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

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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Inside Christ Church Picture Gallery

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.

0803_pg-137view-to-drawings-galleryInterior 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.

jbs-62v-webMichelangelo, 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).

mrs-showwellThomas 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.

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; The Continence of ScipioAnthony 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).

Carracci, Annibale, 1560-1609; The Butcher's ShopAnnibale 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.