Studying History of Art at Oxford University

I am just about to enter my third, and final, year of studying history of art at Oxford University. I love the course, and my subject, even more than I did at the start. This is partly natural if one is interested in the subject – the more you look the more you find – but this is also largely thanks to how wonderful the undergraduate course at Oxford is. I recently helped out at the September Oxford Open Day, at the art history department, and it was really fun to meet so many (relative) youngsters so excited about getting into the subject. Relatively few people have the opportunity to study art history before they reach university, so I think it’s really important to know what each course offers; choosing a university is hard, and the more you know the better. So I thought I’d share a little about my personal experiences on the course, and a bit about how the course is run. I hope this might be useful for any prospective students and aspiring art historians!

First a little about the course structure. The course is three years long, and each year is split into three terms. At Oxford, these terms are called ‘Michaelmas’ (October-December), ‘Hilary’ (January-March), and ‘Trinity’ (April-June). You’ll get approximately one module per term, although in some cases you might have the workload split between two terms. In your first year the courses are set, so all students do the same ones, working you all up to a good level of knowledge. This is particularly helpful if you haven’t had the chance to study art history before. The courses are ‘Antiquity after Antiquity’, ‘Introduction to the History of Art’, and ‘European Art 1400-1900: Meaning and Interpretation’. You’ll also have to write a supervised extended essay, nicknamed the ‘Object Essay’, because it’s written about an object of your choice from a museum or collection in Oxford. This turned out to be one of my favourite elements of the first year – there are so many objects to choose from that it can be quite bewildering, but once you have chosen an object, you are given a supervisor who will guide you through researching the object, and writing up an essay on it. Other elements of first year build you familiarity with the collections in Oxford, which help with choosing, and the Object Essay offers a really valuable opportunity to explore your own, very personal interests. It’s quite likely that you might choose something which no-one else has ever written about, which can be exciting!

An image from the object I chose, Bodleian MS Tanner 184, a mid-13th Century Apocalypse Manuscript
An image from the object I chose, Bodleian MS Tanner 184, a mid-13th Century Apocalypse Manuscript

This will count towards your overall first year mark, but you have a long period to write it, and it’s nice to get one examined element out of the way before exam season. It works in a similar way to coursework for A-levels, although of course is a lot more independent. ‘Antiquity after Antiquity’ deals with one of the major themes throughout Western art history, the way in which Greek and Roman art has been appropriated and reinterpreted in Western art.

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelias, c. 175 AD; one of the works you might study for Antiquity after Anitquity
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelias, c. 175 AD; one of the works you might study for Antiquity after Anitquity

This covers a wide period, from the Middle Ages to Post-Modernism, giving you a sense of confidence in understanding the issues involved. The course is taught through lectures and tutorials (more on these later), with lectures by a number of different tutors and scholars. ‘Introduction to the History of Art’ takes something of a pot-shot approach, with a different period and topic covered each week, with, for example, ancient Egypt in one week, and the reception of Japanese art in nineteenth century France in another. As well as these topics, you’ll have essays on varied topics, and visits to Oxford’s many collections and museums. These are a great way to develop a familiarity with the great wealth of treasures in Oxford, and are great for giving you ideas about what you might want to write your Object Essay about. As well as museums such as the Ashmolean, and the Museum of the History of Science, you also get trips to collections that are not open to the public, like the John Johnson collection (ephemera), and the Bodleian, where you’ll get to see a selection of manuscripts from the Special Collections. Obviously these trips might not be the same every year, but those I mention give you a good idea of what might be covered. ‘European Art 1400-1900: Meaning and Interpretation’ is designed to equip you with the skills of art history, and an understanding of the different aspects that go together to make up a piece of art. Thus topics include ‘Brushstroke’, ‘Material’, and ‘Frame’, as well as ‘Description’, an understanding of the nuances and implications of which is essential for art historical analysis. This course is based around a series of classes and tutorial essays. The exciting bit about the tutorials for this course is that they usually take place in the Ashmolean Museum: you’ll be asked to write your essay about a work in the museum, and then you’ll discuss your thoughts in front of the work itself in the tutorial.

Paulo Uccello, The Hunt in the Forest, c. 1470; a work from the Ashmolean Museum
Paulo Uccello, The Hunt in the Forest, c. 1470; a work from the Ashmolean Museum

This is really fun, and livens up the tutorials, whilst also broadening your knowledge by letting you hear about what your fellow students have studied. So by the end of first year you really feel that you’ve got a good, and broad, knowledge base, and are ready to face more specialised courses in second year. You’ll be tested on what you’ve learnt in Prelims, or Preliminary Exams, at the end of Trinity (third) term. Apart from your Object Essay, none of the work you’ll have done throughout the year counts towards your final mark. This is really refreshing – if you’ve had a bad week it just doesn’t matter – and it gives you a lot of intellectual freedom; you’re really encouraged to follow your own ideas, and explore things in a broader way, without having to worry about the impact it might have on your overall grade.

The rest of your courses are taken across second and third year. There is one core course, ‘Approaches to the History of Art’, and other than this, you get to choose from a varying number of options. You choose three second year options (I chose ‘The Experience of Modernity: Visual Culture, 1880-1925’, ‘Art in China since 1911’, and ‘Flanders and Italy in the Quattrocento, 1420-1480’) and then another module for third year (I chose ‘Politics, Art, and Culture in the Italian Renaissance: Venice and Florence, c.1475-c.1525’). As well as these you’ll have an undergraduate thesis, which is like a longer version of the Object Essay, except that you can write about anything art historical, without being limited to something in Oxford. Some course options are tested through exams only, others have course work elements, and most are run through classes and tutorials. The Approaches course runs alongside a lecture series in second year, ‘Concepts and Methods’, and has its own classes and tutorials. This course focuses on methodology and theories of art history as a discipline – it really broadens your mind, covering subjects such as Post-Colonialism, Gender, and Iconography and Iconology. You’ll read key art-historical texts, and have the opportunity to discuss them in classes and tutorials, with your tutors and other students, which makes it far easier to get your head around what are sometimes quite complex texts. I realise I’ve used the word ‘broad’ quite a lot so far, and in a number of different ways, but I think that is one of the key things to understand about the course at Oxford, there is a wide range of material to choose from, and it encourages you to not become too narrowly focused on a particular way of thinking, there is a degree of self-awareness and self-understanding encouraged in how we look at art, and how we study and interpret it.

Now to talk about tutorials. You couldn’t write about studying at Oxford without mentioning them, they’re such an important aspect of what makes Oxford special. Tutorials, or tutes, are essentially meetings with your tutor, for you and a number of other students (there are usually three students and one tutor in each History of Art tutorial). All of the courses involve a certain number of them (usually working out at about one a week). For each tute you will be given an essay question (sometimes several to choose from), which you will then answer, and hand in to your tutor. The tutorial is then a meeting to discuss not just your essay in particular, but also the general topic raised by the essay questions. The tutor will ask questions and share thoughts, and with three students a lot of ground can be covered. Having three of you also means that there’s almost always someone who has something to say, so the conversation flows well. And it is something more like a conversation than a formal meeting, which is one of the great benefits. You have the opportunity to get feedback from, discuss your ideas with, and learn from a world expert in the subject, on a really personal basis, which is invaluable, and makes the whole process of learning easier and more enjoyable. Even on the hopefully rare occasions when you haven’t written a particularly good essay (we’ve all been there), having a tutorial gives you the chance to really work through it, and by the end you usually co me out with a much clearer understanding of the topic. The essays are usually a similar format to the ones you’ll write in your exams, so you also get a lot of practice, which is very comforting. Not everybody loves tutes, but I think, especially with three of you, there is a degree of flexibility built into them, so they’re actually quite easy to adapt and get used to. They’re really the main thing that sets the way of learning at Oxford (and Cambridge) apart fom other universities, so if you’re thinking about applying to Oxford (for any subject, they pretty much all have tutes), you should think about whether this style of learning appeals to you. The main message to take away about tutorials is that they give you valuable time with world experts to discuss your own ideas, and learn about topics in a far more personal way than lectures, or even classes and seminars, could allow.

So that’s a bit (a lot) about how the course works. As for what the course feels like, I can say that it feels supportive, progressive, and fulfilling. We’re quite a young course (we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the BA degree course earlier this year), and that shows in all the right ways. The courses change and develop, and there’s no sense of obligation to past traditions – the subjects you can study, and the emphasis on looking at why we study art history in certain ways, give the course a strong sense of self-awareness. It’s a small course, with only 16 places up for grabs, at seven different colleges (two of the places are at the mature student college, Harris Manchester), which gives it a very friendly feel; you know, and have classes with, everyone in your year, and interaction between the years is good, so it really feels like a community.

The front quad of my college, St John's
The front quad of my college, St John’s

Having only a few people in your college doing the same subject as you also means you get to know more people doing different subjects, which can only be a good thing. You really get the chance to develop as an art historian, follow your own path, and discover your own interests, rather than just feeling that you’re doing the same thing as everyone else and learning a set idea of what art history is and which periods/artists/paintings should be seen as important.

So to cut a long story short, I really love this course (the end feels all too close!), and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in art and art history. I may post a bit about the application process at some point, but I hope this post has given a clear idea about what the course is like, and I hope I’ve fired some readers with the enthusiasm to consider applying. It really is a brilliant course, and infinitely repays you for the effort of applying (and all those essays!).

If you’d like to know more about the course, about the modules, tutors, application process, colleges, and so on, visit the department’s website, or the general course page at


  1. Hi, thank you so much for writing this! I just received an invitation for an interview at St Peter’s College to read history of art, do you have any advice or anything you could possibly share from your experience? Thank you.


    • Hello Molly! Congratulations on your invitation to interview! I’m so glad this piece was useful to you! My main tip with the interview would be that it’s far less scary than it is often made out to be. They’re really lovely people and aren’t there to catch you out, they want you to be comfortable and happy in the interview. In terms of practical advice, if you feel like you’re having a bit of a mind blank in the interview, just work out from the image. I think the art history department interviews are particularly friendly in relation to interviews for other subjects, so remember that you’re not being tested and try to enjoy the experience as much as you can, even if you’re very nervous. I was extremely nervous and it turned out that I did fine, so I hope that’s of some comfort! Best of luck to you, I’d love to hear how you get on! Also St Peter’s is such a lovely college, good choice!


  2. Hey Helen, sorry for the late reply but as you can imagine I’ve been buried in swotting up on the history of art and finding answers to impossible oxford interview questions! Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me, I’m reassured by the fact that the art history department interview is particularly friendly. I will let you know how I get on!


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