Colin Harrison is the Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Those of us who live and work in Oxford tend to take the beauties of the city for granted. Indeed, it is often only when they are altered or subsumed by new buildings insensitively positioned that they become cherished. Recently, the view of the dreaming spires from Port Meadow, the ancient common land to the north-west of Oxford, has been completely obliterated by a range of buildings which are no doubt functional, but completely destroy one of the many distant prospects that should have been preserved.
Fortunately, artists have recorded Oxford consistently since the middle of the seventeenth century. Most of the early drawings and engravings are of only antiquarian interest, including the first 90 or so views published as part of the Oxford Almanack, the University calendar, since 1674. However, beginning with the German violinist, ‘John Baptist’ Malchair, who settled in Oxford in 1759, artists began to depict the more picturesque aspects of the city, both within the mediaeval walls, and from the distant hills to the west, south, and east. Malchair was also the first of a succession of drawing masters to instil into his undergraduate pupils a delight not only in the set pieces – the High Street, the facade of Christ Church with Tom Tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and so on – but in the many byways and hidden corners that still abound. Later, the great J. M. W. Turner was fascinated by Oxford throughout his life, recording his delight in a series of watercolours from his teenage years to his maturity. His final watercolour, Oxford from North Hinksey of c. 1839 (now in Manchester City Art Gallery) shows the city at its most romantic, a visual equivalent of Matthew Arnold’s lines in ‘Thyrsis’ evoking ‘That sweet city with her dreaming spires’. Turner’s successors could not compete, but, in any case, Oxford was changing: the arrival of the railway, the ‘brickish skirt’ of suburbia, and eventually the Morris Motor Works, transformed the setting, but the heart was largely preserved .
The foundation of John Ruskin’s School of Drawing in 1871 might have heralded a new intensity in the artistic activity in Oxford; but Ruskin had a very particular method of teaching, and never intended his students to become professional artists. Indeed, he scarcely allowed them to draw in the open air. His successors have been more liberal, though it is still remarkable that very few of the Ruskin students take advantage of the opportunities offered by their surroundings.
Francis Hamel is an important exception. He has long been familiar with Oxford, from his student days at the Ruskin School. Unusually, he has concentrated on the representational, whilst most of his contemporaries have been seduced by one or other trend in abstraction; or given up altogether. His subjects may seem traditional, but his language is highly individual, with reminiscences of painters from Van Gogh to Bratby.
Hamel’s view of Oxford is essentially a Romantic one: even the horrors of the Cornmarket, now lined from end to end with chain stores, though often in historically important buildings, seem exotic in the rain, the paving stones glistening and the umbrellas creating an effect more familiar in Paris in the Second Empire than England in 2012. This is not to suggest that Hamel shirks modernity. His paintings are full of bollards and traffic lights as well as the inevitable bicycles, those inveterate inhabitants of a university city; and the triangular traffic signs, ugly in themselves but adding an essential touch of red to the picture, as artists from Constable onwards have discovered.
Looking down St Giles, for example, we see little of the noble town houses that still line the street, but instead, an orderly file of telegraph poles receding into the distance, complemented by two upside-down red triangles, articulating a complex traffic junction. Hamel paints the hurly-burly of the busy thoroughfares, and the calm of the University Parks, Christ Church Meadow, and Port Meadow. Unlike most landscape artists, he is not afraid of people; but it is his trees which seem to indicate the essential character of the scene, whether it is the ancient chestnut tree in the Turl, or the noble poplars in Port Meadow. These paintings are not antiquarian records or picture postcards, but studies in weather and light and mood. Together, they constitute an entirely personal vision of Oxford in the early years of the twenty – first century.
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