Art Review: Light and Shadow at Sanders of Oxford

first_imgOxford, as presented in a 1705 prospect from the ‘Britannia Illustrata’, was, initially, a city primarily dedicated to religion. As the tourist buses sail up and down the streets in search of Harry Potter, Sebastian Flyte, or just an unfortunate finalist in sub-fusc, they miss the dominant aspect of the prospect: the sight presented by the spires and towers of Oxford’s religious institutions. Churches outnumber colleges in the piece’s annotations and consequently present a pointed reminder of both the university’s origins, and its long existence, as a primarily religious institution. ‘Light and Shadow’-An Exhibition of Oxford in Early Twentieth Century Print, at Sanders of Oxford, High Street, till November 3rd. by Christopher PerfectIn today’s Oxford, the enormous changes of the last thirty years, of which we are reminded at every opportunity, sometimes make it difficult to imagine an era before mixed-sex colleges, informal hall and Friday night at Filth.  Simultaneously, constant demands for ‘modernisation’, ‘transformation’ and the ‘equalisation of opportunity’ make the stereotypical picture of Oxford one which often goes unrecognised by the modern undergraduate.  These two conflicting approaches to viewing the University are harmoniously brought together by the exhibition at Sanders on the High, consisting of maps, prints and lithographs of the University and of the City, dating from the last four-hundred years. A large number of smaller exhibits by artists such as Mortimer Menpes, M.K. Hughes and Sydney John present individual aspects of the Oxford we all know taken from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The pelican of Corpus Christi, the dominance of Tom Tower as viewed from Pembroke Street, and the magnificent dome of The Queen’s College, all serve to reinforce the exhibition’s status as a window into what is an unfamiliar world, framed within unforgettable, hauntingly beautiful architecture. Some exhibits, of course, are immediately recognisable;  Charles Murray’s 1896 etching of the High Street, with a view towards Carfax, features the familiar sweep of the street and the  unrivalled dominance, then, as now, of St Mary’s Church, enhanced, perhaps, by the marvellous absence of traffic.  And yet, even when presented with the most immediately familiar view of the great university city, we are still faced with the unaccustomed sight of students and academics in academic dress, and reminded of Waugh’s description of Oxford as ‘a city of aquatint’.last_img

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