Friday night saw a lot of quasi-lefty-arty types gather together for the grand opening of Aidan Meller’s second Oxford enterprise: a new gallery on Broad Street which specialises in in Pre-Raphaelite art. The place with packed with potential buyers ready to soak up the atmosphere and the free champagne.
The gallery displays and sells sketches, prints, and objects created by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and their surrounding circle. These were a group of painters, poets and critics in the mid-19th century whose aim was to create art in a way that was true to nature; more true than the art produced by the establishment, the Royal Academy.
Now, Pre-Raphaelite art is associated with the high-conservatism of the Victorian age but when the movement started it was considered to be radical and even subversive. Fighting against the artificial strictures it believed academicians had imposed upon art from the top down, it strongly identified with the socialist movement. Leading figures like John Ruskin and William Morris were prominent social theorists who believed in the social function of art. They thought that, at its core, art is a great educator. The teaching of art, Ruskin said, is “the teaching of all things” and thus it should be available to everyone, no matter their class, wealth or education.
Hence it is appropriate that Meller’s gallery is in Oxford, the great city of education. This is even more so because, as Meller explained in his welcoming speech, Oxford has strong ties with the Pre-Raphaelites. Two of its key members William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones met as students at Exeter College and Dante Gabriel-Rossetti got married in St Michael at the Northgate Church. Many of the colleges house works of pre-Raphaelite art. These include the stained glass windows in Christ Church and Harris Manchester and perhaps most famously Holman-Hunt’s The Light of the World in Keble College Chapel. The Ashmolean also has an internationally recognised collection and the Union is home to the celebrated Rossetti murals. In some ways, it is fantastic that there is another platform in Oxford for us, as students, to learn about the cultural history of the city. It is helping the art to live out its didactic function.
I am troubled, however, as to whether the gallery can really be said to be championing art in the way the movement intended. We must interrogate whether a space which commercialises and commoditizes art as object-for-consumption is loyal to a movement that was deeply socialist and, at its heart, egalitarian. The Pre-Raphaelite artists helped to set up the first state museum, the Victoria and Albert (you can still eat in the William Morris designed dining room today). But a gallery whose existence is founded upon the sale of art undermines that socialist agenda.
I speak to Meller about this, and he tells me that the gallery makes at least one sale every day it is open. The cost of the art works range from £300 – £250,000 and the average price of the pieces on sale at the opening was £11,000. He details at some length the success the art world is having at the moment; but by this he meant financial success, mentioning the Giacometti which recently sold for $50 million and Munch’s The Scream which went for $120 million. Of course, we could now add the latest record breakers, the $142 million Francis Bacon triptych and the $105 million Andy Warhol to that list.
Meller explains that the reason for this boom lay in the decreased size of the market. As works are sold, originals become a rarer commodity which in turn pushes the prices up. Meller is clearly thrilled by this. He asserts that the purpose of his gallery was to help us get into that market and have a part in the success. We, too, could “take things home with us”.
Yet as a student for whom £11, 000 is more than a year’s tuition and a term’s maintenance loan put together, I could not help but be sceptical about this. There is no way I will be taking home any of this art in the next year, probably even in the next 10 years given the current state of the graduate job market. I’m more concerned about actually being able to afford a home. Nor am I really persuaded that owning art was desirable. Meller’s message was incoherent and decidedly hypocritical. At first, he seemed to be championing the educative and socialist function of art and its role the public sphere, but swiftly turned to how we could secrete this art away into our own homes and remove it from public view.
Therefore the only thing I can exhort you to do is to get down to the gallery as quickly as possible. Let this art live out its original purpose by learning from it before it is sold.