In a city that is well known as one of the cultural centres of Britain it takes a lot for somewhere to be considered of exceptional artistic merit. However, the Christ Church Picture Gallery is undoubtedly one of Oxford’s cultural highlights. Often described as one of the most important private collections in the country, it is full of art that proves that you don’t need a gallery on the scale of the Tate in order to show artwork of the highest calibre.
The collection, which is strongest in renaissance Italian art, was founded in 1765 after the generous donation of the entire collection of General John Guise, a former student of the college. Before the opening of the current building by the Queen in 1968, the collection was housed in the library. The building itself is of great merit; the contrast of the large glass windows in the central corridor with the stone columns within the main gallery itself mean that the gallery has a surprisingly modern feel. Despite the slightly gloomy low light levels that conservation necessitates, white walls allow for a building that is much less austere than one might expect (although it sits among the inescapable grandeur of Oxford’s finest architecture.) The drawings room works particularly well in showing the work; the drawings and sketches are lit by a strip of light that, in an otherwise dark room, highlights the art and means that you can make out the precise details of the craftsmanship. The gallery stands as an oasis of calm within a city, and indeed a college, that often seems choked with tourists, perhaps due to its ostensible lack of connection with Harry Potter.
The collection starts in a small room with a selection of panel paintings and altar pieces dating from as far back as the pre-renaissance. The altar pieces are of particular interest; ‘The Crucifixion’ by D’Antonio being a highlight. The pale, muscled torso of Christ contrasts with the pure black background. This makes for a figure of Jesus that immediately stands out within the picture. The artist creates a portrait that is disturbing in its realism; Jesus is covered in blood and the depiction of a skull at the bottom of the cross leads to a much darker image of the crucifixion than one might normally see or expect. However, the highlight of this room is the large painting of ‘Five Sibyls seated in Niches’ by Lippi. The folds of their clothing and perfect representation of the stone columns demonstrate the artist’s mastery of renaissance techniques that allow for an increasingly realistic depiction of these ancient seers.
The large room that forms the centre of the collection undoubtedly holds its best work. Works such as ‘The Butchers Shop’ and Lippi’s ‘The Wounded Centaur’ are examples of pieces that are undoubtedly world class in their depiction of anatomical detail. ‘The Butcher’s Shop’ in particular displays detail that is particularly eerie. The presentation of the meat hanging as a gruesome mirror image of the men cutting it up and the lamb upon the floor awaiting its death only add to a sense of unease. It is almost as if it becomes unclear that the meat is animal and not human. However, the room also offers a number of other works that shouldn’t be overlooked. Carazzi’s ‘An Architectural Fantasy with Fountain and Figures’ provides an impressive vision of a classical city. It’s monumental scale and ominous skies form an apocalyptic image; the translucent figures that wander through the square increasing its fantastical tone. These figures serve to demonstrate the impossibility of what the painting shows; it’s almost a yearning for this sentimental view of the classical world. Finally, Van Dyk’s ‘Soldier on Horseback’ is something else not to miss. Again, the artist makes use of contrast; the ghostly image of the soldier in armour stands out against the bright white of his mount. The horses rippling muscles and open mouth create a sense of movement that is a rival even to that seen in the later work of Stubbs and Degas. Following on from this gallery is a small room devoted to the collection’s drawings, a selection of which changes every few months. Currently there is an exhibition of around thirty drawings related to the Florentine artist Borghini.
Considering that the gallery is free to any current member of the university, there really is no excuse for anybody interested in art not to visit. Without doubt, this is the perfect place to find some excellent art without the daunting scale of galleries that one might visit in London.