the prints was intriguing, but far from unmistakable. The date of the account – June 1870 – struck me as especially problematic: could all the photographs, taken in Rome in 1869, have been printed and placed in personalized cases at such an early date?

In my attempt to answer the question, I relied on one of the few scholarly texts engaging directly with Braun’s Sistine Chapel series, Philippe Jarjat’s ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic Album and Visual Identity,’ published in 2011. Jarjat’s discussion is centered on a series of images released in Paris, which resemble those in the collection of the Visual Resources Centre in both size and number. Furthermore, like their Oxonian counterparts, the Parisian prints are housed in book-shaped cases whose spines are covered in red leather (although, it should be noted, the French series only comprises two cases). [4]

Adolphe Braun, Delphic Sibyl and Daniel, box 4,  © Department of History of Art

According to Jarjat, such images would have been available individually and as part of a series from 1870 – a possibility that partly undermined my hypothesis, which located the images in the University Galleries as early as June 1870. However, while navigating the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I stumbled upon a catalogue of Braun’s Sistine Chapel photographs dating back to 1869, listing in their present order all the images included in the Oxonian series with the exception of four prints capturing works by Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli and Botticelli.[5] Jarjat’s article does not account for this document, and, in fact, claims that the earliest printed catalogue was released in 1876.[6]

The existence of the 1869 list conferred a renewed credibility onto the possibility that the cases mentioned in the 1870 University Gazette actually included those containing Braun’s prints by indicating that the images themselves may have been available before 1870. The prominence of the Eldon crest on the cases also sustains the hypothesis that the acquisition of Braun’s prints may have shortly followed the 1868 donation made by the Third Earl of Eldon. Assuming that the prints were actually acquired between late 1869 and early 1870, the University of Oxford would have been among the first to acquire Braun’s photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel: a gesture demonstrating the appeal of the images as well as the University’s interest in illustrating the Renaissance through a variety of media.

But how were the prints used between 1869 and their reappearance in the Visual Resources Centre in 2003 remains somewhat of a mystery. Braun’s photographs were moved to the Department of History of Art following the transfer of the Western Art Department Library from the Ashmolean Museum to the Sackler Library in 2001. This relocation was consistent with the different functions of the two institutions, the Visual Resources Centre constituting a more suitable home for the prints than the Sackler, which does not collect images.

However, very little information exists in the University’s records concerning the status of the images prior to the transfer. Considering the interest of Edgar Wind – the first Professor of the History of Art in Oxford – in Michelangelo’s work and his extensive research on the Sistine Chapel, looking for references to Braun’s prints in Wind’s scholarly work, personal and academic correspondence, and slides seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, though, these sources suggest that he may have not been aware of the existence of these images. For example, in 1958, three years after his appointment, Wind complained in a letter to Henry Allen Moe that ‘as for slides and photographs, there were none at all when I arrived.’[7]

0012Adolphe Braun, Ceiling of the Chapel in Four Parts, No. 2, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The same lack of awareness (or interest) pervades other accounts, including the records of the Keeper of Fine Arts of the Ashmolean Museum, published from 1885. Such sources invariably mention the precious drawings and sketches held by the University, but they fail to place emphasis on the didactic and aesthetic value of Braun’s series or later photographic reproductions of artworks, such as those by Alinari and Anderson.

This probably tells us more about the perceived value of photography in nineteenth and early twentieth-century art historical practice than they do about the actual potential of Braun’s images. Indeed, it makes sense that University records and publications would disregard photographs in favour of originals at a time when photographic images were widely treated as ‘mere reproductions.’ By looking at the prints themselves, however, Braun’s ambition that his images be viewed as something more than simple reproductions emerges clearly. Not only do the quality and size of the photographs bear witness to their value: the variety of images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – a curved and therefore uneasy surface to photograph – illustrate the technical skills of the photographers just as eloquently as they capture Michelangelo’s mastery.

Braun’s series is therefore endowed with multiple layers of significance. The early acquisition of the Oxonian set bespeaks the University’s openness to new forms of art historical illustration, while its general neglect in subsequent accounts testifies to the stature of photography among other forms of documentation and artistic practices. Maybe, had my final term in Oxford been a little quieter, I would have also been able to unravel the mystery of the photographs’ use in their 150 year-long sojourn at the University. As of now, though, I can only hope that another student will re-embark on this promising investigation.


Jarjat, Philippe. ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity.’ Art and the Early Photographic Album. Edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Moltedo, Alida. La Sistina Riprodotta: gli Affreschi di Michelangelo dalle Stampe del Cinquecento alle Campagne Fotografiche Anderson Calcografia. Roma: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1991.

O’Brien, Maureen. Image and Enterprise. The Photographs of Adolphe Braun. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Wind, Edgar. The Religious Simbolism of Michelangelo: the Sistine Ceiling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.


[1] ‘Eldon Fund,’ Council Regulations 25 of 2002, 2. http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/statutes/regulations/councilregs25/Ashmolean%20Museum%20of%20Art%20and%20Archaeology.pdf

[2] In each issue, the Eldon donation is mentioned in the section devoted to the University Galleries. See The Oxford University Calendar, issues from 1855 to 1871.

[3] Henry W. Acland, ‘University Galleries,’ University Gazette Vol.1 No.19 (June 14, 1870), 9.

[4] Philippe Jarjat, ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity,’ Art and the Early Photographic Album, edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[5] Rome. Palais du Vatican, Chapelle Sixtine. Fresques de Michel-Ange reproduites par Adolphe Braun. Mulhouse: L.L. Bader, 1869.

[6] Ibid, 156

[7] Correspondence between Edgar Wind and Henry Allan Moe, 1st July 1958, MS. Wind 13, Box 1, Folder 1. Edgar Wind Papers, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.