12 Stunning Works of Art to See in Oxford
As a revered seat of learning, it’s no surprise that Oxford is home to some incredible works of art.
The city has a number of well-stocked art galleries, not least the Ashmolean Museum, which boasts a priceless collection of paintings and other artworks from ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe to the Far East. You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate the wealth of artistic treasures on show in Oxford, and even those who know little about art will recognise some of the famous names in this brief list of a few of the wonderful works of art you can see if you come to Oxford.
1. The Hunt in the Forest – Paolo Uccello
Arguably the Ashmolean Museum’s most famous painting, The Hunt in the Forest was painted in around 1470, the last known work of an Italian artist named Paolo Uccello. It depicts a night-time forest scene densely populated by huntsmen dressed mostly in bright red, and their dogs, which are chasing deer away from the viewer. The scene feels alive, with the vivid red colours standing out against the dark background, and a great sense of movement; many of the figures (both animal and human) are depicted mid-movement, including one rider appearing to screech to a halt on his horse. This intriguing Renaissance masterpiece shows early use of perspective – we see animals and humans growing smaller as they become more distant – which the artist achieved through the use of a mathematical grid. The subject matter is unusual for a period during which religious paintings were the order of the day, and it probably once graced the walls of one of the artist’s wealthy patrons.
2. The Alfred Jewel
Though apparently intended for more practical purposes than most works of art, the 9th-century Alfred Jewel is so intricate and exquisite that it surely qualifies as a work of art. It’s an Anglo-Saxon artefact housed in the Ashmolean Museum, depicting a man thought to be Christ. It’s made from gold, enamel and quartz and bears the inscription “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN”, which means “Alfred ordered me made”. It was attached to a rod, possibly made from wood, but we still don’t know for sure what it was used for. Many scholars now agree that the jewel was the handle of a stick used to point at words when reading a book, assuming it to be one of the staffs Alfred is said to have sent to the seats of all his bishops. The staffs were said to have been accompanied by a copy of Alfred’s own translation of Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great.
3. The Piazza del Popolo, Rome – studio of Panini
Giovanni Paolo Panini, an architect and painter, was famous for his views of Rome, and the Ashmolean Museum’s The Piazza del Popolo, Rome is an oil painting on canvas thought to be from his studio. The painting shows a view of what would have been the gateway to Rome for ‘Grand Tourists’ – wealthy English aristocrats who went on extended travels around Europe and who were probably among the target audience for Panini’s paintings. This practice would have been alive and well during the time of Panini, who died in 1765. The painting shows a bustling scene very similar to how the piazza looks today (with the exception, of course, of the way in which the figures in the scene are dressed), with its imposing ancient Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome in Roman times. In the distance in the painting one can see the dome of the Pantheon, the most intact surviving Roman building in existence; Panini’s most famous painting is of the interior of the Pantheon, which is held in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
4. The Iron Man – Antony Gormley
What do Oxford, Gateshead, Liverpool and Rio de Janeiro have in common? The answer is that they’re all home to cast iron figures by the artist Sir Antony Gormley. In 2009, Oxford got its very own Sir Antony Gormley installation in the form of the Iron Man, which stands on the roof of Blackwell’s Art and Poster Shop. Antony Gormley is the very same man responsible for the more famous Angel of the North, and his distinctive sculptural style is just as evident in the Iron Man as it is in Gormley’s best-known work. The seven-foot-tall sculpture can be seen from Broad Street on the corner with Turl Street, watching over students and shoppers on this busy thoroughfare. It bears a striking resemblance to many of Gormley’s other sculptures, notably the hundred cast iron figures – modelled on the artist’s own body – of his other most famous installation, Another Place, on Crosby Beach near Liverpool. 31 similar figures, again modelled on his own body, can be seen in another installation, Event Horizon, which were originally placed on top of prominent buildings in London and now call Rio de Janeiro their home.
5. The Ashmolean’s Greek Vases
Though, like the Alfred Jewel, they served a practical purpose at the time of their creation, the art featured on ancient Greek vases had an important role to play in the development of western art as we know it today. The painters of these vases developed important artistic techniques such as foreshortening, which advanced the way in which it was possible to depict perspective. The Ashmolean Museum has an extensive collection of them, in all shapes and sizes. The original purpose of these ‘vases’ – which are ceramic pots, rather than vases in the sense we know the word today – varied. Some of the larger vessels, known as ‘kraters’, were used in aristocratic dinner parties to dilute wine with water, as the Greeks always drank their wine diluted (not to do so was seen as a barbarian practice). Smaller Greek vases were used as votive offerings (objects deposited at sacred sites in thanks to the gods), as we know from the depiction of such vases on the side of other vessels. Among the largest were so-called Panathenaic amphorae (at least one example of which can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum), which would have contained olive oil, and were given as prizes to victorious athletes in the Panathenaic Games. Most of the vases feature mythological scenes, and are an important source of information on both ancient Greek myth and society.
6. The Martyrdom of St Lawrence – Tintoretto
Another important gallery in Oxford is the Christ Church Picture Gallery, which houses, among its many treasures, a painting called The Martyrdom of St Lawrence by the celebrated Renaissance painter Tintoretto. The scene is rather gruesome, depicting a 3rd-century Christian martyr condemned to a grisly death at the hands of the Romans. The story goes that when the Romans ordered Lawrence – who was a Deacon in Rome – to hand over the material goods of the Church, he presented them with the poor people to whom he had distributed the goods as alms. The Romans, furious, had him put to death. Tintoretto’s depiction of this scene makes use of an artistic technique called chiaroscuro, in which light and dark are powerfully contrasted for a dramatic composition.
7. Transept of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire – J. M. W. Turner
Painted in 1792, the Transept of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire is one of many paintings by the Romantic landscape artist Joseph Mallord William Turner held at the Ashmolean. Tintern Abbey – a ruined 12th century Cistercian Abbey – was the subject of several works by Turner, and it was a popular tourist attraction in his day. The work makes evident Turner’s early training as an architectural draughtsman, as well as displaying the masterful use of light and colour for which Turner is famous. Among the other works by Turner in the Ashmolean Museum are a number of watercolour paintings of Oxford, which he first visited as a child. Turner has come under the spotlight again recently thanks to a biopic by Mike Leigh, starring Timothy Spall as the artist.
8. The Battle of Pavia – Anonymous Flemish artist
This incredible painting – which is oil on an oak panel and held at the Ashmolean Museum – is the work of an unknown Flemish artist, and it’s thought to date to around 1525. There’s a lot going on in this complex scene, which depicts the Battle of Pavia, in which French and Imperial armies met in this northern Italian city, and King Francis I of France – shown in the painting – was captured. A number of banners are used to indicate who’s who, which is just as well because it’s a confusing jumble of soldiers, mounted, wounded and dead. On the left we see the Fortress of Mirabello, the subject of the siege, and on the right is Pavia itself. It’s a painting one can spend a long time looking at, noticing all the details masterfully incorporated to recreate the drama of the battlefield.
9. and 10. Studies of Figures and Machinery and A Grotesque Head – Leonardo da Vinci
Oxford is home to a number of sketches by the archetypal Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, with the Ashmolean Museum and Christ Church Picture Gallery both housing less famous but nonetheless notable examples of his work. One of several of his drawings in the Ashmolean Museum is Studies of Figures and Machinery, a silverpoint drawing that contrasts the movements of man and machine by showing a group of crouching figures on one side, while the rest of the paper is taken up with intriguing depictions of the machinery used to construct the dome and lantern of the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence.
Over in the Christ Church Picture Gallery is a rather different example of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. It’s called A Grotesque Head, and it’s thought to have been created between around 1503 and 1507. We don’t know an awful lot about it, but some believe it may depict a gypsy king, while others believe it to be a sketch of a character appearing in a painting of the Mocking of Christ (no longer extant). As Christ Church Picture Gallery observes, “Regardless of the interpretation, the drawing demonstrates Leonardo’s dedication to the scientific study of nature in all its forms, even its most unattractive.”
11. Sekiya Villages on the Sumida River – Katsushika Hokusai
You might not think you’ve heard of Katsushika Hokusai (a Japanese artist who was born in 1760 and died in 1849), but you’ll almost certainly recognise his most famous work of art: The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which is arguably the most famous work of Japanese art there is. While this particular work isn’t housed in Oxford, a number of other pieces of artwork by Hokusai are, including Sekiya Villages on the Sumida River. His evocative woodblock prints famously feature the volcano Mount Fuji, including this one.
12. A View of Dolo on the Brenta Canal – Canaletto
You may have heard of Giovanni Antonio Canaletto for his famous paintings of Venice. The Ashmolean Museum houses one such example: A View of Dolo on the Brenta Canal. It shows a part of Venice that would have been seen by those visiting from the north, and it’s a rather fascinating view that gives one an impression of what this part of the city would have been like in the 18th century. A number of figures are depicted doing various things, including a group of well-to-do figures – one holding a parasol – standing around in conversation. This painting may not be as famous as some of Canaletto’s other Venetian scenes, but his skilful hand is immediately recognisable.
There were many more paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other priceless works of art that we could have included on this list, but we’ve run out of time for now. Fans of Van Dyck, Raphael, Picasso, Rubens, Michelangelo, Manet, Constable and many, many more of the world’s most respected artists will not be disappointed by a trip to Oxford. Your only difficulty will be finding the time to see them all.
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