Oxford University

2018 Oxford Slade Lectures ‘From Drawing to Painting in the Italian Renaissance’

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


In March 2018, people visiting the Ashmolean Museum had the rare opportunity to see a remarkable group of drawings by Michelangelo. This temporary exhibition offered a unique insight into the artist’s draftsmanship while hinting at the role played by drawings in the creation of artworks that are now considered among the most representative of the Italian Renaissance. But the Ashmolean Museum was not alone in raising questions on the wider significance of Renaissance drawings. This year’s Slade Lectures, given by Professor David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester), considered how drawings by some of the most famous Italian artists from the period honed the form and content of their major works. Starting with Michelangelo and ending with the Carracci brothers, Prof Ekserdjian surveyed nearly a century of Italian art, discussing ‘la crème de la crème’ of Renaissance draftsmanship. Each lecture focused on a single pictorial project, endeavouring to reconstruct its evolution through a close examination of the artist’s preparatory drawings.

The lectures were framed by a preliminary discussion on the history of drawings’ use in the process of art production, demonstrating that such an investigation would hardly be possible in Europe prior to the sixteenth century. For the second lecture focus was turned to some of the sketches and drawings created by Michelangelo for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, examining a number of examples from the Ashmolean’s own collection. This lecture was especially interesting in its reconstruction of Michelangelo’s creative process. In fact, the sketches and letters considered by Prof Ekserdjian encouraged an understanding of the Chapel as the product of a collaboration between the artist and his patrons. This perhaps unsurprising conclusion was nevertheless intriguing in light of Michelangelo’s notorious ambition to be acknowledged as the sole author of his work.

FI photo 1© Department of History of Art

The significance of drawings in the professional relationship among artists and their patrons was not limited to Michelangelo. This is certainly the case for Correggio’s drawings of The Assumption of the Virgin, the fresco decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Parma. The preparatory sheets suggest that the dome had already been sketched by Correggio before he signed the contract, pointing to the crucial role played by drawings themselves in the dynamics of the artist’s recruitment. Parmigianino’s studies for his unfinished Madonna with the Long Neck, the subject of the fifth lecture, were equally informative in highlighting otherwise elusive details in the history of the work’s commission. Reflecting on the quality of the finish of Parmigianino’s preliminary drawings, Prof Ekserdjian compellingly suggested that the artist must have used them to illustrate the project to his patrons.

Despite placing emphasis on the collaborative nature of these artworks, Prof Ekserdjian did not undermine the importance of the individual artist, whose direct engagement was often seen as essential by the patrons themselves. Correggio’s contract for the Assumption of the Virgin, for example, specifies that all the figures included in the fresco had to be made exclusively by the artist. This attests to the perceived superiority of the artist in Renaissance Italy, but it also testifies to the technical difficulty of the project, which required an experienced artist to tackle. Correggio had to conduct extensive studies before assembling the composition of the fresco, which was to include numerous figures viewed from below.

FI photo 6© Department of History of Art

These studies lend themselves particularly well to illustrating how artists in general used sketches to negotiate the difficulty of engaging with curved surfaces, large scale or unusual viewing perspectives. A similar challenge was also faced by Annibale and Agostino Carracci in planning their monumental cycle for the curved ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, The Loves of the Gods. As Prof Ekserdjian argued in his final lecture, the Carracci brothers’ exploratory sketches show that they were well aware of the difficulties of transposing the pictorial composition onto the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Farnese Gallery. To solve the problem, they designed an architectural and sculptural grid framing the pictorial scenes of the fresco that would transpose well onto the curved ceiling.

The fact that artists were facing complex practical challenges is demonstrated not only by their studies on how to transpose drawings onto unusual surfaces, but also by the representational strategies they adopted while completing the drawings themselves. The sheets examined in the lectures often reflect the hierarchy of mediums used by artists in their drawings to distinguish final ideas from exploratory studies. Michelangelo, for example, relied on colour to draw such distinctions, using red chalk for finished works and black pen for initial sketches. Florentine artist Bronzino also adopted a somewhat hierarchical approach to mediums in his studies for the decoration of the private chapel of Duchess Eleonora of Toledo. Looking at the relatively few surviving sketches for this project alongside those made in preparation for other frescoes, Prof Ekserdjian observed that Bronzino used chalk for his finished drawings, while pen was used when the artist was ‘thinking out loud.’

All the aforementioned aspects of Renaissance drawing practices seem to point in a single direction. That is, they all bear eloquent witness to the assiduous studies, often impossible to detect in the final work, that lie at the root of these artworks’ creation. This is perhaps most evident in Raphael’s sketches for the Stanza della Segnatura, examined early in the series. Indeed, Raphael’s frantic drawings, in which numerous poses and combinations are considered by the artist before settling on a final arrangement, betray the amount of work behind his seemingly effortless frescoes. Using drawings as his starting point, Prof Ekserdjian proved that Raphael was so meticulous in his formal investigation that he even sketched the reliefs decorating the architectural setting of the School of Athens. Not unlike Raphael, the lesser known Federico Barocci also completed punctilious preparatory studies for his altarpiece of the Madonna del Popolo, now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Over one-hundred sheets tracing the gestation of the altarpiece survive, mirroring the artist’s diligence in studying both the poses of the individual figures and the composition’s overall appearance.

slide53© Ashmolean Museum

The reasons behind artists’ alterations of their original plans were varied, ranging from purely aesthetic and formal motivations to changes endowed with deeper symbolic and political significance. Correggio’s changes to his depiction of the Virgin belong, at least in part, to the latter category. The artist’s studies for the Assumption reveal that the Virgin’s pose, which originally envisioned the Madonna with her legs spread and visible, had to be changed to avoid causing a scandal. Similarly, Raphael’s Poetry in the Parnassus fresco, originally drawn nude, was partially clothed in the fresco to elude the risk of seeming inappropriate to his contemporaries. Drawings thus give us information about how the artist modified his design in order to comply with contemporary norms of decorum regulating artistic representation.

In our opinion, the enormous potential of Prof Ekserdjian’s minute analysis of Renaissance drawings lies precisely in its ability to detect such differences and to hint at their politically and culturally charged nature. His largely formal investigation of the relation among the final piece and the artist’s preparatory sheets constitutes an intriguing counterpart to our own research, which pays greater attention to questions of gender, class and race in connection with Renaissance art. Nevertheless, this year’s Slade Lectures consistently raised points that may be interpreted under the lens of cultural studies. By way of example, the fact that the Carraccis first sketched a female model while developing a male character of the fresco may open up interesting questions related to the politics of gender inversion in art.

All in all, this year’s Slade Lectures offered interesting insights to an audience of students and experts in the field as well as Art History enthusiasts. Prof Ekserdjian can be sure to have passed on to the public very thorough yet accessible information on the making of some of the most iconic artworks of the Italian Renaissance, ultimately furthering our understanding of this complex historical period. He is to be truly congratulated for his fascinating analysis.


Professor David Ekserdjian is the Slade Professor 2017-18 at Oxford. He is Professor of Art and Film History at the University of Leicester. 

Please look out for a follow-up blog by Irene and Sofia on a student workshop held by Professor Ekserdjian in the Department of History of Art.

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Writing a first year extended essay, ‘Mavungu: Provenance and Aesthetic Appropriation’

By Michael Kurtz, Second Year Undergraduate BA History of Art

Michael won the Reaktion Book Prize for the best First Year Undergraduate extended essay on an ‘image, object or building in Oxford’. Here he writes on his research and gives an insight in to how he approached the essay.


In the first year of the Oxford History of Art undergraduate degree, students write an extended essay about any one object, image or building in the city. Given Oxford’s outstanding architectural and museological history, this assignment is not as narrow as it might seem and choosing a topic can be daunting. I knew I wanted to explore the areas of crossover and tension between the western tradition and non-western culture and so focused in on the Pitt Rivers Museum – as a unique collection loaded with the legacies of cross-cultural and often colonial interaction (read its history here).

PRM000017126Kongo peoples, Mavungu, late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was immediately drawn to ‘Mavungu’, a wooden figure with its mouth wide open and pierced with hundreds of metal shards, stood at the back of a case labelled ‘West African Sculpture’. It was the instant aesthetic appeal that the object had for me, as a western beholder, that was intriguing. In essence, it was this first interaction, the sense I had of simultaneous beauty and otherness, understanding and novelty, that I wanted to analyse and explain. That primordial meeting between viewer and artwork defines the nature of the research as it sets in motion the kinds of questions that one is curious to answer – in order to contextualise, explain or at least discuss this response.

The figure, I learnt, was a material manifestation of a hunter spirit (nkondi in Kongolese), designed in the late nineteenth century to ward off the growing Portuguese colonial forces on the trading waterways of the Kongo. It is thought (but interpretations are vague and vary considerably) that a nganga (or priest) would have been paid to incite the spirit against specific individuals or groups by implanting nails into its body. As such, the figure is more a functional than aesthetic object and, unlike most western ‘artworks’, did not have one moment of creation or one creator but was subject to a ritual process of material accumulation.

Figure 2Kongo peoples, Mavungu (detail), late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was able to explain the uncanny familiarity of Mavungu quite quickly as the Kongo kingdom had a long history of close interaction with Catholic missionaries from Portugal, and so its culture and cosmology was intertwined with Biblical art and tradition. The nailed masculine figure is a visual type that is surely affixed on the retina of every European art-lover. However, there were also assumptions I made that I had to reconsider and criticise. For instance, I first read the figure as an image of intense pain – with a face that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream and a body pierced with metal shards – but the nails were in fact symbolic of the suffering the spirit would inflict on its victims and the mouth was open wide in order to hold manioc, a root poisonous to people who had failed to keep to promises confirmed by the spirit. I had thus westernised the figure’s features, forced them to conform to my European way of seeing and failed to understand the practical role within a ritual process that Mavungu had fulfilled.

Figure 3Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, © National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

It was these misunderstandings and re-interpretations that became the focus of my study; my essay was structured as a biography of Mavungu’s reception in order to trace and analyse the changing ways the figure was seen across its history. My own initial experience of the object became just one in a series of encounters that I could research, the most prominent of which being that of Mary Kingsley, the Victorian traveller who owned Mavungu before it was given to the Pitt Rivers in 1900. She kept the figure as the centrepiece of her hall in London and showed it off to guests as proof of her adventures and evidence that we should save ‘pure’ and ‘wild’ African culture from colonial influence. She thus betrays her ignorance of the role of Catholic missionaries and colonial forces in the formation of the figure.

Around the same time, the English establishment was using objects like Mavungu to reinforce an idea of ‘Africa’ in the European public consciousness as barbaric, uncivilised and therefore deserving of imperial domination. Its 1901 museum label reductively described its involvement in ‘gruesome practices’ and thought it blood-smeared, an ironic mistake given that its lips were painted red once it was in England in order to generate a stereotyped, barbaric appearance. These examples from my research demonstrate my overall argument that a piece of material culture can been used as an ideological tool and is drastically changed both physically and conceptually depending on its contextual function and beholder’s mindset.

Just as it is, I think, the initial interaction one has with the artwork that shapes the aims of an academic inquiry, the method of choosing an object is eventually mirrored in the final essay. From a general area of potential interest I found my object and then through this specific point I re-explored, with much more specific purpose, the broader themes that brought me to the figure in the first place. The original, vague conceptual notions and presumptions that bring you to an object, image or building are re-evaluated by your engagement with that art historical evidence. As both the approach and subject of my essay, this extended negotiation with the complexities of the way we think about and look at objects through time is surely the value of the exercise.

4eabfc7d7f3f7aabf3229c36772a1d76Renée Stout, Fetish No. 2, 1988, © Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

In order to provide an alternative and current perspective, I concluded my essay by discussing a contemporary artist, Renée Stout, who in her 1988 work Fetish No. 2 manipulates the form of a Kongolese hunter spirit and adapts it to her current situation as a black woman artist in urban America. By making her figure first a nude and secondly a self-portrait, she engages in the western tradition as well as the Kongolese and adapts both to meet her own needs. She inserts herself into the fraught history of reception of African art that I explored but re-appropriates the artistic form as a radical act against western appropriation. Yet Stout also admits that her sculpture is in no way engaged with the ritual function of Kongolese spirit figures and so it symbolically reflects the journey that Mavungu has made, from liturgical furniture to aesthetic artefact, trapped behind glass in twenty-first-century Oxford.

The inclusion of this last, contemporary artistic point-of-view was the suggestion of my supervisor, and former Senior Curator of the Pitt Rivers, Jeremy Coote. During several meetings over the course of the year, he provided relevant reading lists along with crucial theoretical insights that helped to shape the methodological framework of the essay. In my experience, the supervisory relationship was the most rewarding aspect of the process as it fostered a sense of productive collaboration and mutual academic interest that I found immensely exciting. The three-way dialogue – between object, supervisor and student – inevitably leads to interesting and unexpected results and has been hugely important in forming my ideas, and the way I want to write, about visual culture.


For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.

For information about funding and prizes available to current and prospective students in the Department of History of Art please see the funding page.

Collaborative work during your DPhil: My time at Empires of Faith

By Stefanie Lenk, current research student in the History of Art Department


Doing a doctorate in a research project is still fairly rare in the humanities at Oxford. The idea polarizes people. Being part of a research project helps connect students to others with similar interests quickly. Getting feedback on your work, a fresh eye on an old problem, or simply a little bit of moral support, are some of the perks that come with project work. If your project is functional, that is. If it isn’t, a research project soon can become exhausting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Empires of Faith team

Empires of Faith, my research project, has taught me a lesson. I know now for sure that collaborative work during your PhD can be done successfully, for everyone involved. And I know how much impact it can have on you as a researcher, in ways that you couldn’t imagine at the outset. The key to making it work, I think, is the goodwill of each to be part of a group. For me, this meant putting my energy into group projects, besides my daily DPhil work, and being open to my colleagues’ ideas and suggestions, which often led to research avenues I had not originally contemplated.

I embarked on this journey four years ago, together with most of my DPhil and Postdoc colleagues, simply by responding to a call for applications. EoF is a collaboration between Oxford University and the British Museum, so we also have a BM curator on board, and of course the head of the project, Jas’ Elsner, professor of classics at Oxford. This makes for a jolly team of ten. We all work on religious art in late antiquity (c. 200-800 AD), but from different religious and geographical vantage points. From day 1, we immersed ourselves in the art and material culture of the early Islamic empire, the Sasanian empire, the Kushan empire, and the Roman empire – the latter tackled through Roman religions, the British Isles, East and West Rome. Only a fraction of my colleagues are trained as art historians. The others have backgrounds in history, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.

2Empires of Faith at the Kosmos Summer School 2015 in Berlin © Stefanie Lenk

My own DPhil project looks at pre-Christian imagery and architecture used in 5th and 6th century Christian baptisteries in the Western Mediterranean. Many of the issues that I focus on in my DPhil, like questions of religious identity in late antiquity, what material culture can tell us about religion, how important iconographic readings are for the meaning of art, or how we can compare the evidence of different sites to one another, are also of interest to my colleagues. To some extent, this has to do with the similarity of our research fields. Some topics lend themselves more to some questions than to others. But my suspicion is that most of what interests me today is a product of our continuous conversations and the work we did together.

3Choosing wall colours for Imagining the Divine with our designer Byung Kim and my EoF colleague Rachel Wood © Stefanie Lenk

We started by meeting up militantly for at least three hours a week during term. This was in October 2013. At the time, few of us were truly engaged with any other fields of religious art beyond our own research areas. Most had not worked collaboratively or across disciplines before. Now, four years later, Empires of Faith has curated two exhibitions, Imagining the Divine. Art and the Rise of World Religions, the Ashmolean Museum’s current lead exhibition, and Those Who Follow, a cooperation with contemporary artist Arturo Soto, also currently up in the Classics Centre of the university. Four of my colleagues and I have co-written Images of Mithra, the first volume of a new OUP book series called Visual Conversations, which OUP offered to run, as they liked the first book so much. Moreover, we have written a historiographical volume altogether on how the different ways of art history writing in our respective disciplines developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine. To arrive at this point, we gathered much input from fellow researchers on numerous occasions in Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago.

4Public workshop in Those Who Follow at the Ioannou Centre, run together with my EoF colleague Dominic Dalglish © Stefanie Lenk

In our final year, 2017, we opened up Empires of Faith’ research to wider audiences, both in academia and to the general public. My two DPhil colleagues on the programme, Philippa Adrych and Dominic Dalglish, and myself, launched a graduate student workshop series called Talking Religion for ten DPhil students in the humanities. In a series of seminars, held at Wolfson, the Ashmolean and the British Museum, we discussed the question of how to write religious history from objects. The Talking Religion group gives collaborative and interdisciplinary student tours on a regular basis through Imagining the Divine. Currently, we are running weekend workshops for Oxford’s religious communities on Those Who Follow and Imagining the Divine. In Michaelmas term, we held an Empires of Faith academic seminar series, and from 11th to 13th of January 2018 we celebrated our immensely productive time together with the Empires of Faith conference.

5Talking Religion student Hugo Shakeshaft at work in Imagining the Divine © Stefanie Lenk

You might wonder how all of this relates back to my DPhil work. Well, I will be finishing this year, my fifth year as a DPhil student (having deferred last year), and cannot pretend that Empires of Faith expedited the progress I have made on my dissertation in terms of getting the words down on paper. I am not sad about this, though, because I consider my work to have become so much better thanks to my colleagues. I have also been involved in terrific publications, and worked as the lead curator of Imagining the Divine.

Most importantly, however, I have experienced the tremendous benefits collaborative work can bring to academia. None of what we have achieved would have been possible, or even enjoyable, on our own. True, not every PhD student has the luck of participating in a project like Empires of Faith. I don’t think, though, that this is necessary for similar experiences. All it takes is a little leap of faith. Under the pressure of DPhil work, it can easily seem too challenging to dedicate energy to experiments with others. But at least in my experience, it works the other way around: collaborative work gives you more energy than it takes.

6We made it! Imagining the Divine up and running at the Ashmolean museum! © Stefanie Lenk


Stefanie is working on Baptismal Art in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Mediterranean (400-800 A.D.)

DPhil is the Oxford term for a PhD. For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

Imagining the Divine is currently on at the Ashmolean Museum.

For more information about the Empires of Faith project, please see the project page.

A Year in the Life of a Research Student

By Emily Knight, Current DPhil student


Each year of my DPhil has been different as my research project has taken shape and my skills as an art historian have developed. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to take up fellowships, make research trips, speak at conferences and teach, as well as gain work experience within museums and heritage organisations. This post gives a taste of my work as a DPhil student over the last academic year and what I hope to achieve in the next few months before finishing up.

Cumbria© Emily Knight

Research

My research looks at posthumous portraiture in Britain from the mid eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. At the beginning of the year, I went to Cumbria and Lancashire to dig around an archive and get up close to some works of art I’d read about and wanted to study more closely. With the help of a Postgraduate Grant from Trinity College, I went to the Cumbria County Archive to look at the papers of the Wilson family of Dallam Tower. A mother and daughter from the family, Ann and Sibyl respectively, were painted by the portraitist George Romney to commemorate the death of six-year-old Sibyl. I had the opportunity to study the painting last year, thanks to a Visiting Scholar Award at the Yale Center for British Art and it features prominently in my thesis, so I was eager to see if there was any undiscovered correspondence or other kinds of reference to the young girl’s death. Like many archival trips, I didn’t find what I expected to uncover, but came away with new and unexpected research leads that provided the starting point for one of my chapters.

George Romney_Ann WilsonGeorge Romney, Ann Wilson with Her Daughter Sibyl, c.1776, Yale Center for British Art. © Yale Center for British Art

On my way back down south, I stopped at Lancaster to visit the Priory, which has a monument to the young Sibyl Wilson by the Fisher Brothers of York. I was curious to see how the work compared to Romney’s painting, particularly with regards to the neoclassical motifs used in both. As all art historians know, seeing works of art up close can never be adequately recreated and it was fascinating to see the work in situ.

Monument to Sibyl WilsonMonument to Sibyl Wilson, 1773, Lancaster Priory. © Emily Knight

A few milestones

Last year, I gave my first hour-long research paper at the History of Art Department Research Seminar and received some really helpful feedback on work that would ultimately become a chapter. I was also invited to participate in undergraduate admissions. In order to prepare for this, I undertook training through the Oxford Learning Institute, which, combined with the advice and support from members of the History of Art department, gave me the tools to undertake this tricky and important task. In Hilary Term, I completed my Confirmation of status, which involved submitting part of a chapter, providing an outline of my research project and projected timeline, and an interview with a member of the department. I found it an incredibly helpful process because I was required to prepare a chapter with some polish and receive in-depth feedback from both my supervisor and moderator, as well as giving me the opportunity to discuss my project as a whole and think about next steps career wise.

Seminars, conferences and workshops

Alongside my research, I have taken great pleasure in attending and contributing to various seminar series and workshops.  For the past two years, I have co-convened a termly workshop series called ‘Reading Images’ at the Ashmolean with Dr Jim Harris, Andrew W. Mellon Teaching Curator at the museum. The idea behind the series is to encourage those who do not normally work with visual material to think about their research in relation to the Ashmolean’s collections. I also led a session with a researcher from the Experimental Psychology department who works on ‘prolonged grief’. We realised that a huge amount of our work intersected in really interesting ways and it was enlightening to discover a shared language when talking about complex emotional responses to objects.

Reading Images workshop HT 2017Reading Images workshop, Hilary Term 2017

During the first two years of my DPhil, I spoke at various conferences around the country. With a number of these under my belt, I decided to apply to speak at just one conference last year, the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference, held at Loughborough University. I contributed to a session run by the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, entitled, ‘Sculpture in Motion’. The focus of the session was on both motion (in the broadest possible sense) and animation. I had recently been considering the ways in which artists augmented death masks to make them appear more lifelike and so I thought that this would be an exciting opportunity to try out some new ideas. In preparation for this, I worked with two researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, Dr Kathryn Eccles and Jamie Cameron, to create 3D images of death masks in the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh. Hoping to ‘move’ around these images on the projector, the images were sadly not ready in time, but I now have a set of images that I can use in future presentations and perhaps an online journal article.

3D image of the death mask of Sir Walter Scott at the Anatomical Museum, University of Edinburgh. © Emily Knight

Teaching

This year, I tutored three visiting undergraduate students through the Sarah Lawrence Programme at Wadham College (eighteenth-century British art), the Middlebury CMRS Oxford Humanities Programme (seventeenth-century Dutch painting), and the Oxford Study Abroad Programme, Washington International Studies Council (the history of royal collecting). Having already completed the DLT and PLTO training programme at the Oxford Learning Institute, I was interested to receive further training and hear about alternative teaching methods so I signed up to an ‘Art Group Crit’ workshop for Humanities researchers at the Ruskin School of Art with Martina Schmuecker and undertook a weeklong workshop at the Ashmolean Museum called, ‘Eloquent Things: Teaching Using Real Objects’, led by Dr Jim Harris. Both workshops provided me with a variety of creative teaching methods and I look forward to using some of these in the future.

Other projects

Alongside my DPhil, I also joined the AAH Students Members Committee, which has involved judging the Undergraduate Dissertation Prize and organising this year’s careers day that took place in Oxford earlier this month. I’ve also recently been appointed co-convenor of the Paul Mellon Centre’s Doctoral Researchers Network and I’m currently working on a programme of events for doctoral students working on British art.

Trusted Source article©National Trust

Alongside my DPhil, for the past two years I’ve also worked part-time at TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities as a Graduate Project Coordinator. This has involved running the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund and Student Peer Review College, as well as organising the AHRC-TORCH Public Engagement with Research Summer School. The experience has taught me a huge amount about the role and value of public engagement with research, as well as project and budget management. The job came to a fantastic end when my team, led by Dr John Miles (former Humanities Training Officer), were highly commended for our work at the university’s Public Engagement with Research Awards. I’ve also contributed to various late night events at the Ashmolean and wrote my first article for the Oxford/National Trust project Trusted Source. For the latter, I wrote a short piece on national mourning following the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817. The Trust then asked me to deliver a lecture on the subject this month as part of its events programme to commemorate 200 years since the death of the princess at Claremont, her former home.

At the beginning of the summer, I was offered a five-month position as Postdoctoral Fellow/Curatorial Assistant at Historic Royal Palaces to work on the exhibition ‘Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World’. I’m still writing my thesis as well and in the new year I’ll be heading to the Huntington in California for a Robert R. Wark Fellowship, which will be the perfect way to kick off the final few months of my DPhil.


Emily Knight is a 4th year DPhil student, her research topic is “Art, Death and Memory: Posthumous Portraiture in Late Eighteenth- to Early Nineteenth-Century Britain”.

For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

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.