With Oxford’s hallowed institutions and architectural wonders, it’s always a pleasure to enjoy the city in a new way and discover hidden spaces in and between the classic buildings.
With this idea at its heart a new book, The Oxford Art Book, launches at Blackwell’s this month, its pages a splendid colourful exploration of the city of Oxford through the eyes of its of contemporary artists and illustrators. Between them, they summarise the charm, vitality and eccentricity of Oxford in paint and pen. The pictures, by 65 artists in all, range from the representational and atmospheric to quirky and intriguing with scenes both iconic and lesser-known, by day and night, and through the seasons. Jeremy Paxman described Oxford as “a victim of its beauty: the pavements crammed with bemused tourists, filthy buses jamming the streets.” But, he continued, “the artists behind these images have not been deterred: this is a treasury of new ways of seeing [the city].”
With this beautiful exhibition, carefully curated by artist-cum-editor Emma Bennett and squashed between pocket-sized pages, you can avoid any crowds and stroll through the best of Oxford over a coffee in a comfy chair. Settle yourself, perhaps, in the window of The Grand Café on The High, which stands on the site of the oldest coffee house in England, according to The Diary of Samuel Pepys’ in 1650. The café, resplendent with opulent gilt and marble pillars, has been painted by Melissa Sturgeon and is itself included in the collection, a seamless combination of history, art, architecture and daily life.
The Radcliffe Camera
Unsurprisingly, Oxford’s most well-known landmark, The Radcliffe Camera, appears both centre stage, and in the sky-line. One of the artists, Tim Steward, explains his fascination with this building. “The pure form, the simple rhythm of spaces between doors and windows and the disappearing curves of the Radcliffe Camera are a joy to draw. There is, for me, a mysterious attraction about the Radcliffe Camera which goes beyond its visual splendour. Radcliffe Square has become a ‘trysting place’ – a place where I can sit, ponder and be, an environment of simple beauty and gentle pace which nourishes my spirit and touches me with something of God. Early morning it is simply majestic. By night it has a foreboding, even haunting aspect. Most of my Radcliffe Camera drawings were undertaken early in the morning. They incorporate a combination of black pastel, charcoal, chalk and raw pigment, the latter of which is thrown onto the paper.”
Whilst Tim works in sweeping black and white, artist Bee Bartlett shows the wonders of the Oxford architecture in glorious golds, balancing composition with an experimental approach to materials. This interplay produces works which are rich yet fresh and lively, and evoke an emotional response. Should you wish to see (or own) larger originals, you’ll find new Oxford works by Bee Bartlett at the Sarah Wiseman Gallery in Summertown this month.
You can adventure inside the buildings too, and dig deep into the cluttered collection of the Pitt Rivers with Andrew McLellan, who is Head of Education in this much-loved, quirky museum, whilst the dinosaurs in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History are shown as a delicate paper cut by Kate Hipkiss.
The Covered Market
“The Covered Market is one of my favourite places in Oxford,” says printmaker Gerry Coles, whose reduction linocut ‘Christmas in the Covered Market’ was produced specifically for the book. “It is public, yet hidden away. It has a wonderful quirkiness and a sense of stepping back in time. Structurally it is beautiful – the tiled floor, the old fashioned shop frontages and signs, overhead the paired lanterns, the pattern of the beams and the extraordinary colour of the ceiling – go in and look upwards!”
The Oxford Art Book also celebrates the city’s green spaces, and you’ll find the Botanic Garden on May Day morning by Mark Kaiser, whose enthusiastic and colourful style lifts the spirit alongside an almost geometric take by Susan Wheeler. Susan is a printmaker with a garden studio tucked away beside the Thames in Lower Radley, so it is no surprise to see through her eyes an evocative view of rowers on the river, a cyclist keeping abreast and boathouses beyond translated into the exacting language of a linocut, with a focus on the form and a selective attention to detail.
A more modern side
Other pictures show Oxford’s more modern side. “The university dominates the city, and its dreaming spires are iconic,” says artist Cathy Read, whose stylized depicition of Keble College’s ‘Spaceship’ glass-sided college bar is a 1970s surprise amongst the pages. Cathy outlines her buildings precisely in a white masking fluid, before adding free-ranging watercolours and fluid acrylic ink applied with a pipette, to create a very distinctive style that works particularly well with the more geometric sixties and seventies buildings.
The light falling on bikes outside Blackwell’s has been painted in an energetic impressionist style by Oxford’s own Andrew Manson, who lives on a narrowboat tucked away in a nature reserve within the ring road. This may not be a view snapped by every tourist, but for those who lived or studied here it’s every bit as Oxford as the heads outside the Sheldonian opposite, as is this month’s St Giles’ Fair which, imagined by Imogen Foxell, bursts exuberantly from the page.
The Headington shark, recorded in neat illustrative style by Joe Davis, may not be steeped in centuries of history, but brings a smile to the faces of Oxford residents and visitors alike. Twenty-five feet long, the shark landed in 1986 on the roof of Oxford celebrity Bill Heine’s house without planning permission and out-foxed the city council, who didn’t have planning regulations in place that covered large aquatic animals on the skyline. There are now plans afoot to make the house and its roof-based resident a listed building.
The book also shows what is perhaps a frustration with the city: the fact that there are spaces inaccessible to all but the most privileged. Caroline Ritson’s lock could be one of dozens of doors in thick walls, whilst Dorothy Megaw shows buildings of Trinity College glimpsed from outside the King’s Arms, a teasing vista with long green lawns behind dancing gates.
But this month we’re in luck as, for Oxford Open Doors (8th-9th September), hundreds of institutions, and grand buildings, throw open their gates and invite you in. And if you can’t make it, or have missed it, then The Oxford Art Book (£14.99 available in local bookshops, or you can order your copy online at theoxfordartbook.co.uk) offers the perfect alternative.