history of art

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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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.

 

 

Art Beyond the Lecture Theatre: Internships and Opportunities in the Art World

By Nina Foster, BA History of Art Graduate 2016


Studying History of Art at Oxford gave me a fascinating insight into the incredible influence museums and collections have on public interaction with art. Although working in the arts is highly competitive and funded opportunities are rare, Oxford provides the perfect support system for finding exciting internships in all manner of art institutions. I cannot speak highly enough of the wonderful opportunities OUIP (Oxford University Internship Programme) offers for arts and humanities students. Each year OUIP has hundreds of internships around the world and in the UK, all of which are funded or paid. I have been fortunate to complete two OUIP internships and I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in working in the art world to take a look at what they have to offer. The History of Art department also offers the fantastic opportunity of an internship award at Waddesdon Manor; open to any humanities student with a research focus on art.

I hope that this post offers some inspiration and guidance for any current students or graduates hoping to take the first steps towards a career in the arts.

Working Abroad at the State Hermitage Museum

In the summer following my second year at Oxford I undertook a fully funded internship at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with a fellow undergraduate art historian. The internship was part of OUIP and included a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support a six week period in Russia. The application process involved filling out a form and writing a 600 word personal statement. My internship at the Hermitage mainly involved the organisation of the European Day of Languages Festival 2015, which was produced in collaboration with the EU Delegation in Russia. A typical day would involve heading to the office at around 11am (Russian working hours are quite different to the UK!) to work with the rest of the team to devise marketing ideas and strategies for the festival.

marketing

Experimenting with marketing ideas: a collage of the grand staircase at the Hermitage

This experience gave me so much insight into all the other kind of work that goes on at a major museum beyond curation. I also had the opportunity to take weekly Russian language classes which really improved my confidence to speak in Russian. Also working at the Hermitage gives you free entrance to loads of arts and cultural institutions in St. Petersburg so it’s a great opportunity to explore Russia on a student budget. The team at the Hermitage was made up of inspiring like-minded young people from all around the world – many of which have become lasting friends. Living and working abroad while still at university is such an amazing opportunity and one that employers always ask me about in interviews. It demonstrates adventurousness, curiosity and adaptability so if you think that sounds like you definitely look at the international opportunities OUIP offers!

narkomfin

Exploring Moscow: Nina and Fania visiting the Narkomfin building

Revitalising Underused Spaces with Ugly Duck

Throughout my third year of studies I became increasingly interested in the use of art to bring communities together and put forward new ideas in public spaces. Not only did this become the focus of my thesis, but I also began looking for opportunities to work in this field. Again I found a brilliant opportunity through OUIP – the chance to do a paid internship with a registered charity called Ugly Duck in London. Ugly Duck’s mission is an unusual but exciting idea – to revitalise underused spaces in overcrowded London. Ugly Duck repurposes empty buildings by opening them up for commercial venue hire for instance for photoshoots or filming. The spaces are also used by emerging artists, directors, activists or dancers through their biannual creative season. As with my Hermitage application I had to fill out a form and write a personal statement, I was also invited for an interview in London. I found this interview quite challenging as the team at Ugly Duck really wanted to know if I had done my research on the position, the organisation and whether I had any bright ideas for their work.

uglyduck

The Ugly Duck Warehouse: one of my colleagues chatting to a potential client

My internship at Ugly Duck ran from July to September and was honestly an eye-opening experience. My role as City Hunt Coordinator focused on the development of Ugly Duck’s public spaces project. City Hunt is a hyper-local heritage game that operates on digital and analogue platforms. My work involved data analysis, securing new business partnerships and sourcing public funding by writing funding applications. Additionally, as Ugly Duck is run by a small team of only three staff I assisted in the day-to-day running of the business by taking bookings, managing the venue and liaising with artists. The breadth and variety of exciting responsibilities Ugly Duck offered me has given me such valuable experience for future employment and has inspired me to focus on a career that uses art for social impact.

Curating and Cataloguing at Waddesdon Manor

Each year there is a remarkable opportunity for an Oxford humanities student (BA, MA, PhD) to undertake a funded internship at Waddesdon Manor – a Rothschild chateau in Buckinghamshire now owned by the National Trust. Waddesdon is a truly unique place and the internship offers a very rare opportunity to assist in curation at an entry-level position. The position includes accommodation in a beautiful cottage in Waddesdon village as well as a bursary. The application process involved writing a statement about why I was interested in the role. I am particularly interested in the contemporary art at Waddesdon so that was the focus of my application. Also you have to submit written references from two tutors which I left until the very last minute so I would definitely recommend getting organised and giving them at least a week to do this! After submitting my application I had an interview in the History of Art department which was actually a really enjoyable experience.

waddesdon

Not a bad office! The very grand approach to Waddesdon Manor

I started the Waddesdon internship in September 2016 and have so far found the experience very rewarding. I mainly work with the wonderful and inspiring senior curator Dr. Juliet Carey on the preparation of exhibition proposals and research projects. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with contemporary artists to help them explore the collection and produce work inspired by it. I have also gained experience of working with the collection management database which is a really essential skill for working in museums. I’ve met so many different people here who all share the same passion for Waddesdon and I have to say I now also share that passion!

diningroom

The incredible collections at Waddesdon include 18th century French decorative arts of the highest quality

My work experience seems only to have scratched the surface of the complexity and diversity of opportunities within the art world. The great thing about working in the arts is that there is no graduate scheme system, rather you have to find opportunities and devise your own career path. This is honestly really exciting and has led me to places I could never have imagined working. So, if I can offer any advice it’s to think broadly and look at opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone – you’ll probably find them through Oxford’s career network!


Nina completed her BA History of Art at the Department in 2016. She is currently  undertaking the Waddesdon Internship organised in collaboration with the History of Art Department.

Trusted Source: A New Oxford University and National Trust Collaboration

By Alice Purkiss, Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, University of Oxford and National Trust


stoweStowe Gardens © Dr Oliver Cox

At the beginning of February the University embarked upon a new collaboration with the National Trust in a bid to enhance visitor experience at the charity’s historic properties and outdoor spaces through research.

Funded by the AHRC and the National Trust, the Trusted Source project is the culmination of a series of successful collaborations running over the past five years between the University and the Trust, coordinated by Oxford’s Heritage Engagement Fellow, Dr Oliver Cox. Having studied at the History of Art Department for my MSt, I was delighted to return to the University to develop this exciting new partnership, and to work with colleagues old and new at both institutions.

Trusted Source has been commissioned as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), an Innovate UK scheme devised to encourage businesses to innovate and grow. It does this by linking them with a university and a graduate to work on a specific project. Usually awarded to the science and industry sectors, this is one of the few heritage-based KTPs funded in the initiative’s 40 year history, and the first awarded to both the Humanities Division at Oxford and the National Trust.

What is Trusted Source?
The aim of the partnership is to create Trusted Source; a new online resource featured on the National Trust’s website containing concise, engaging and accessible articles about history, culture and the national environment that draw out connections between collections, places, properties and people. Crowdsourced from university researchers and National Trust specialists, this resource aims to enhance visitor experience of National Trust properties and places. Furthermore, in doing this we hope to encourage more meaningful public engagement with, and enhanced understanding of, Britain’s wider cultural heritage and natural environment.

As a key advocate for the project, the Trust’s Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh, states:
We want to tell the stories of the collections and properties in our care in an engaging, accurate and inspiring way. Using the latest academic research, Trusted Source will help us enhance the experience we give our members and visitors, uncover new information and deepen our understanding of the heritage in our care. As well as enriching our interpretation at properties, the resources created during this important collaborative partnership will be freely available online for everyone to explore.

Benefits & Opportunities at Oxford
It’s important to stress that the National Trust and its visitors are not the only intended beneficiaries of Trusted Source; the opportunities the project offers to researchers here at Oxford are significant too, and a particular consideration of mine. In addition to providing research and networking opportunities with a leading cultural institution, Trusted Source offers its contributors meaningful work experience and visibility within a highly competitive sector that is increasingly hard to come by.

The articles are authored, and contributors are given an ‘Author Profile’ page on the National Trust’s website featuring a short biography and a list of the articles they have written. With the Trust’s website receiving over 11 million page hits every year from over 2 million unique visitors, becoming a contributor can significantly boost online research profiles, offer valuable Public Engagement with Research (PER) experience, and enable researchers to experiment with communicating their work to a new and diverse audience. Academics from across the University from Masters level upwards are invited to contribute, be it with one Trusted Source article, or 20!

First Steps
To begin the article commissioning process, the first call-out for researchers was devised to support the current Landscape Programme at Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire, an initiative comprising of fifty four tasks taking place over five years to return the gardens to their former glory. Highlights include the return of missing statues, monuments and paths, and the opening of parts of the gardens not currently open to the public. In support of this, Trusted Source involvement sought to assist in unravelling the puzzling circumstances surrounding Stowe’s Gothic Cross, a Coade Stone monument placed in the landscape in the early 19th century and later destroyed, it is believed, by a falling tree.

stowe-basestowe-fragment
Left: The base of Stowe’s Gothic Cross, 1991. Right: Fragment of the Gothic Cross. Photographs © National Trust.

In March, University researchers and National Trust staff attended a workshop at St John’s College at which Trusted Source was introduced and opportunities for academic research on the Gothic Cross detailed. A variety of articles were written as a result of this workshop, including texts on lost medieval villages, Whig landscapes, Gothic Revival, Coade stone and the meaning of patriotism, to name a few. Each article uses Stowe as one of a number of examples of the feature or question being explored, therefore these short articles connect up the National Trust’s portfolio of properties, places and collections in new and surprising ways. See the articles with the corresponding ‘Author Profiles’ on the Trust’s website here: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ktp

What’s next?
Over the coming months the Trusted Source project team will continue to foster strong bonds between these two leading organisations and commission engaging and accessible articles which support a whole host of Trust properties, places, and projects; from stately homes, working farms and natural landscapes, to Trust-wide programming themes. Articles will be commissioned through a variety of means, including events and workshops based upon specific National Trust projects and themes, through general article writing workshops hosted at the History of Art Department, and by embedding Trusted Source into Humanities doctoral training.

The project’s legacy beyond the two years of the KTP is highly significant, and a central consideration for both institutions. By formalising a clear methodology for sharing knowledge between these two leading organisations, we hope to establish a blueprint for collaboration that can be adopted by other academic institutions and heritage organisations internationally, thereby encouraging further stories about places to be told and enriched through research.

Interested in becoming a Trusted Source contributor?
For more information on Trusted Source including details on how to contribute, please visit http://torch.ox.ac.uk/trusted-source or email alice.purkiss@history.ox.ac.uk.


Alice completed her Masters in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the Department in 2012. Before this role Alice was a Curatorial Trainee at The Charleston Trust, an experience which she wrote about for the blog last year.

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.