The Twin Churches of St Mary and Sts Cyriac and Julietta, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire


I have recently come to the realisation that a considerable proportion of my spare time is spent exploring churches.  On visiting a new part of the country, my first thought is to discover if there are any notable churches in the region.  Beyond the essential guide Betjeman’s Best British Churches, of which I have the 2011 edition, complete with updates by Richard Surman, it is often surprisingly hard to find, as it were, ‘reviews’ of churches, and recommendations as to which are worth a visit.  Thus I have decided to start writing my own (far humbler than Betjeman’s of course) thoughts and impressions on the churches I visit.  I find it particularly hard to find information on smaller churches on the internet (which, on returning to the car after a successful church visit, and with time for another, one often has recourse to consult), so I hope that these blog posts may serve some small use to those in similar quandaries.

I have decided to commence this series with a review of not one, but two churches.  These are the remarkable twin churches of St Mary the Virgin, and Sts. Cyriac and Julietta, in the small village of Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire.  This village hosts another pair of twins, being home also to two windmills not, alas, adjacent to one another, as with the churches).  Aside from this there is little to suggest the village as the obvious site for two churches, it is a small village, hardly, one would think, ever having been home to enough people to require double churches.  The reason for these two seems to have been related more to altering claims over parishes and changing boundaries, the later St Mary’s seeming to have been built in what was once a separate parish.  St Cyriac may originally date from before the Norman Conquest, while the current building has parts built before 1200.  St Mary’s has had a troubled history, and after falling to ruin was restored in the early twentieth century.  However, a fine tower dating from the twelfth century remained, so this twin church arrangement is certainly a long-standing one (no pun intended).  It was not until an Act of 1667 that the two churches were united under the leadership of a single vicar.  The congregation seems to have shuffled back and forth for some time after, depending on the whim of each vicar, or the state of dilapidation each church found itself in.  This arrangement is not, however, as unusual as it might seem, there being several other instanced of church twinning in Cambridgeshire, and even a case of three churches once having shared the same churchyard at Reepham, in the not so distant Norfolk.


St Cyriac and St Julietta, from the top of the hill

The two churches sit on the side of a low (perhaps high by the standards of this rather flat county) hill, overlooking the village.  St Cyriac’s occupies the higher position, which is also more central in the churchyard, one of the reasons why it has been supposed to be the older of the two churches.  St Cyriac’s is currently being cared for the The Churches Conservation Trust, although it still occasionally hosts services.  Both these churches are notable for their fantastic octagonal towers, which seem abundant in the local area, the most significant of course being the tower of Ely Cathedral.  St Cyriac’s belltower dates from the fifteenth century, and is particularly impressive.  From the outside you can still see where it was connected to the medieval body of the church, which, having fallen into disrepair, was demolished in order to make way for a new building, commenced in 1806.  The impression of walking into the churchyard, which we entered from the higher ground, is quite astonishing.  The two towers reaching up in their faceted forms, and the bodies of the churches an easy stone’s throw away from one another, is certainly memorable.  The newer body of St Cyriac’s is large, and gives the impression of being oddly flat.  It is cruciform, with stubby transepts, which contrast with the tall and comparatively slender tower.  The church’s history of building and rebuilding is apparent from its outer fabric, and presents the visitor with something of a puzzle to piece together.  20151213_094242.jpgAfter the striking qualities of the exterior, the interior of the church is perhaps a touch underwhelming.  Stripped of its pews, all that remains is a somewhat stark Georgian interior.  A plastered ceiling gives a strange sense of the space being confined and enclosed, despite its generous dimensions.  The acoustics are astonishing, it is perhaps the most echoey church I have ever been in, to the extent that one might imagine it actually interfering with the running of services.  Nevertheless, this was the church which, having been rebuilt from 1806 to 1809, by Charles Humfrey, a Cambridge-based architect, was used for the following hundred years or so, until 1903, when St Mary’s was finally restored.  The bells however remain in St Cyriac’s, as the tower of St Mary’s was not restored until 1965.  The slender columns supporting the ceiling of the church add to, in a bizarre way, the sense of sparsity – if it were an uninterrupted space, perhaps one’s 20151213_094338attention would not be so drawn to the low ceiling.  The entrance of the church is overhung by a gallery, which, understandably, is not open to the public.  From here you step up into the church, but any sense of it opening up is thwarted by the ceiling.  Not meaning to do down this church, it must be noted that it is wonderfully light, even on the dreary and rainy winter day that we visited it.  The sanctuary, small, as typical of the period, is painted with the
Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  The provide an interesting contrast to the rest of the interior, which is largely white, with details painted in duck egg blue and terracotta, a somewhat bizarre choice of colour scheme, the antiquity of which I am unsure of.

Other points of interest inside St Cyriac’s are the Victorian parish bier, placed in the North West corner, used to transport coffins (one imagines not the easiest activity on the steep slope of the churchyard), and the charity cupboard, inlai20151213_094930.jpgd with the initials of the church’s saints, SC and SJ, also Victorian.

While it is thus well worth a look inside St Cyriac, it cannot be denied that most interest is found on the exterior.  The octagonal upper stage of the tower rises from corbel heads of lions, human grotesques, and half-angels, carrying shield or crowns, some of the few sculptures found on either church.  The north-west wall of the tower also holds the clock face.  The face itself is a repair, dating from 1811, but the original mechanism of the clock dates from the late seventeenth century.  As far as I can tell it is no longer attached to a bell. 20151213_105311_HDR.jpg The contrast on the exterior between the medieval tower and the Georgian body of the church is great, and as noted above, you can at various points see traces of the original medieval church.  The squat cruciform church would not, I suspect, meet current tastes for the harmonious integration of new and old, the new not meeting the height of the old, giving the impression of two buildings that just happen to have been stuck together.  Nonetheless, the weirdness of this building is part of its attraction, and I would highly recommend a visit.


The tower of St Mary, the Virgin

If one church were not enough to please you, Swaffham Prior of course answers this with the adjacent St Mary’s.  Its most striking feature is the twelfth and thirteenth century tower, constructed in flint and fieldstone.  The upper-most level was added in 1964, as
was the stainless steel fleche with ‘Queen of Heaven’ crown.  This addition would seem incongruous anywhere else, but given the long history of alteration and addition at Swaffham Prior, it rather seems to be the continuation of a tradition (even if I must admit it is not to my taste).  This also serves to recall the church’s lost spire.  The porch, now with charismatically crumbling tracery, dates from the fifteenth century, and was identified by Pevsner as originally containing fan vaulting.  Through this one moves into the tower itself, which is truly remarkable.  As an individual with distinctly medieval taste, getting to look up through the tower, its stages open, lit by its narrow Norman windows, was a joy.  My photographs don’t capture it, needless to say this unusual building is best appreciated in person.  The simple construction, that has been used to achieve such a clever design,


Looking up through the open stages of the tower

is quite wonderful.  From here you progress into the church through a modern glass screen, cleverly inserted into the fabric of the building.  One is again met with a vaguely underwhelming church.  One of my residing memories is of orange, reminding me of the various furniture in my 1990s childhood bedroom.  However, on venturing further inside, one finds much of interest.



Looking up the nave, complete with parquet flooring and rood screen of 1909








The rather stern faces of William and Alice Water of Reach are commemorated in a brass of the early sixteenth century, above a smaller one thought to depict their six sons.  The presumably related Richard Water, also with a wife named Alice, are also commemorated in a brass of a similar date.  The church (I think unusually) has a parquet floor, the culprit behind its orange appearance, made of memel fir, a choice apparently made to reduce the noise of walking about the church.  The current rood screen was gifted to the church in 1909 by the Allix family, local squires, and a family prominent in the history of the two churches, an imposing yet elegant structure.  The height of the church is emphasised by the clerestory windows, which give it a bright atmosphere.  The pews, pleasingly simple, but probably rather uncomfortable for anything by the shortest of services, are those missing from St Cyriac’s.  Clearly there was no need to commission or buy a new set when there was a ready set waiting at a soon to be unused church next door.


William and Alice Water, of Reach, with their adoring sons below


Robert Chambers, Gent.

The church also contains two medieval piscinae, and a rather interesting brass commemorating ‘Robert Cambers, Gent.’, of 1638, and a floor marble commemorating Sir John Ellys, tutor at Gonville and Caius, having studied there from 1647.  But perhaps the most interesting element of the interior of St Mary’s (even to this medievalist), are the stained glass windows, designed by the local squire, C.P. Allix.  Those in the North aisle were designed as the village’s First World War Memorial.  There are three in number, two being dedicated to war, and a third to peace.  The modern subject matter is an unusual choice for the ancient art of stained glass, with windows depicting the various industries or exercises of war, including tanks, trenches, submarines, munitions factories, field hospitals, and a Howitzer.  Specific sections also depict the water pipeline laid across Sinai Peninsula during the invasion of Palestine, and the sinking of the Lusitania.  The images are believed to have been drawn from Allix’s personal scrapbook, and the tank image is noted as an exact copy of a photograph in the Imperial War Museum, showing a Mark I tank.  Each section is captioned by a relevant biblical passage, with the text of the Book of Revelation, 14:13, running along the bottom, ‘And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’.  The final window celebrates the happier industries of peace, depicting ploughing, harvesting, and animal husbandry, as well as the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5-15).  Along the bottom is Psalm 104:23, ‘Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour, until the evening’.  The windows are arranged progressively, West to East, beginning with the call to arms and various weapons, with the second illustrating (in an arguably rather sterile fashion) the horrors of war, and the final window, depicting peace, the furthest east, appropriately closest to the altar.

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Airship and Mark I Tank from the North Aisle Windows

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Munitions hospital scene, from C. P. Allix’s North Aisle, First World War Memorial Windows

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The Peace Window

Allix’s other set of windows are in the south aisle, featuring more unusual subject matter from his own interests.  The windows were designed to commemorate the vicar of the parish, John Peter Allix, and his son Charles, presumably relations of some sort to C.P.  They predate those of the North aisle, having been dedicated in 1914.  Scenes include the 1771 eruption of Vesuvius, an image of the earth, moon, and starts, seen from space, and Greenland glacier, drawn directly from an illustration in Sir James Geikies The Great Ice Age.  There is also an image of Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland.  Each of the subjects is labelled, within the frame of the image.  The technique of these windows is unusual, creating a striking appearance, particularly in the image of Eart, and of Aurora chasing away night, the former in the form of a lark, the latter an owl.  These remarkable sets of windows are worth a visit in their own right, even if they were not houses in such a fascinating church.

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The Earth, Moon, and Stars, as seen from space, in the South Aisle

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Mount Pilatus, Switzerland


All in all these are two of the most interesting churches I have visited; their variety and complicated history of dereliction, restoration, use and reuse, makes them particularly worth a visit.  It is worth noting too that the village itself, even in the rain, was charming, and the walk we took around it also led us in sight of one windmill, and past the other, so it is worth exploring.  About eight miles from Cambridge, we were able to part outside the church gate, at the top of the hill.  There is also a pub for those wishing to quench themselves after the thirsty work of church spotting, although it was closed on the Sunday morning that we visited.  The village is of course accessible by bicycle from Cambridge, and I believe there is also something of a regular bus service.  The two churches now share a vicar with at least two other churches, so I believe St Mary only holds services every few weeks.


I owe a debt of gratitude to the Churches Conservation Trust, for their marvellous work in general, but also specifically with their highly information leaflet on St Cyriac and St Julietta, and to Elisabeth Everitt, for having written such a comprehensive and useful booklet on the history of St Mary the Virgin.  I would highly recommend reading both of these for further information, the former to be found here, the latter available in the church itself, for a modest and highly reasonable fee.  There are collection boxes in both churches, and should you wish to donate to support the work of the Churches Conservation Trust in general, one can do so here.

A Feminist Re-Interpretation of Renoir’s ‘La Loge’

Renoir La Loge

I have recently begun tutoring a student in A-level art history, which has had the happy side-effect of bringing me back in touch with many paintings I have not examined for a long time.  The syllabus is almost identical to that which I studied all those years ago, and it has been fun to look back at some of them.  (Perhaps the subject of a later post on the subject of the formation and reformation of canons!)  Renoir’s La Loge is one such painting that has been brought back into my life. Part of the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, the painting was the subject of a blog post I wrote five years ago, before I had even begun my undergraduate degree (find it here).  I am surprised to say that I still largely agree with what I wrote about it.  I still feel this is a painting all about the interplay of gazes, about looking and being looked at.  However, there is one aspect of the painting that is largely missing from my discussion: the female gaze.  I am not alone in this, much writing on the painting focuses exclusively on the male gaze, on the role of the man in the painting, and the male viewer.  While it is undoubtedly important to consider the role of gender in the creation and appreciation of this work, throughout much art historical analysis (not just that of this painting), this has led to a sort of game of ‘spot the male gaze’.  While the historical and continued oppression of women has overwhelmingly led to the prioritising of the male gaze in the creation of artworks, and the effects of this in the work’s interpretation, it is important that we do not erase instances of the appeal to the female gaze where they do occur.

The ‘female gaze’ is often taken to be a simple inversion of the male gaze, thus a painting appealing to it might involve the objectification of male figures.  The heteronormativity of such ideas aside, it is also important to recognize other, perhaps more subtle ways that an artist might engage with the idea of the female gaze (whether they would have used that terminology or not).  So we come back to La Loge itself.  The male figure’s roving gaze is often noted – pointing straight up, and, judging by the curve of the box itself, back into the theatre – he is clearly not watching the stage.  The opera glasses he holds become symbolic of his supposed appetite for women, passing an admiring gaze over the female members of the audience.  This is sometimes interpreted as a snub to the woman in the painting: not satisfied by her, he literally looks elsewhere.  Interpretation of the woman often focuses on her meek interaction with or submissive acceptance of this cultural phenomenon.  She is described as ‘meek’, or ‘passive’.  Alternatively she might, according to another brand of misogyny, be accused of ‘asking for it’, or looking for male attention: she leans forward, looking up towards us, also not engaging with the opera itself, a flower placed in her bodice drawing the eye.  She happily submits to the inquisitive male gaze, it might be said, and, by association, that of the viewer.

However, there is one component of the painting that suggest that something more is going on in the painting.  She too holds opera glasses.  While these were of course a necessity amongst the fashionable elite, and she holds a smaller, more decorative pair than her male companion, in the context of the painting, the opera glass seems to have taken on a greater meaning than its mere practical function.  Highlighted in bright gold colours, her glasses suggest a more active engagement in the interplay of gazes that the painting depicts.  It is not only the male audience members who make visual enquiries across the room, the women too look for pleasure through viewing.  Women too might be in possession of a scopophilic gaze.  Renoir’s audience would predominantly have been male, and it is understandable that the painting has been interpreted both as a critique of the bourgeois male’s entitled attitude towards women, and as Renoir’s own possible participation in such attitudes.  However let us not forget that women too visited exhibitions, including the First Impressionist Exhibition, where this painting was exhibited in 1874.  Even if most of the critics were men, women did still see, appreciate, and engage with art (which seems a rather obvious thing to say).  In the period when characters such as Nana were being written by Zola, and Madeleine Forestier by Guy de Maupassant, it seems not unlikely that creators in the visual arts might also have wanted to represent a broadening range of female characterisations, and the wider possibilities that were opening up to women brave enough to pursue them in the face of a society ever-ready to shun.  Nana and Madeleine Forestier are both women who embrace their own sexual appetites and desires, and even the respectable Forestier is at ease with her appreciation of male beauty.  Renoir’s woman, scanning the crowd, might be a similar character.  Thus it seems quite plausible that this woman is not passively objectified, but actively engages in an exchange of gazes, thinking of her own pleasures and desires, not simply submitting to those of her viewers.

It would be just as bad however to assume that this painting is just about men and women.  The aforementioned heteronormativity of such an assumption is obvious, but this painting could as much be about female friendship, or kinship.  The gaze could be one of recognition, of one woman acknowledging another.  The women who visited the exhibition would likely have been familiar with the world depicted, and have experienced something similar themselves.  Past me only managed to acknowledge that the female interaction with this painting might be with a sense of jealously, an ‘eyeing up’ of potential competition (a notion I’m glad to say I can now see far beyond, and acknowledge the inherent misogyny of such an assumption), but I think this painting may as much be one of friendship, or at least acknowledgement of shared experience.  To the Parisian woman, this may have acted as an image of herself, and her friends.

There is so much more to this painting than men’s sexual interest in women, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to look back at it, with fresh eyes, greater experience, and a fuller sense of its representation of human experience.

Not An Illustration: Livres d’Artiste in the St John’s College Special Collections

St John’s College Library is currently hosting a fantastic exhibition of it’s collection of livres d’artiste, collected for the college by Dr Peter Hacker when he was the college’s Library Fellow.  It’s a great collection of more recent livres d’artiste and some wonderful examples of ‘non-illustrative’ illustrations, curated by Tom Cullimore from St John’s College library.  As part of an opening event for the exhibition I was asked to give a short talk on the background of the livre d’artiste, and some of the key figures in their creation.  If you’re interested in learning more about the exhibition itself, Tom’s written some great pieces about it here:, and you can find out more about the library itself and visiting it here:  It’s well worth seeing if you happen to be in Oxford.  Below is the talk I gave at the opening event.

The livre d’artiste is not a particularly well-known medium in the UK.  As the name would suggest, they originate in France, and indeed arguable in the mind of a single individual, Ambroise Vollard.  The main feature that sets them apart from other artisan book production is the close involvement of a single artist, and the fact that the ‘illustrations’ (as shown by the books here) stand as art works in their own right.  You could find some precedent in Arts and Crafts books such as Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, and in some of the prints of Toulous-Lautrec, but the motivations behind creating the modern livres d’artiste were rather different, and the livre d’artiste has developed as a medium in its own right.

Ambroise Vollard was one of the most important art dealers of the twentieth century French art market.  With an eye for painters who would go on to be thought of as ‘significant’, he had a professional relationships with a wide variety

Cezanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1889

Cezanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1889

of artists.  His first major exhibition was of works by Cezanne, for which he supposedly bought almost all of Cezanne’s extant artworks, numbering some 150 works.  He went on to show works by Gauguin and Van Gogh, and was a key early supporter of Picasso, and later Matisse.  While he was clearly a man with an eye for a prudent investment, he did also have a great appreciation for artistic endeavours.  His mercantile success gave him the capital to explore his own interests and idea, primary among which was the idea of a finely crafted book containing works by artists, rather than professional printmakers.  The title of the first such book he produced, Parallelement, reveals something of the artistic ambition that lay behind it.  The book featured a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine, and specifically commissioned works by artist Pierre Bonnard, both prominent figures in avant-garde movements at the time.  This pairing of poet and artists would become the pattern for future livres d’artiste.  Parallelement was striking for the way in which the images and texts were linked and interspersed, with the images being position throughout the text, amongst the poems, rather than being separated or segregated, placing them on an equal footing with the poems.

This interest in how to present text and image was not surprising, this was a period when poets such as Mallarme were exploring how type-setting and presentation of poetry impacted on their interpretation, with Mallarme’s own Un Coup de Des being a key example.  Part of this interest was in how books could or should be presented, and function.  Vollard’s interest was picked up by other figures in the Parisian art market, notably Henry Kahnweiler.  He is best known as the key supporter of Cubism, and also supported Fauve artists such as Andre Derain.  His first ajor production was a collaborative effort between Apollinaire, the poet, and Derain, L’Enchaneur Pourissant, (The Rotting Magician, in 1909.  Kahnweiler went on to public 43 such books, often featuring new writers, giving an even greater sense of collaboration to the finished works.  The livre d’artiste seems thus to have become fairly quickly established as an important medium of artistic production.  Perhaps the best known example of the form is Henri

Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947

Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947

Matisse’s Jazz, published by Teriade in 1947, although this is not particularly representative of the form, as many of the images were originally created for other projects, and it is Matisse’s own thoughts, rather than the works of a poet, which accompanied them.  Albert Skira, closely associated with the Surrealists, published Le Chants de Maldoror, with etching by Dali, and also worked with Picasso on numerous occasions.  As this selection of a few names suggests, artists from many different creeds became involved in the creation of these books.

The livre d’artiste still enjoys popularity, and they are still produced, perhaps in part thanks to the early involvement of figures who have become giants in the study of art and literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  While it is perhaps tempting to think of them as collections of art works, and treat the publication of a new book in much the same way that we might a new exhibition, it is important that we consider the uniqueness of the form. The reader or viewer interacts with books in a completely different way to how they would with a hung exhibition, and the act of holding, and turning the pages of a book creates a rather different experience.  This is clearly something their creators were keenly aware of, and the variety of ways in which they were manufactured shows an interest in the nature of them as books.   Whether they were bound, the images printed, or tipped in, left as insets, what type of paper was used, etc, all these were taken into consideration.  Vollard imported paper from Amsterdam (a traditional centre of paper production) for his works.

This reveals some awareness, and desire to convese with, the history of book production.  Kahnweiler also referred to the long history of the printed book, using a typeface based on that created in Aldus Minutius’ press, one of the earliest and most important of the Venetian publishing houses.  The content was in some cases similar too, with classical works such as Homer (as seen in this exhibition) often being popular choices for the textual content of livres d’artiste.  So while commissioning works from the most forward thinking of artists, there is still a sense that these works were part of the tradition of fine book publication.  They certainly lived up to this in terms of cost, usually being expensive and luxurious items.  This suggests another unique aspect of them as books, they have a degree of intimacy, they are to be held and possessed, and looked through at one’s own pace –there is a sense in which it is the will of the viewer that completes the act of creation, through the processes of viewing the books, how they choose to read and look through them.  The multi-sensory nature of book viewing further adds to this feeling of intimacy with the object.  France is a country known for its spectacular output of illuminated manuscripts, and, although used for very different, and secular, purposes, the livre d’artiste can be seen as an exciting continuation of this interaction between image, text, and viewer.

For further reading see the above blog posts, and Eunice Martin. French Livres d’Artiste in Oxford University Collections (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1996)

First Impressions: Zhang Xioagang, Bloodlines: Big Family No. 1, 1996

As today is Chinese New Year, I thought I’d post a piece I’ve written about a piece of Chinese art.  I must confess that this is something of a cheat as a ‘First Impressions’ piece, as I haven’t actually seen this piece myself, but it was written in the same way as my usual pieces, and I think it’s a great piece, by an artist perhaps not so well known to UK audiences.  I’ve been lucky enough to take the course ‘Art in China since 1911’ as part of my undergraduate degree, which is fascinating, and covers so much art that was unfamiliar to me before, but am glad to have discovered.

You can see a picture of this work here… , complete with the record of it selling for what would now seem a ridiculously small price for such a work.

The work is dominated by three figures, that of a man, a woman, and a small baby boy.  The composition is cropped, we do not view all of the figures, we view the man and woman from chest height, with their shoulders cut off at either side, and the baby is viewed from about ankle height.  The baby seems to hover in the air in between and in front of the two other figures, who the title and convention might suggest are his parents.  The baby is differentiated from the other figures by the bright red hue given to his body, while his clothes maintain the monochromatic tones that are used for the other figures and the background.  This use of colour is suggestive of black and white photography, an association strengthened by the poses of the figures, facing the ‘camera’, or the viewer, looking directly out from the painting.  There is some blurring around the edges of the figures, particularly around the woman’s plaits, and in the background, which is just that in that it does not convey any particular sense of space, or a particular setting, acting instead as a generic background for the figures in front, perhaps suggesting the backdrop of a photographer’s studio, or a rendered or painted wall.  The cropping of the figures adds to this sense of them being in an indistinct space, as we do not see points where they would link with it (e.g. where their feet touch the ground).


The surface of the painting is interrupted by a series of red lines, which sit wire-like on the surface of the painting, joining over the baby and the figures behind it.  Thus a sense of flatness is created, the depth created by the over-layering of the figures is negated, and we again are given the sense of this being a photograph.  Their clothing is carefully detailed, with precise brushwork to denote crisp collars and neat lapels, while we are given some idea of the man’s profession or status by the pen tucked into his jacket pocket, suggesting that he is a ‘white collar’ worker, while glasses were accepted as a sign of the intellectual, or at least educated, individual.  The figures do not seem to acknowledge one another, except in the woman’s slight lean into the centre, and the slight turn of both figures’ outside eye in towards the centre.  Aside from the baby’s red hue, there are also patched of slightly brighter colour on the other figures, with patches of pinkish tones over their faces and neck, but again, the way in which the colours cut across them, covering the glasses, and her clothes, for instance, suggest that this is supposed to evoke the effect of a fading photograph.  However, its meaning could be multiple, and it could be present to suggest the humanity behind these monochromatic facades.  The eyes of all three figures are picked out in precise lines, contrasting with the blurring of their other features, and are painted in a darker, shinier shade of black, which gives them an unnervingly piercing quality, and which immediately draws the gaze of the viewer.  The baby’s slightly furrowed brows are the only hint of definite expression in the figures, the adults have expressions that are hard to read, deliberately open to interpretation.


The title, ‘Bloodlines’, could be a specific reference to the importance of one’s family connections during the Cultural Revolution, be they harmful or helpful, and can also link to the thin red lines across the canvas.  The Bloodlines series is usually large in scale, emphasising the striking and unnerving qualities of the figures.  The red chosen for the child could relate to a number of different ideas, the most obvious being the red of Communism, but red was also traditionally associated with good luck, which coupled with the child’s troubled expression, leads one to wonder the significance of the connection between these two associations.  The inclusion of a single child could bring to mind the one child policy in China, but I think it’s important to recognise the potential for a multiplicity of meaning.

Ruskin Drawing Sale

This year I paid my first visit to the Ruskin Drawing Sale.  Feeling something like a cross between the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and a car-boot sale, this is an annual opportunity for students at the Ruskin to sell works and raise some funds for their degree show, and for art enthusiasts to pick up a piece by up-and-coming young artists.

These photos should hopefully give you a good idea of what it is like; there are drawings pinned all over the walls of the school, up the stairways and on the windowsills, each one being replaced as soon as it is sold by another.

View from the foyer into the sale

View from the foyer into the sale

There are no labels, just a tiny price-tag on each item (sometimes this had fallen off, and was to be found on the floor beneath, leading to an amusing guessing game as to which went with which artwork).  Despite the name, the works on sale are not exclusively drawings, there are also photographs and painted works, the unifying feature is price, with most works for sale in the region of £15-20, with the highest I saw about £60, and others for less than £5.   This results in a very democratic

A selection of handmade jewelery

A selection of handmade jewellery

feel, there’s something for every budget, and it’s presented as suitable for the (ostensibly very small) student budget.  The works are varied, but strangely not so varied as one might expect, perhaps because they’re all studying at the same school, there is some sense of many of them being from a family of related artists.  It runs for two days, and I have to say that I was left with a slight sense of missing out, in that the works were changing all the time, with new ones being added, so I did feel as if I should make several trips in order to be able to get a real sense of the scope.  I didn’t see anything that really jumped out at me, there were some interesting works, and works by artists I’m familiarwith, which always please me, but I came away empty handed, and slightly disappointed. 20141122_144908


This piece was sold for a price, plus a drink with the artist!

This piece was sold for a price, plus a drink with the artist!



Another pleasing windowsill display





I particularly like the work of the artist at top left. This shot gives a good sense of the range of work on show

Works out on the tables

Works out on the tables




The view up the staircase

The view up the staircase

People were also selling printed T-shirts, cakes, and there was a henna tattoo stall, which gave it a more fun atmosphere.  It’s an event well worth visiting if you get the chance, it’s a good opportunity to see behind the closed doors of the art school, and it showcases some very talented young artists.

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

A Road-Map Through ‘The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin’, by Jan van Eyck, c.1435

Jan van Eyck Chancellor Rolin

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c.1435


Created by the Netherlandish painter for Nicholas Rolin, chancellor to the Dukes of Burgundy, in around 1435, this painting can be seen as a classic of iconography, the attempt to understand a painting’s meaning through interpretation of symbols depicted within it, as complicating rather than simplifying the meaning of a work. Van Eyck seems almost to be deliberately defying out attempts at a definitive interpretation of the painting. The painting teaches us an important lesson: the fact that we can’t make a definitive interpretation doesn’t simply mean we don’t know enough, it is highly likely that this complexity was intended, and would have been acknowledged by contemporary audiences as it has been by modern ones.

Rolin served under the Dukes of Burgundy, known throughout Europe for their lavish court, and ammassed a vast fortune, and we can see possible references to this throughout the painting. The vineyards visiblre in the background may be a reference to the fact that some of the finest wine in Burgundy was produced on land belonging to Rolin. We can also see a church, which may reference a number of different churches which Rolin patronised.

Vineyards and a Church visible in the background behind Rolin

Vineyards and a Church visible in the background behind Rolin

Symbols represting the Deadly Sins have been noted in the deocration of the room in which they sit, such as the gluttony of Noah, plac ed above Rolin’s head, which could be another link to his role in wine production. We also see Pride, in the form of the story of Adam and Eve, as well as Envy, represented by the story of Cain and Abel.

Capitals depicting Biblical stories signifying Sins

Capitals depicting Biblical stories signifying Sins

The rabbits tucked away, crushed, beneath the column behind Rolin may be a reference to the sin of luxuria, or rather the overcoming of such temptations – luxuria was associated with rabbits due to their reputation for fornication.

Interestingly, there was to have been a direct reference to Rolin’s earthly wealth, in the form of a large purse on his belt, but this was painted out of the final piece.

The scene takes place in a loggia or enclosed space, which itself is set within a walled garden. The Virgin is often depicted in such settings, particularly in Annunciation sccenes, so this could suggest that they are occupying a holy space. This type of setting has also been interpreted as a symbol of Mary’s virginity and purity. This was a period when the Immaculate Conception (the idea that St Anne’s conception of Mary was also of divine origin), and Mary’s continued virginity after the birth of Jesus was only recently becoming accepted, and thus it was topical to include symbolic reference to it.

The loggia or enclosed space in which the scene takes place, with low-walled garden behind

The loggia or enclosed space in which the scene takes place, with low-walled garden behind

An ostensibly obvious symbol is the placing of a crown on Mary’s head by an angel. This signifines her position as Queen of Heaven, again a relatively recent development. Marian devotion, and the Cult of Mary, had developed as an important part of popular piety from the thirteenth century onwards, with increasing emphasis being placed on Mary’s role as intercessor between people and God, in a similar but more powerful role to that taken by saints. Painted depictions of the Mary’s coronation as Queen of Heaven were also popular throughout the late-Medieval and Renaissance period. By depicting her in this position, van Eyck references this aspect pf popular devotion.

The coronation of the Virgin taking place within the painting

The coronation of the Virgin taking place within the painting

The setting is luxurious, with richly decorated capitals, fine floor tiles, and Venetian glass in the windows, and the figures clad in a variety of expensive materials. But the symbols we have seen, such as those representing sins (from which Avarice is notably and likely deliberately absent!) reveal the complex relationship between piety and religious beliefs, and the worldly deire to gain wealth, and to some extent to show it off (something that may have been influenced by Rolin’s having been born into a non-aristocratic, bourgeois family, but working in one of the most luxuious courts in Europe). We see in this painting the delicate working out of these ostensibly opposing desires, and the attempt to reconcile the opposing impressions of wealth and personal piety.

Thus we can see that, while symbols can be of great interest, it would be misguided (no pun intended, given my title!) to assume that they give us all the answers, or even that they make interpreting an art work’s meaning any simpler, in fact, the opposite is often the case. Most importantly, it is likely that the opposite was supposed to be the case.