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All Saint’s Church, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire


This fascinating little church makes for an ideal excursion for anyone wanting to escape the Oxford bubble, or simply just explore the beautiful countryside around Oxford.  The tiny hamlet of Shorthampton is easily accessible by road, but perhaps the most pleasing approach is by foot, walking through the beautiful hills and shallow valleys of the surrounding landscape.  We took a train out from Oxford to Charlbury, a pretty little village not far from the city.  From there, you walk out to Shorthampton along footpaths through the fields, with some beautiful views across the Cotswolds and back down into the village.  The fields themselves tell you something of the place’s history, with medieval ridge and furrow visible around Shorthampton.  Shorthampton itself seems now to be little more than a farm and a small collection of houses, with the church’s bellcote prominently rising above the surrounding trees.

It is clear from the outside that the church has been built in several phases.  There seems to have been a chapel on the site since at least the twelfth century, with the first surviving reference to it found in a document dating from 1296.  However the majority of what we now see dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  The fourteenth century saw the addition of a new chancel, and the fifteenth century brought about radical changes to the structure.  A new nave altar was added, necessitating the expansion of the church, which was achieved by pushing the south wall of the nave out by about six feet, to the position it is now in.  The roof was, obviously, also altered in this period, with the current arch-braced roof being added.  It’s corbel stone supports are carved with human heads (not so easy to spot in their white-washes state), three representing lay people, and one representing a monk, suggestive of the church’s link with nearby Eynsham Abbey, which owned the land at that time.  There is also a stone representing a priest – the set perhaps together representing the figures of the people who would have occupied the church.  The chancel stuck on the front of the church slightly oddly, dates from 1820-24, as do the porch and bellcote, which were all rebuilt in this period.  The church is enclosed by a drystone wall, in a very pleasing churchyard with commanding views across the Cotswolds.  Its quaint and rural character is only reinforced by the adjoining orchard.

The overall impression from the outside if of an interesting but not particularly beautiful church; endearing rather than especially picturesque.  Remnants of the earlier building phases can be seen throughout, such as the rounded windows in the north wall.  However the interior is both beautiful and intriguing.  The most striking features are the numerous wall-paintings, some of them unfortunately in a very sorry state, but fascinating nonetheless. P1120364 The squint is painted with the Legend of the Clay birds, a story in the young Christ molds himself some birds out of clay, and then turns them into real birds which fly off.  This is an apocryphal story, derived not from the Bible but from various collections of stories about Christ’s childhood, found in the Gospel of St Thomas.  Having studied these stories for my undergraduate thesis, I was delighted to find an image on this scale so close to home.  They are evidence of people’s strong desire to know more about Jesus as a person.  The Bible has very little to say about Jesus’ upbringing, so people turned to these unofficial stories to fill in the blanks, as typical of the general turn in this period to focusing on Christ’s humanity.

The paintings above the nave altar also reveal an interest in Jesus’ human side.  There are two phases of painting here, the later depicting a fairly standard Christ in Majesty, but the earlier seemingly depicting the Agony in the Garden, complete with great red tears of blood, an image which again draws attention to Christ’s humanity, presenting a particularly empathetic image of him.  The Christocentric paintings are completed by the Doom painting over the chancel, showing us Christ’s promise of salvation at the day of Judgement.

The other paintings largely depict various saints, some of whom have local significance.  The local saint Frideswide of Oxford, whose relics are housed in Oxford Cathedral (within Christ Church), and who caused a spring to appear at nearby Binsey (see a forthcoming blog post), is depicted on the north wall.  This same wall features an image of an archbishop, who is likely to be St Edmund of Abingdon. He became one of the first academics at the fledgling University of Oxford, and was later, reluctantly, elected Archbishop of Canterbury.


St Sitha, or Zita, a thirteenth century saint known for her piety whilst in domestic service, is featured in the reveal of the south window.  To the east of the door is an image of St Loy, or Eligius, a goldsmith turned bishop.  He was patron saint of all metalworkers, including blacksmiths, hence his being depicting shoeing a horse.  The scheme of the west wall seems to have been either St George and the Dragon, or the Archangel Michael fighting the Beast of Revelation, but its current damaged state makes it hard to be certain of the subject.  The saints depicted are for the most part of a quietly pragmatic and humble piety, perhaps chosen as appropriate role models for the congregation of this rural church.

But the wall-paintings are far from the only interesting elements inside the church.  The space itself is dominated by the box pews, added along with the pulpit and reading desk in the 1820-24 works, but possibly replacing similar pews from the late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth century, as suggested by the cuttings in the stonework of P1120375the mould of the chancel arch and the piscine.  There was also at some point a west gallery, probably surviving until at least 1810, and which made use of the original twelfth century door, re-positioning it to give access to the gallery.  Another major original survival is the tub font, which sits opposite the entrance like a cut-off Doric column, doubtless offering a rather intimidating sight to the small babies brought to it for baptism.P1120348

The fifteenth-century elements, mainly the paintings, have not survived so well.  The theological changes brought about by the Reformation lead to the white-washing of the paintings, which were only rediscovered in 1903.  However, instruction were to add texts in their place, hence that which we see over the door, the Creed.  The preference for text continued, as seen in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century cartouche on the west wall, which contains King Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The nineteenth century chancel, far from clashing with the earlier building as such additions often do, allies itself with the church’s quiet simplicity.  Its best feature is the window over the altar, offering a wonderfully peaceful view out across the fields and countryside.






It is an altogether charming church, with an overwhelmingly peaceful atmosphere.  There is a real sense of continuity, with the people farming and praying amongst this beautiful landscape for hundreds of years, and this gives the whole place a very reassuring feel.  I always say (because I always feel!) the churches I write about are well worth visiting, but I would particularly recommend Shorthampton if you’re in search of a quiet moment, to put anxious thoughts to rest, or just need a break from the buzz of the city.  I suppose that, of all the churches I have visited, this is the church in which I felt I could come closest to their original purpose.  You can certainly still feel why, all those centuries ago, this spot was chosen for the location of a simple, one-man chapel, and how it has grown and developed with the passing lives of the people who lived, worked, and died, in the surrounding countryside.


The Twin Churches of St Mary and Sts Cyriac and Julietta, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire


I have recently come to the realisation that a considerable proportion of my spare time is spent exploring churches.  On visiting a new part of the country, my first thought is to discover if there are any notable churches in the region.  Beyond the essential guide Betjeman’s Best British Churches, of which I have the 2011 edition, complete with updates by Richard Surman, it is often surprisingly hard to find, as it were, ‘reviews’ of churches, and recommendations as to which are worth a visit.  Thus I have decided to start writing my own (far humbler than Betjeman’s of course) thoughts and impressions on the churches I visit.  I find it particularly hard to find information on smaller churches on the internet (which, on returning to the car after a successful church visit, and with time for another, one often has recourse to consult), so I hope that these blog posts may serve some small use to those in similar quandaries.

I have decided to commence this series with a review of not one, but two churches.  These are the remarkable twin churches of St Mary the Virgin, and Sts. Cyriac and Julietta, in the small village of Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire.  This village hosts another pair of twins, being home also to two windmills not, alas, adjacent to one another, as with the churches).  Aside from this there is little to suggest the village as the obvious site for two churches, it is a small village, hardly, one would think, ever having been home to enough people to require double churches.  The reason for these two seems to have been related more to altering claims over parishes and changing boundaries, the later St Mary’s seeming to have been built in what was once a separate parish.  St Cyriac may originally date from before the Norman Conquest, while the current building has parts built before 1200.  St Mary’s has had a troubled history, and after falling to ruin was restored in the early twentieth century.  However, a fine tower dating from the twelfth century remained, so this twin church arrangement is certainly a long-standing one (no pun intended).  It was not until an Act of 1667 that the two churches were united under the leadership of a single vicar.  The congregation seems to have shuffled back and forth for some time after, depending on the whim of each vicar, or the state of dilapidation each church found itself in.  This arrangement is not, however, as unusual as it might seem, there being several other instanced of church twinning in Cambridgeshire, and even a case of three churches once having shared the same churchyard at Reepham, in the not so distant Norfolk.


St Cyriac and St Julietta, from the top of the hill

The two churches sit on the side of a low (perhaps high by the standards of this rather flat county) hill, overlooking the village.  St Cyriac’s occupies the higher position, which is also more central in the churchyard, one of the reasons why it has been supposed to be the older of the two churches.  St Cyriac’s is currently being cared for the The Churches Conservation Trust, although it still occasionally hosts services.  Both these churches are notable for their fantastic octagonal towers, which seem abundant in the local area, the most significant of course being the tower of Ely Cathedral.  St Cyriac’s belltower dates from the fifteenth century, and is particularly impressive.  From the outside you can still see where it was connected to the medieval body of the church, which, having fallen into disrepair, was demolished in order to make way for a new building, commenced in 1806.  The impression of walking into the churchyard, which we entered from the higher ground, is quite astonishing.  The two towers reaching up in their faceted forms, and the bodies of the churches an easy stone’s throw away from one another, is certainly memorable.  The newer body of St Cyriac’s is large, and gives the impression of being oddly flat.  It is cruciform, with stubby transepts, which contrast with the tall and comparatively slender tower.  The church’s history of building and rebuilding is apparent from its outer fabric, and presents the visitor with something of a puzzle to piece together.  20151213_094242.jpgAfter the striking qualities of the exterior, the interior of the church is perhaps a touch underwhelming.  Stripped of its pews, all that remains is a somewhat stark Georgian interior.  A plastered ceiling gives a strange sense of the space being confined and enclosed, despite its generous dimensions.  The acoustics are astonishing, it is perhaps the most echoey church I have ever been in, to the extent that one might imagine it actually interfering with the running of services.  Nevertheless, this was the church which, having been rebuilt from 1806 to 1809, by Charles Humfrey, a Cambridge-based architect, was used for the following hundred years or so, until 1903, when St Mary’s was finally restored.  The bells however remain in St Cyriac’s, as the tower of St Mary’s was not restored until 1965.  The slender columns supporting the ceiling of the church add to, in a bizarre way, the sense of sparsity – if it were an uninterrupted space, perhaps one’s 20151213_094338attention would not be so drawn to the low ceiling.  The entrance of the church is overhung by a gallery, which, understandably, is not open to the public.  From here you step up into the church, but any sense of it opening up is thwarted by the ceiling.  Not meaning to do down this church, it must be noted that it is wonderfully light, even on the dreary and rainy winter day that we visited it.  The sanctuary, small, as typical of the period, is painted with the
Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  The provide an interesting contrast to the rest of the interior, which is largely white, with details painted in duck egg blue and terracotta, a somewhat bizarre choice of colour scheme, the antiquity of which I am unsure of.

Other points of interest inside St Cyriac’s are the Victorian parish bier, placed in the North West corner, used to transport coffins (one imagines not the easiest activity on the steep slope of the churchyard), and the charity cupboard, inlai20151213_094930.jpgd with the initials of the church’s saints, SC and SJ, also Victorian.

While it is thus well worth a look inside St Cyriac, it cannot be denied that most interest is found on the exterior.  The octagonal upper stage of the tower rises from corbel heads of lions, human grotesques, and half-angels, carrying shield or crowns, some of the few sculptures found on either church.  The north-west wall of the tower also holds the clock face.  The face itself is a repair, dating from 1811, but the original mechanism of the clock dates from the late seventeenth century.  As far as I can tell it is no longer attached to a bell. 20151213_105311_HDR.jpg The contrast on the exterior between the medieval tower and the Georgian body of the church is great, and as noted above, you can at various points see traces of the original medieval church.  The squat cruciform church would not, I suspect, meet current tastes for the harmonious integration of new and old, the new not meeting the height of the old, giving the impression of two buildings that just happen to have been stuck together.  Nonetheless, the weirdness of this building is part of its attraction, and I would highly recommend a visit.


The tower of St Mary, the Virgin

If one church were not enough to please you, Swaffham Prior of course answers this with the adjacent St Mary’s.  Its most striking feature is the twelfth and thirteenth century tower, constructed in flint and fieldstone.  The upper-most level was added in 1964, as
was the stainless steel fleche with ‘Queen of Heaven’ crown.  This addition would seem incongruous anywhere else, but given the long history of alteration and addition at Swaffham Prior, it rather seems to be the continuation of a tradition (even if I must admit it is not to my taste).  This also serves to recall the church’s lost spire.  The porch, now with charismatically crumbling tracery, dates from the fifteenth century, and was identified by Pevsner as originally containing fan vaulting.  Through this one moves into the tower itself, which is truly remarkable.  As an individual with distinctly medieval taste, getting to look up through the tower, its stages open, lit by its narrow Norman windows, was a joy.  My photographs don’t capture it, needless to say this unusual building is best appreciated in person.  The simple construction, that has been used to achieve such a clever design,


Looking up through the open stages of the tower

is quite wonderful.  From here you progress into the church through a modern glass screen, cleverly inserted into the fabric of the building.  One is again met with a vaguely underwhelming church.  One of my residing memories is of orange, reminding me of the various furniture in my 1990s childhood bedroom.  However, on venturing further inside, one finds much of interest.



Looking up the nave, complete with parquet flooring and rood screen of 1909








The rather stern faces of William and Alice Water of Reach are commemorated in a brass of the early sixteenth century, above a smaller one thought to depict their six sons.  The presumably related Richard Water, also with a wife named Alice, are also commemorated in a brass of a similar date.  The church (I think unusually) has a parquet floor, the culprit behind its orange appearance, made of memel fir, a choice apparently made to reduce the noise of walking about the church.  The current rood screen was gifted to the church in 1909 by the Allix family, local squires, and a family prominent in the history of the two churches, an imposing yet elegant structure.  The height of the church is emphasised by the clerestory windows, which give it a bright atmosphere.  The pews, pleasingly simple, but probably rather uncomfortable for anything by the shortest of services, are those missing from St Cyriac’s.  Clearly there was no need to commission or buy a new set when there was a ready set waiting at a soon to be unused church next door.


William and Alice Water, of Reach, with their adoring sons below


Robert Chambers, Gent.

The church also contains two medieval piscinae, and a rather interesting brass commemorating ‘Robert Cambers, Gent.’, of 1638, and a floor marble commemorating Sir John Ellys, tutor at Gonville and Caius, having studied there from 1647.  But perhaps the most interesting element of the interior of St Mary’s (even to this medievalist), are the stained glass windows, designed by the local squire, C.P. Allix.  Those in the North aisle were designed as the village’s First World War Memorial.  There are three in number, two being dedicated to war, and a third to peace.  The modern subject matter is an unusual choice for the ancient art of stained glass, with windows depicting the various industries or exercises of war, including tanks, trenches, submarines, munitions factories, field hospitals, and a Howitzer.  Specific sections also depict the water pipeline laid across Sinai Peninsula during the invasion of Palestine, and the sinking of the Lusitania.  The images are believed to have been drawn from Allix’s personal scrapbook, and the tank image is noted as an exact copy of a photograph in the Imperial War Museum, showing a Mark I tank.  Each section is captioned by a relevant biblical passage, with the text of the Book of Revelation, 14:13, running along the bottom, ‘And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’.  The final window celebrates the happier industries of peace, depicting ploughing, harvesting, and animal husbandry, as well as the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5-15).  Along the bottom is Psalm 104:23, ‘Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour, until the evening’.  The windows are arranged progressively, West to East, beginning with the call to arms and various weapons, with the second illustrating (in an arguably rather sterile fashion) the horrors of war, and the final window, depicting peace, the furthest east, appropriately closest to the altar.

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Airship and Mark I Tank from the North Aisle Windows

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Munitions hospital scene, from C. P. Allix’s North Aisle, First World War Memorial Windows

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The Peace Window

Allix’s other set of windows are in the south aisle, featuring more unusual subject matter from his own interests.  The windows were designed to commemorate the vicar of the parish, John Peter Allix, and his son Charles, presumably relations of some sort to C.P.  They predate those of the North aisle, having been dedicated in 1914.  Scenes include the 1771 eruption of Vesuvius, an image of the earth, moon, and starts, seen from space, and Greenland glacier, drawn directly from an illustration in Sir James Geikies The Great Ice Age.  There is also an image of Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland.  Each of the subjects is labelled, within the frame of the image.  The technique of these windows is unusual, creating a striking appearance, particularly in the image of Eart, and of Aurora chasing away night, the former in the form of a lark, the latter an owl.  These remarkable sets of windows are worth a visit in their own right, even if they were not houses in such a fascinating church.

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The Earth, Moon, and Stars, as seen from space, in the South Aisle

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Mount Pilatus, Switzerland


All in all these are two of the most interesting churches I have visited; their variety and complicated history of dereliction, restoration, use and reuse, makes them particularly worth a visit.  It is worth noting too that the village itself, even in the rain, was charming, and the walk we took around it also led us in sight of one windmill, and past the other, so it is worth exploring.  About eight miles from Cambridge, we were able to part outside the church gate, at the top of the hill.  There is also a pub for those wishing to quench themselves after the thirsty work of church spotting, although it was closed on the Sunday morning that we visited.  The village is of course accessible by bicycle from Cambridge, and I believe there is also something of a regular bus service.  The two churches now share a vicar with at least two other churches, so I believe St Mary only holds services every few weeks.


I owe a debt of gratitude to the Churches Conservation Trust, for their marvellous work in general, but also specifically with their highly information leaflet on St Cyriac and St Julietta, and to Elisabeth Everitt, for having written such a comprehensive and useful booklet on the history of St Mary the Virgin.  I would highly recommend reading both of these for further information, the former to be found here, the latter available in the church itself, for a modest and highly reasonable fee.  There are collection boxes in both churches, and should you wish to donate to support the work of the Churches Conservation Trust in general, one can do so here.

Not An Illustration: Livres d’Artiste in the St John’s College Special Collections

St John’s College Library is currently hosting a fantastic exhibition of it’s collection of livres d’artiste, collected for the college by Dr Peter Hacker when he was the college’s Library Fellow.  It’s a great collection of more recent livres d’artiste and some wonderful examples of ‘non-illustrative’ illustrations, curated by Tom Cullimore from St John’s College library.  As part of an opening event for the exhibition I was asked to give a short talk on the background of the livre d’artiste, and some of the key figures in their creation.  If you’re interested in learning more about the exhibition itself, Tom’s written some great pieces about it here:, and you can find out more about the library itself and visiting it here:  It’s well worth seeing if you happen to be in Oxford.  Below is the talk I gave at the opening event.

The livre d’artiste is not a particularly well-known medium in the UK.  As the name would suggest, they originate in France, and indeed arguable in the mind of a single individual, Ambroise Vollard.  The main feature that sets them apart from other artisan book production is the close involvement of a single artist, and the fact that the ‘illustrations’ (as shown by the books here) stand as art works in their own right.  You could find some precedent in Arts and Crafts books such as Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, and in some of the prints of Toulous-Lautrec, but the motivations behind creating the modern livres d’artiste were rather different, and the livre d’artiste has developed as a medium in its own right.

Ambroise Vollard was one of the most important art dealers of the twentieth century French art market.  With an eye for painters who would go on to be thought of as ‘significant’, he had a professional relationships with a wide variety

Cezanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1889

Cezanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1889

of artists.  His first major exhibition was of works by Cezanne, for which he supposedly bought almost all of Cezanne’s extant artworks, numbering some 150 works.  He went on to show works by Gauguin and Van Gogh, and was a key early supporter of Picasso, and later Matisse.  While he was clearly a man with an eye for a prudent investment, he did also have a great appreciation for artistic endeavours.  His mercantile success gave him the capital to explore his own interests and idea, primary among which was the idea of a finely crafted book containing works by artists, rather than professional printmakers.  The title of the first such book he produced, Parallelement, reveals something of the artistic ambition that lay behind it.  The book featured a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine, and specifically commissioned works by artist Pierre Bonnard, both prominent figures in avant-garde movements at the time.  This pairing of poet and artists would become the pattern for future livres d’artiste.  Parallelement was striking for the way in which the images and texts were linked and interspersed, with the images being position throughout the text, amongst the poems, rather than being separated or segregated, placing them on an equal footing with the poems.

This interest in how to present text and image was not surprising, this was a period when poets such as Mallarme were exploring how type-setting and presentation of poetry impacted on their interpretation, with Mallarme’s own Un Coup de Des being a key example.  Part of this interest was in how books could or should be presented, and function.  Vollard’s interest was picked up by other figures in the Parisian art market, notably Henry Kahnweiler.  He is best known as the key supporter of Cubism, and also supported Fauve artists such as Andre Derain.  His first ajor production was a collaborative effort between Apollinaire, the poet, and Derain, L’Enchaneur Pourissant, (The Rotting Magician, in 1909.  Kahnweiler went on to public 43 such books, often featuring new writers, giving an even greater sense of collaboration to the finished works.  The livre d’artiste seems thus to have become fairly quickly established as an important medium of artistic production.  Perhaps the best known example of the form is Henri

Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947

Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947

Matisse’s Jazz, published by Teriade in 1947, although this is not particularly representative of the form, as many of the images were originally created for other projects, and it is Matisse’s own thoughts, rather than the works of a poet, which accompanied them.  Albert Skira, closely associated with the Surrealists, published Le Chants de Maldoror, with etching by Dali, and also worked with Picasso on numerous occasions.  As this selection of a few names suggests, artists from many different creeds became involved in the creation of these books.

The livre d’artiste still enjoys popularity, and they are still produced, perhaps in part thanks to the early involvement of figures who have become giants in the study of art and literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  While it is perhaps tempting to think of them as collections of art works, and treat the publication of a new book in much the same way that we might a new exhibition, it is important that we consider the uniqueness of the form. The reader or viewer interacts with books in a completely different way to how they would with a hung exhibition, and the act of holding, and turning the pages of a book creates a rather different experience.  This is clearly something their creators were keenly aware of, and the variety of ways in which they were manufactured shows an interest in the nature of them as books.   Whether they were bound, the images printed, or tipped in, left as insets, what type of paper was used, etc, all these were taken into consideration.  Vollard imported paper from Amsterdam (a traditional centre of paper production) for his works.

This reveals some awareness, and desire to convese with, the history of book production.  Kahnweiler also referred to the long history of the printed book, using a typeface based on that created in Aldus Minutius’ press, one of the earliest and most important of the Venetian publishing houses.  The content was in some cases similar too, with classical works such as Homer (as seen in this exhibition) often being popular choices for the textual content of livres d’artiste.  So while commissioning works from the most forward thinking of artists, there is still a sense that these works were part of the tradition of fine book publication.  They certainly lived up to this in terms of cost, usually being expensive and luxurious items.  This suggests another unique aspect of them as books, they have a degree of intimacy, they are to be held and possessed, and looked through at one’s own pace –there is a sense in which it is the will of the viewer that completes the act of creation, through the processes of viewing the books, how they choose to read and look through them.  The multi-sensory nature of book viewing further adds to this feeling of intimacy with the object.  France is a country known for its spectacular output of illuminated manuscripts, and, although used for very different, and secular, purposes, the livre d’artiste can be seen as an exciting continuation of this interaction between image, text, and viewer.

For further reading see the above blog posts, and Eunice Martin. French Livres d’Artiste in Oxford University Collections (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1996)

First Impressions: Zhang Xioagang, Bloodlines: Big Family No. 1, 1996

As today is Chinese New Year, I thought I’d post a piece I’ve written about a piece of Chinese art.  I must confess that this is something of a cheat as a ‘First Impressions’ piece, as I haven’t actually seen this piece myself, but it was written in the same way as my usual pieces, and I think it’s a great piece, by an artist perhaps not so well known to UK audiences.  I’ve been lucky enough to take the course ‘Art in China since 1911’ as part of my undergraduate degree, which is fascinating, and covers so much art that was unfamiliar to me before, but am glad to have discovered.

You can see a picture of this work here… , complete with the record of it selling for what would now seem a ridiculously small price for such a work.

The work is dominated by three figures, that of a man, a woman, and a small baby boy.  The composition is cropped, we do not view all of the figures, we view the man and woman from chest height, with their shoulders cut off at either side, and the baby is viewed from about ankle height.  The baby seems to hover in the air in between and in front of the two other figures, who the title and convention might suggest are his parents.  The baby is differentiated from the other figures by the bright red hue given to his body, while his clothes maintain the monochromatic tones that are used for the other figures and the background.  This use of colour is suggestive of black and white photography, an association strengthened by the poses of the figures, facing the ‘camera’, or the viewer, looking directly out from the painting.  There is some blurring around the edges of the figures, particularly around the woman’s plaits, and in the background, which is just that in that it does not convey any particular sense of space, or a particular setting, acting instead as a generic background for the figures in front, perhaps suggesting the backdrop of a photographer’s studio, or a rendered or painted wall.  The cropping of the figures adds to this sense of them being in an indistinct space, as we do not see points where they would link with it (e.g. where their feet touch the ground).


The surface of the painting is interrupted by a series of red lines, which sit wire-like on the surface of the painting, joining over the baby and the figures behind it.  Thus a sense of flatness is created, the depth created by the over-layering of the figures is negated, and we again are given the sense of this being a photograph.  Their clothing is carefully detailed, with precise brushwork to denote crisp collars and neat lapels, while we are given some idea of the man’s profession or status by the pen tucked into his jacket pocket, suggesting that he is a ‘white collar’ worker, while glasses were accepted as a sign of the intellectual, or at least educated, individual.  The figures do not seem to acknowledge one another, except in the woman’s slight lean into the centre, and the slight turn of both figures’ outside eye in towards the centre.  Aside from the baby’s red hue, there are also patched of slightly brighter colour on the other figures, with patches of pinkish tones over their faces and neck, but again, the way in which the colours cut across them, covering the glasses, and her clothes, for instance, suggest that this is supposed to evoke the effect of a fading photograph.  However, its meaning could be multiple, and it could be present to suggest the humanity behind these monochromatic facades.  The eyes of all three figures are picked out in precise lines, contrasting with the blurring of their other features, and are painted in a darker, shinier shade of black, which gives them an unnervingly piercing quality, and which immediately draws the gaze of the viewer.  The baby’s slightly furrowed brows are the only hint of definite expression in the figures, the adults have expressions that are hard to read, deliberately open to interpretation.


The title, ‘Bloodlines’, could be a specific reference to the importance of one’s family connections during the Cultural Revolution, be they harmful or helpful, and can also link to the thin red lines across the canvas.  The Bloodlines series is usually large in scale, emphasising the striking and unnerving qualities of the figures.  The red chosen for the child could relate to a number of different ideas, the most obvious being the red of Communism, but red was also traditionally associated with good luck, which coupled with the child’s troubled expression, leads one to wonder the significance of the connection between these two associations.  The inclusion of a single child could bring to mind the one child policy in China, but I think it’s important to recognise the potential for a multiplicity of meaning.

Ruskin Drawing Sale

This year I paid my first visit to the Ruskin Drawing Sale.  Feeling something like a cross between the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and a car-boot sale, this is an annual opportunity for students at the Ruskin to sell works and raise some funds for their degree show, and for art enthusiasts to pick up a piece by up-and-coming young artists.

These photos should hopefully give you a good idea of what it is like; there are drawings pinned all over the walls of the school, up the stairways and on the windowsills, each one being replaced as soon as it is sold by another.

View from the foyer into the sale

View from the foyer into the sale

There are no labels, just a tiny price-tag on each item (sometimes this had fallen off, and was to be found on the floor beneath, leading to an amusing guessing game as to which went with which artwork).  Despite the name, the works on sale are not exclusively drawings, there are also photographs and painted works, the unifying feature is price, with most works for sale in the region of £15-20, with the highest I saw about £60, and others for less than £5.   This results in a very democratic

A selection of handmade jewelery

A selection of handmade jewellery

feel, there’s something for every budget, and it’s presented as suitable for the (ostensibly very small) student budget.  The works are varied, but strangely not so varied as one might expect, perhaps because they’re all studying at the same school, there is some sense of many of them being from a family of related artists.  It runs for two days, and I have to say that I was left with a slight sense of missing out, in that the works were changing all the time, with new ones being added, so I did feel as if I should make several trips in order to be able to get a real sense of the scope.  I didn’t see anything that really jumped out at me, there were some interesting works, and works by artists I’m familiarwith, which always please me, but I came away empty handed, and slightly disappointed. 20141122_144908


This piece was sold for a price, plus a drink with the artist!

This piece was sold for a price, plus a drink with the artist!



Another pleasing windowsill display





I particularly like the work of the artist at top left. This shot gives a good sense of the range of work on show

Works out on the tables

Works out on the tables




The view up the staircase

The view up the staircase

People were also selling printed T-shirts, cakes, and there was a henna tattoo stall, which gave it a more fun atmosphere.  It’s an event well worth visiting if you get the chance, it’s a good opportunity to see behind the closed doors of the art school, and it showcases some very talented young artists.

Studying History of Art at Oxford University

I am just about to enter my third, and final, year of studying history of art at Oxford University. I love the course, and my subject, even more than I did at the start. This is partly natural if one is interested in the subject – the more you look the more you find – but this is also largely thanks to how wonderful the undergraduate course at Oxford is. I recently helped out at the September Oxford Open Day, at the art history department, and it was really fun to meet so many (relative) youngsters so excited about getting into the subject. Relatively few people have the opportunity to study art history before they reach university, so I think it’s really important to know what each course offers; choosing a university is hard, and the more you know the better. So I thought I’d share a little about my personal experiences on the course, and a bit about how the course is run. I hope this might be useful for any prospective students and aspiring art historians!

First a little about the course structure. The course is three years long, and each year is split into three terms. At Oxford, these terms are called ‘Michaelmas’ (October-December), ‘Hilary’ (January-March), and ‘Trinity’ (April-June). You’ll get approximately one module per term, although in some cases you might have the workload split between two terms. In your first year the courses are set, so all students do the same ones, working you all up to a good level of knowledge. This is particularly helpful if you haven’t had the chance to study art history before. The courses are ‘Antiquity after Antiquity’, ‘Introduction to the History of Art’, and ‘European Art 1400-1900: Meaning and Interpretation’. You’ll also have to write a supervised extended essay, nicknamed the ‘Object Essay’, because it’s written about an object of your choice from a museum or collection in Oxford. This turned out to be one of my favourite elements of the first year – there are so many objects to choose from that it can be quite bewildering, but once you have chosen an object, you are given a supervisor who will guide you through researching the object, and writing up an essay on it. Other elements of first year build you familiarity with the collections in Oxford, which help with choosing, and the Object Essay offers a really valuable opportunity to explore your own, very personal interests. It’s quite likely that you might choose something which no-one else has ever written about, which can be exciting!

An image from the object I chose, Bodleian MS Tanner 184, a mid-13th Century Apocalypse Manuscript

An image from the object I chose, Bodleian MS Tanner 184, a mid-13th Century Apocalypse Manuscript

This will count towards your overall first year mark, but you have a long period to write it, and it’s nice to get one examined element out of the way before exam season. It works in a similar way to coursework for A-levels, although of course is a lot more independent. ‘Antiquity after Antiquity’ deals with one of the major themes throughout Western art history, the way in which Greek and Roman art has been appropriated and reinterpreted in Western art.

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelias, c. 175 AD; one of the works you might study for Antiquity after Anitquity

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelias, c. 175 AD; one of the works you might study for Antiquity after Anitquity

This covers a wide period, from the Middle Ages to Post-Modernism, giving you a sense of confidence in understanding the issues involved. The course is taught through lectures and tutorials (more on these later), with lectures by a number of different tutors and scholars. ‘Introduction to the History of Art’ takes something of a pot-shot approach, with a different period and topic covered each week, with, for example, ancient Egypt in one week, and the reception of Japanese art in nineteenth century France in another. As well as these topics, you’ll have essays on varied topics, and visits to Oxford’s many collections and museums. These are a great way to develop a familiarity with the great wealth of treasures in Oxford, and are great for giving you ideas about what you might want to write your Object Essay about. As well as museums such as the Ashmolean, and the Museum of the History of Science, you also get trips to collections that are not open to the public, like the John Johnson collection (ephemera), and the Bodleian, where you’ll get to see a selection of manuscripts from the Special Collections. Obviously these trips might not be the same every year, but those I mention give you a good idea of what might be covered. ‘European Art 1400-1900: Meaning and Interpretation’ is designed to equip you with the skills of art history, and an understanding of the different aspects that go together to make up a piece of art. Thus topics include ‘Brushstroke’, ‘Material’, and ‘Frame’, as well as ‘Description’, an understanding of the nuances and implications of which is essential for art historical analysis. This course is based around a series of classes and tutorial essays. The exciting bit about the tutorials for this course is that they usually take place in the Ashmolean Museum: you’ll be asked to write your essay about a work in the museum, and then you’ll discuss your thoughts in front of the work itself in the tutorial.

Paulo Uccello, The Hunt in the Forest, c. 1470; a work from the Ashmolean Museum

Paulo Uccello, The Hunt in the Forest, c. 1470; a work from the Ashmolean Museum

This is really fun, and livens up the tutorials, whilst also broadening your knowledge by letting you hear about what your fellow students have studied. So by the end of first year you really feel that you’ve got a good, and broad, knowledge base, and are ready to face more specialised courses in second year. You’ll be tested on what you’ve learnt in Prelims, or Preliminary Exams, at the end of Trinity (third) term. Apart from your Object Essay, none of the work you’ll have done throughout the year counts towards your final mark. This is really refreshing – if you’ve had a bad week it just doesn’t matter – and it gives you a lot of intellectual freedom; you’re really encouraged to follow your own ideas, and explore things in a broader way, without having to worry about the impact it might have on your overall grade.

The rest of your courses are taken across second and third year. There is one core course, ‘Approaches to the History of Art’, and other than this, you get to choose from a varying number of options. You choose three second year options (I chose ‘The Experience of Modernity: Visual Culture, 1880-1925’, ‘Art in China since 1911’, and ‘Flanders and Italy in the Quattrocento, 1420-1480’) and then another module for third year (I chose ‘Politics, Art, and Culture in the Italian Renaissance: Venice and Florence, c.1475-c.1525’). As well as these you’ll have an undergraduate thesis, which is like a longer version of the Object Essay, except that you can write about anything art historical, without being limited to something in Oxford. Some course options are tested through exams only, others have course work elements, and most are run through classes and tutorials. The Approaches course runs alongside a lecture series in second year, ‘Concepts and Methods’, and has its own classes and tutorials. This course focuses on methodology and theories of art history as a discipline – it really broadens your mind, covering subjects such as Post-Colonialism, Gender, and Iconography and Iconology. You’ll read key art-historical texts, and have the opportunity to discuss them in classes and tutorials, with your tutors and other students, which makes it far easier to get your head around what are sometimes quite complex texts. I realise I’ve used the word ‘broad’ quite a lot so far, and in a number of different ways, but I think that is one of the key things to understand about the course at Oxford, there is a wide range of material to choose from, and it encourages you to not become too narrowly focused on a particular way of thinking, there is a degree of self-awareness and self-understanding encouraged in how we look at art, and how we study and interpret it.

Now to talk about tutorials. You couldn’t write about studying at Oxford without mentioning them, they’re such an important aspect of what makes Oxford special. Tutorials, or tutes, are essentially meetings with your tutor, for you and a number of other students (there are usually three students and one tutor in each History of Art tutorial). All of the courses involve a certain number of them (usually working out at about one a week). For each tute you will be given an essay question (sometimes several to choose from), which you will then answer, and hand in to your tutor. The tutorial is then a meeting to discuss not just your essay in particular, but also the general topic raised by the essay questions. The tutor will ask questions and share thoughts, and with three students a lot of ground can be covered. Having three of you also means that there’s almost always someone who has something to say, so the conversation flows well. And it is something more like a conversation than a formal meeting, which is one of the great benefits. You have the opportunity to get feedback from, discuss your ideas with, and learn from a world expert in the subject, on a really personal basis, which is invaluable, and makes the whole process of learning easier and more enjoyable. Even on the hopefully rare occasions when you haven’t written a particularly good essay (we’ve all been there), having a tutorial gives you the chance to really work through it, and by the end you usually co me out with a much clearer understanding of the topic. The essays are usually a similar format to the ones you’ll write in your exams, so you also get a lot of practice, which is very comforting. Not everybody loves tutes, but I think, especially with three of you, there is a degree of flexibility built into them, so they’re actually quite easy to adapt and get used to. They’re really the main thing that sets the way of learning at Oxford (and Cambridge) apart fom other universities, so if you’re thinking about applying to Oxford (for any subject, they pretty much all have tutes), you should think about whether this style of learning appeals to you. The main message to take away about tutorials is that they give you valuable time with world experts to discuss your own ideas, and learn about topics in a far more personal way than lectures, or even classes and seminars, could allow.

So that’s a bit (a lot) about how the course works. As for what the course feels like, I can say that it feels supportive, progressive, and fulfilling. We’re quite a young course (we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the BA degree course earlier this year), and that shows in all the right ways. The courses change and develop, and there’s no sense of obligation to past traditions – the subjects you can study, and the emphasis on looking at why we study art history in certain ways, give the course a strong sense of self-awareness. It’s a small course, with only 16 places up for grabs, at seven different colleges (two of the places are at the mature student college, Harris Manchester), which gives it a very friendly feel; you know, and have classes with, everyone in your year, and interaction between the years is good, so it really feels like a community.

The front quad of my college, St John's

The front quad of my college, St John’s

Having only a few people in your college doing the same subject as you also means you get to know more people doing different subjects, which can only be a good thing. You really get the chance to develop as an art historian, follow your own path, and discover your own interests, rather than just feeling that you’re doing the same thing as everyone else and learning a set idea of what art history is and which periods/artists/paintings should be seen as important.

So to cut a long story short, I really love this course (the end feels all too close!), and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in art and art history. I may post a bit about the application process at some point, but I hope this post has given a clear idea about what the course is like, and I hope I’ve fired some readers with the enthusiasm to consider applying. It really is a brilliant course, and infinitely repays you for the effort of applying (and all those essays!).

If you’d like to know more about the course, about the modules, tutors, application process, colleges, and so on, visit the department’s website, or the general course page at

2012 in review

So it seems I have actually posted a terribly small number of posts this year!  But now that I am almost a full time art historian (if only in the student phase) look forward to many more posts to come, covering the usual, with more studies, First Impressions, and hopefully some exhibition reviews!

Soon to come will be my notes on the Musee d’Orsay, if only I could find my journal.

Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed, I’ve certainly enjoyed the writing.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 24,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.