students

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.

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Talking Arts, Culture and Heritage: Association for Art History Careers Day in Oxford

By Tamsin Hong, current MSt student, on the Association for Art History Careers Day held in Oxford in November


It is week five of Michaelmas term and as I approach the Association for Art History Careers Day for Arts, Culture and Heritage, this year held in Oxford, I am considering whether the full day of talks is a good investment of my time when there are essays to write, readings to wrestle with, and a deeply neglected dissertation limping around the back corners of my mind. Having worked in the museum and gallery sector for over 10 years and attended numerous career forums, I find myself somewhat sceptical about how useful this event will be for me.

But the Association for Art History Careers Day may have been one of the best investments I have made since landing in Oxford. Oxford DPhil candidate Emily Knight is to be congratulated for organising the event and carefully choosing eight speakers in disparate and not always well-known arts professions who all addressed the often-thought question for History of Art students: How do I become a successful arts-professional in this ultra-competitive era?

Each speaker clearly articulated how people are entering their profession. Emerging professionals drew from their recent experience of breaking into the field and more senior professionals reflected on what they are looking for when they are hiring. Each gave practical advice and concrete examples on how to obtain your dream job, whilst also providing honest and sometimes brutal realities of working in the sector. This was far from the usual glittery eyed if-you-work-hard-you-can-do-it approach that many similar events provide, but it is precisely this kind of knowledge that anyone entering or attempting to progress in the sector needs.

Helen HillyardSpeaker Helen Hillyard © Tamsin Hong

The morning session addressed some of the more traditional roles in museums and galleries and started with the much-coveted Assistant Curator experience. Helen Hillyard is now working at the Dulwich Picture Gallery after steadily working her way through a variety of voluntary positions and paid internships in the sector. Jo Rice was next and explained what skills and experiences she looks for when employing staff in her role as Head of Education at the Ashmolean Museum. Her colleague Jevon Thistlewood then suggested 10 useful qualities of a good conservator while explaining in detail how his profession operates.

The middle session started with Alice Purkiss from the National Trust and University of Oxford explaining her convoluted but fascinating career path to her unique role as Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate. I am not sure how to explain this position but it is somewhere between digital content organiser, curator, public programmer and knowledge ninja. She was followed by Ros Holmes who finally illuminated to me the mysterious process of life after obtaining a PhD: the post doc. We all know they are difficult to get, but Ros Holmes explained the step-by-step process of gaining such positions and provided some excellent suggestions.

Ros HolmesSpeaker Ros Holmes © Tamsin Hong

The final three speakers spoke on freelancing and the art market. Tarini Malik has worked diligently on a rich assortment of curatorial projects and now works as a freelancing Exhibition Consultant where she is able to channel her enthusiasm for time based art and marginalised culture through her work. The next talk was on an area I have only ever wondered at, which is freelance journalism, and Lily Le Brun revealed her secrets on how she juggles multiple projects while establishing herself as a reputable arts writer. Lastly, Alexis Ashot spoke about selling art with Christie’s and provided anecdotes of this intense part of the sector, including his being tested on table manners at his second interview.

Each speaker had about 10 minutes or so after their presentations to answer some of the many questions we enthusiastic attendees had. I valued the frankness of many of the arts professionals who explained the importance of perseverance through their shared experiences of feeling repeatedly rejected, whether it be experienced when applying for jobs or attempting to publish articles.

Alexis AschotSpeaker Alexis Ashot © Tamsin Hong

My experience at the beginning of my career was similar and after speaking to several other students trying to land their first paid position in the industry, it is perhaps something that we need to be more aware of to prepare ourselves and develop coping strategies when dealing with this unfair side of the arts industry.

The message that all these speakers reiterated was to be resolute in your goals and work towards fleshing out your skills so you can eventually develop a career you are happy with. There were also a few examples of people who had tried a few different positions and eventually ended up in role they thoroughly enjoy even if it was not where they thought they would end up.

Some of the suggestions I will be working on since attending the day include improving my online presence and approaching volunteering for an organisation in a more focused manner. I already knew about the central role networking has in the sector but it was useful to have the speakers show how they have effectively utilised this skill in their careers. I met some attendees with fascinating experiences and aspirations throughout the day and I am looking forward to reconnecting with them at future events organised by the Association for Art History.


Tamsin Hong is currently a student on the Oxford Master’s Degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture, focusing on post-modern and contemporary art.

For more information about the History of Art MSt, please see the Department’s Master’s Degree 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.

Undergraduate Study Trip to Sicily 2017

By Professor Gervase Rosser


At the end of June, ten second-year Art Historians embarked on a week’s optional, extra curricular trip to Sicily. The programme was led by myself, Gervase Rosser, and Alessandra Buccheri (who completed her DPhil in Renaissance Art History in Oxford and who now lives in Palermo).

The choice of Sicily (where Alessandra and I have also organised visits in the past) is deliberate: the island teaches an unconventional history of art. The Renaissance grand narrative is still a story of Tuscany, Venice and Rome.  Yet Sicily’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean has made it a nexus of cultures and a crucible of artistic invention across millennia.  Generations of travellers from northern Europe have been drawn there.  The discovery of the Greek underpinning of European culture in the Italian context was, for  Goethe, a revelation. He wrote:

‘Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything.’

One of the most evocative sites from this period – which we made the goal of one of our first visits –  is the Greek city of Selinunte, on the southern coast of the island – abandoned since the city was destroyed in the third century BCE.

Selinunte, Oxford Art Historians in the steps of Goethe © Department of History of Art

A wonderful survivor of that Hellenistic culture, found by a fisherman in the sea not far from Selinunte in 1998, is the bronze Dancing Satyr now kept in a little museum at Mazzara del Vallo. The sight of it silenced everyone.  The challenge of capturing its dynamism inspired those of us who could draw, and we all sat and gazed at it for a long time.

Dancing Satyr, bronze, ?4th century BC, Mazzara del Vallo Museum © Department of History of Art

After Selinunte, the vast Roman villa at Piazza Armerina – thought to have been built for the imperial governor of the island – was palpably from a different culture.  There was more than a hint of vulgarity in the sheer scale of the mosaic decoration, and the herculean scenes of hunting.  It is a monument to a variety of pleasures.

Sicily’s gardens and fountains testify to the Arabic presence in the island, dominant for over two centuries. The Normans, who replaced Arabic rule in the twelfth century, retained much of the culture which they found. We found our way to La Zisa, the out-of-town residence to which the Norman court adjourned from Palermo during the heat of the summer – and we also felt refreshed by the water from the restored fountain which flows from the marble and mosaic interior of the building out into the gardens.

We caught there an installation by Ai Wei Wei, with the theme, still highly significant for the Sicilian location, of migration and cultural crossings.

Ai Wei Wei Evelyn EarlAi Wei Wei, Odyssey, installed at ZAC Zisa, Palermo, 2017 © Evelyn Earl

The week was full of artistic high-points, but probably the most sensational moment was the entry to the Norman cathedral of Monreale – with its walls completely covered in mosaics – an extraordinary intensity of colour and light.

Cloister Monreale Cathedral Evelyn EarlTwelfth-century fountain in the cloister of Monreale Cathedral © Evelyn Earl

The combination of Arabic and Byzantine extends into the cloister in a contrasting but complementary idiom – of restful decorative detail of stone and the cooling presence and touch of water.   This architectural sophistication is developed into a further dimension in the Cappella Palatina, the chapel of the royal palace, in Palermo. The ceiling with its secular paintings – the work of Arab craftsmen – is as remarkable as the marble and mosaic work of the building.

We wandered extensively in the city of Palermo, which was our base for the week.  At the Hispano-Sicilian Palazzo Abatellis, now the Regional Museum,  we were particularly struck by the anonymous fresco of the Triumph of Death, originally in the cloister of a late-medieval hospital in the city – an image full of life, and visual evocations of contemporary culture (and its corruptions): hunting, fountains, music-making, and some fabulous hats.

Triumph of Death Palazzo Abatellis Evelyn Earl.jpgStudents debate the Triumph of Death in the Palazzo Abatellis © Fionn Montell-Boyd

The inventiveness and vitality of Sicilian art extended across the centuries.  The extraordinarily elaborate stucco work of Giacomo Serpotta (d. 1732) made a huge impression on everyone.

The marked Sicilian taste for rich ornament is evident across all media. The interior of Palermo Cathedral was therefore a surprise, being, at the time of our visit, relatively austere and cold. We reflected, however, on the effect of timing upon the art-historical experience. The patronal feast of Santa Rosalia each July transforms the church and the city into a colossal stage. The festival impressed earlier travellers, including the Englishman Patrick Brydone, whose vivid and sympathetic account in his Tour through Sicily and Malta was published in 1776:

‘The whole of the cathedral, both roof and walls, is entirely covered over with mirror, intermixed with gold and silver paper, and an infinite variety of artificial flowers…Now, form an idea if you can, of one of our great cathedrals dressed out in this manner, and illuminated with twenty thousand wax tapers, and you will have some faint notion of this splendid scene.’

Definitively austere, however, was the former palace of the Spanish Inquisition in Palermo, containing grim cells, which nonetheless miraculously preserve dozens of wall-paintings created by the inmates – a moving trace of human resilience.

Palazzo Lo Steri Maria OHanaPalazzo Lo Steri, Palermo, cells of prisoners of the Inquisition, wall-paintings, 17th-18th century © Maria O’Hana

The long-standing cultural cosmopolitanism of Sicily is reflected also in its culture of food and wine. Patrick Brydone recalled the reputation (well established from ancient Greek times) of the seductive, honey-coloured wine of Agrigento – together with the effects of drinking excessive amounts of it. Primed to avoid such excesses, we appreciated the qualities, and enjoyed scenes such as the following on a nightly basis.

Socialising Evelyn Earl© Evelyn Earl

The culture of eating together was also one of conversation.  Experiencing such an amazingly rich set of cultural encounters and talking about our shared impressions prompted further reflections on the animation of space – and about the relationship between art and friendship (to be continued …).

Group photo.jpg

 


Gervase Rosser is a Professor of the History of Art in the Department of Art History and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. For the BA course Gervase teaches courses on the classical tradition, medieval and Italian Renaissance art, and theoretical approaches to the subject. 

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