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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.

 

 

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Photo Archives VI: The Place of Photography

By Francesca Issatt, Visual Resources Assistant, History of Art Department


Last month on the 20th and 21st April I was lucky enough to attend the sixth Photo Archives conference. It was hosted by Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), Deborah Schultz (Regent’s University London) and Costanza Caraffa (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut). The Photo Archives series has previously explored the photographic memory of art history, hidden archives, the idea of nation and the paradigm of objectivity. This iteration focused on the place of photography, a broad concept which was interpreted diversely.

Photo Archives VI was held in Oxford at Christ Church College. The significance of this location, in the heart of Oxford, was not lost. As Geraldine Johnson commented in her opening remarks Oxford plays an important role in the history of photography. Geraldine talked about William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published, which depicts on its very first plate the Queen’s College in Oxford. Further to this on plate 18 is a photograph of the front entrance to Christ Church itself, known as Tom Tower.

christchurchedit2Christ Church College, from the Visual Resources Centre photo archive, © Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

She continued her example with one of Christ Church’s most famous Fellows, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), who some twenty years after Talbot’s publication was photographing Alice Liddell whom he based his Alice in Wonderland novels on. In his own time he was a renowned mathematician but now is most famous for his writing and photographs. Dodgson’s living quarters and homemade photographic studio were only a few doors down from Tom Tower. Therefore as Geraldine clearly put it “we can place photography quite literally in the stony streetscapes and grassy quads of Oxford.”

I think the broad notion of place was best described by the first speaker, Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University, Ontario), who set up a framework for the papers that followed. As she explained, both photographs and archives are places – physical and digital. Photographs can be of place, depicting real places with geographical co-ordinates, or they can be of abstract conceptual places such as home, family, history, war and environment.

Photographs can also be investigated as place and as surrogates for place. As a way to construct and recall place as if the viewer was physically present. Photographs in place, and in particular in archives, is where photographs derive much of their meaning. Such as in an album juxtaposed with other images, organised in a filing cabinet geographically, chronologically or numerically.

Costanza Caraffa, Frederick Bohrer, Joan Schwartz, Katarina Masterova (4)edit© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I hugely enjoyed the first day and heard some great papers. Speakers covered the topics of archival processes, photographic albums and disciplinary structures, with focus on photographic material from artist’s studios, archaeological excavations and science laboratories to name a few places. To round off the day’s stimulating papers the keynote lecture was given by Geoffrey Batchen (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) who spoke about The Placeless Image.

Geoffrey offered examples of placeless images including digital images, which will never have a physical printed manifestation and will always remain on mobile devices and online sites. He said “Photography has slothed off its dependency on a physical substrate and become nothing but image […] photography has become an immaterial medium – or at least it is different materially to our past photographs”.

edit8© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

This is very much a twenty-first century issue but the placeless image has always existed. Another example was of engravings ‘from photographs’ in the nineteenth century. Which he said “free the image from an otherwise static existence. Unfixing it from any medium specificity and any particular place. The image is passed on through a potentially endless chain of transfers from one substrate to the next.”

Geoffrey also talked about the purification of photographs by institutions. For example galleries suppressing complicated origins, for the ease of having a single author, a single date or a single title. Archives find photographs difficult to deal with due to their spatial and temporal migration. As an institution they are traditionally fixated on the storage, cataloguing and study of static objects. Photographs are a challenge to fix in place.

On both days of the conference site visits were offered to some of the places of photography in Oxford. Delegates had the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Library, the Christ Church library and archive, the Griffith Institute, the Museum of the History of Science and the Middle East Centre Archive. As well as our very own Visual Resources Centre! This proved a very successful and appreciated element of the conference, many delegates tweeted their enthusiasm under the hashtag #PhotoArchivesOxford.

© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I was co-host with Deborah Schultz for the site visit to the Visual Resources Centre in the History of Art Department. A selection of material was brought out from the photographic archive and glass lantern slides depicting art and architecture. As well as photograph albums with a mix of commercial and amateur photographs inside. Another highlight was the over-sized Adolphe Braun reproductions of the Sistine Chapel, presented in portfolios designed to look like expensive leather bound books. All of which sparked great discussions about art historical photographic archives, their past use as study resources, their materiality and their relevance to scholarship and teaching today.

The second day of the conference saw speakers address production, reproduction and value as well as forms of materialisation. Specific talks looked at, amongst other topics, the place of photography related to the encounter between sitter and camera, the ‘trash to treasure’ rediscovery of anonymous collections, curatorial practice, and digitisation as a cultural form.

edit9© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

To conclude a thought provoking and intellectually thrilling couple of days Elizabeth Edwards (VARI, London/De Montfort University) gave her closing remarks. Elizabeth spoke on the presence of politics that lurked in all the papers but hadn’t been addressed directly. Such as the political acts of how we create value, how we imagine, how we appropriate, disseminate and control. She remarked that “Where we place photographs matters politically. How places are made photographically matters politically.” This also raised questions about photographs out of place.

All of the papers focused on the work of photographs in specifically defined places – the archive, the laboratory, the archaeological excavation. Elizabeth asked what happens when photographs attempt to stray and wander in to other places. What are the patterns of their wandering? As she put it “photographs out of place is the very nature of the reproductive and digital worlds in which we live. Photographs can no longer be contained within places – they no longer have material resonance.”

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the conference and co-hosting a site visit. It was a great chance to share Oxford’s fantastic photographic collections with delegates. The brilliant papers and the discussions that followed them made us think about how photographs both articulate and occupy space and time. Elizabeth Edwards summed up the subject of the conference perfectly when she said “photographs are the endless nomad.”


For more information about the conference please visit the conference page.

Podcasts of some of the conference papers are available to listen to here.

For further information about the Visual Resources Centre and its collections click here.

2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

Louvre Candelabrum Lions large

Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.

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Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.

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Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.


Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

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

By Ella Letort, Second Year BA History of Art Undergraduate


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

Giovanni

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

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

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

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


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

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