Oxford and the Ashmolean Museum

Oxford was where Dante Gabriel Rossetti gathered together a group of young artists to paint the Oxford Union fresco, where William Morris and Edward Coley Burne-Jones met as students and decided to become artists, and from where John Ruskin wrote his famous defence of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Ashmolean Museum has a medium sized collection of very good Pre-Raphaelite pictures, and there are various other places in Oxford to see their work.

The Ashmolean was the first public museum in Britain, arising in part from a collection of natural history items from the Tradescants bequeathed to Elias Ashmole, and thence to Oxford. The impressive classical building, and the adjacent Taylorian Institute, are by the architect C. R. Cockerell.

Now to the pictures. Rossetti is represented by drawings of Proserpina and Dante drawing an Angel on the first Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice. William Holman Hunt has A Converted British Family Sheltering a Missionary, an important picture with a characteristic 'raw' look to the exposed bodies, a version of The Afterglow in Egypt, and London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. John Everett Millais has The Return of the Doves to the Ark, where the doves show that Millais could have easily been a famous animal painter. Ford Madox Brown's The Pretty Baa Lambs is a small version of his picture at Birmingham, and there is also the characteristic Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. There are two drawings of angels for stained glass by Burne-Jones, a small Danae and the Brazen Tower and also the Prioress' Tale Cabinet painted by him, very much in the style of Rossetti. Home from Sea is a well-known and rather sentimental picture by Arthur Hughes, and he also has a study for The Eve of St Agnes - the finished picture is at the Tate Gallery.

Study in March is an astonishingly photographic painting by J. W. Inchbold, and equally exact in observation is C. A. Collins's Convent Thoughts, combining the two Pre-Raphaelite themes of painting nature as it is with the idea of a nun who wishes she wasn't. Frederick Sandys has an important allegorical picture called Gentle Spring.

The Ashmolean often has exhibitions of drawings from the 19th Century, and has display cases of Victorian maquettes for sculptures. There are Impressionist paintings (especially Pisarro) and important earlier art.

Elsewhere in Oxford, the Union Murals are very faded and sad in the way that ancient ruins can be when they are so crumbled that one cannot really see what they were. However in Christchurch Cathedral there are the huge windows by Burne-Jones, and he also has a large tapestry at Exeter College. Holman Hunt's most famous painting, The Light of the World is in the chapel of Keble College. Keble College itself is a Victorian wonder in coloured brick (by the architect William Butterfield) somewhat reminiscent of the Natural History Museum in London. Opposite is the University Museum, designed by the architects Deane and Woodward and completed in 1860 according to the principles of architecture laid down by Ruskin, with an emphasis inside on the iron framework and with marble pillars of different colours. The Gothic exterior features polychromatic stone and carvings of animals, birds and foliage indicative of the purpose of the building. The carving was by James and John O'Shea, and apparently Ruskin himself contributed some designs. In this museum can be seen some of the earliest dinosaur skeletons, remnants of the dodo, and another 19th Century masterpiece, the gloriously overfilled Pitt-Rivers ethnological museum. More generally, Oxford abounds with 19th Century architecture, and contains some of the best Victorian 'Horror Gothic' houses in the country in Banbury Road and Woodstock Road.

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Victorian art in Britain

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