Introduction to Oxford Paintings – May 2003

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford.

Considering that its centre is the site of one of the world’s most beautiful universities, the city of Oxford has been surprisingly little painted by artists of the first rank. The quality of its finest architecture is certainly the equal of the ‘stones of Venice’. But for every fifty masterworks of the jewel of the Adriatic, you would do well to find a single comparable painting of Oxford. Two Turners painted Oxford, it’s true: J.M.W. and the less celebrated William. But it is the former’s Venice we know much better than his Oxford. And besides Turner? After racking our brains, the artist and I could come up with nothing much more impressive than Holman Hunt’s pre-Rapaelite vision of Magdalen Tower on May morning.

True, Oxford was never a city-state like Venice, with a political incentive to represent itself in art as imposingly as possible. Still, the ancient colleges of Oxford’s “republic of letters” have not been wholly lacking in the desire for self-glorification through depiction. It remains something of a puzzle for art historians why generations of dons have mainly commissioned portraits of heads of houses and eminent fellows, leaving the college buildings to the antiseptic attentions of engravers and watercolourists. The result is a plethora of architectural rendering, with occasional descents into the forgettable genre of the tourist souvenir. There is really not much Oxonian Art.

This is part of what makes Francis Hamel’s new collection of Oxford cityscapes so revelatory – but only part. In the first place, yes, it’s simply surprising to see Oxford painted well. Yet these are not merely oases of skilled brushwork in a desert of mediocrity. They are innovative and challenging paintings in their own right. Indeed, the devices employed here might work just as well if applied to over-painted Venice as they do for under-painted Oxford.

The most immediately pleasing feature is the witty juxtaposition of ancient and modern: of Gothic facades and traffic bollards, Cotswold stone and traffic lights, mullioned windows and motor cars. I had never quite grasped the sheer boldness of double yellow lines until I saw Magpie Lane through Francis Hamel’s eyes. And to see the Martyrs’ Memorial surrounded by epigoni-like motorists’ memorials is to see it anew.

I admire, too, the artist’s climatic even-handedness. We see Oxford on a perfect summer’s day, of course, when the blue sky seems to make the walls of the colleges glow like old cloth of gold. But I almost prefer the effect of pouring rain on pavements. Those of us who have misspent the best years of our lives in the city will recognise at once the strange combination of gloom and glitter that a day of relentless drizzle day can produce in St Giles. And who could not be delighted by the transformation, thanks to the sunlight after a downpour, of the High Street into an English Grand Canal – complete with Oxford City vaporetti?

This artist has never used light and shade so expressively. Note the sheer nerve of those Rembrandtian flashes of sunset amid the gathering dusk in his view of the Bodleian from Broad Street.

Browsing through what is just a preliminary selection of these ingeniously composed, meticulously executed paintings, I find myself marvelling that I have lived so long without something like them. Until now, we have all been forced to see Oxford unassisted – whereas we see Venice after passing through its galleries many times. Those who know Oxford well will know it much better when the leave this exhibition. And those who do not know it will surely appreciate the city better if they see it first as it has been seen and seized by Francis Hamel.

Niall Ferguson studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, between 1982 and 1989. He has been a Fellow of Jesus College since 1992.

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