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City of sculpture
2:17pm Wednesday 20th January 2010 in Weekend & Leisure
Most people have seen the sculpture, collected from the ancient world and now in the wonderful new Ashmolean museum, but many may be surprised to find that excellent pieces of sculpture, still in their original settings, can be seen on a walk round Oxford.
Examples range from the small mysterious carvings on the beautiful 12th-century church at Iffley to the Antony Gormley bronze figure which was recently placed high up on a building in Broad Street.
Stone and wood carvings, metal castings, engravings and constructions, all fit the broad definition of sculpture. But this sculpture is rarely, if ever, made only as art. Some serve a spiritual purpose — an object to worship, to inspire, or tell a story.
Other sculptural monuments and memorials, recall a person’s life, achievements and sometimes their appearance. Statues in public places, honour a benefactor, a hero, a monarch — or sometimes just ‘furnish’ a space. Most of this sculpture is designed to fit an architectural scheme and follow the styles and conventions of its period.
There is so much sculpture to see in Oxford, so here are my suggestions for a few of the best places to visit. I some cases a small pair of binoculars will be useful.
On a fine day, take the lovely walk along the river to Iffley church where there is some miraculously well-preserved Norman carving. You cannot miss the curved lines of ‘beak heads’ which frame the main doorway but look as well at the lion heads, zodiac signs, mythical animals, and symbols of the evangelists on the outside ring. The south doorway has some delightful small images which are hard to interpret.
Oxford has many examples of the wood carver’s art from the middle ages, but Trinity College Chapel has the supreme 17th-century examples. Here Grinling Gibbons — Sir Christopher Wren’s favourite wood carver — is said to have done some of the sumptuous carvings in juniper and lime wood
There are mounted men fighting, Samson and a lion, centaurs and beasts, a lion attacking a horse, the head of a king, monsters, a sphinx and a merman. Most of these medieval carvings were made by anonymous itinerant masons, copying and elaborating images common throughout England and France. The interior of the church, which is usually open, is equally rich. Train your binoculars where the carved ribs of the vault come together, to see some strange grotesques. Then search for the tiny carving of a charming bird, looking rather alarmed as she takes off from her nest.
Back in the centre of Oxford there are many things to see. Christ Church Cathedral has the lion’s share of tombs and sculptural monuments from all periods, many by well-known artists. But do not miss the treasures in many less-visited places, especially the colleges of the university (usually open in the afternoon).
In Merton College you can examine one of the best examples of 15th-century work anywhere in England, in the lovely panel above the entrance. St John the Baptist, the College patron, together with, Walter de Merton, the founder, are shown in the wilderness surrounded by life-like carvings of animals and plants. Merton chapel has some of the finest monuments in Oxford.
The memorial to Thomas Bodley, who gave his name to the Bodleian Library, was made by the mason and architect Nicholas Stone. It shows Bodley surrounded by stacks of books, flanked by female figures representing the teaching faculties. Henry Savile’s monument, an even more sophisticated affair than Bodley’s, includes painted panels of Merton and Eton colleges, male figures of Euclid and Tacitus with Fame, standing on top blowing her trumpet in honour of the distinguished warden.
Many other fine monuments include one to Coleridge Patteson, a low-relief carving with a portrait bust above a shrouded figure. The chapel also has some good monumental floor brasses, easier to see here but not as good as those at New College. Before leaving the college, look for your zodiac sign in the vault of the 500-year-old Fitzjames gateway.
On a visit to the chapels at All Souls, Magdalen, and New College you can see many more excellent sculptural monuments. All three chapels also have dramatic arrays of figures of the saints, in the tall reredos which fill their altar walls.
Although the medieval originals were destroyed at the Reformation, these 19th-century copies make a splendid show. The chapels also have fine collections of carved wood misericords beneath their choir-stall seats (those at Magdalen are easiest to see, as they have been moved to the antechapel). These original carvings show great skill, a vivid imagination — and some rather odd subjects. As you pass note the grotesque heads along the string course of many college buildings (many recently re-cut) which also gives an amusing insight into the medieval mind. Another type of sculpture, cast bronze figures, common in Roman times, was revived in the Renaissance. The best examples in Oxford are all by the French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur. Look at the astonishing detail on his figure of the Earl of Pembroke in the Schools quadrangle of the Bodleian. Le Sueur’s also made the figures of Charles I and his wife, facing each other across Canterbury Quad at St John’s College, which help make this the most attractive of all college quads.
Oxford has many examples of the wood carver’s art from the middle ages, but Trinity College Chapel has the supreme 17th century examples. Here Grinling Gibbons — Sir Christopher Wren’s favourite wood carver — is said to have done some of the sumptuous carvings in juniper and lime wood. Don’t miss the decorative plasterwork, too, in one of the best interiors of its period in all of Britain. The Victorians left their mark everywhere in Oxford, including its collection of sculpture. Much Victorian work, carried out with varying degrees of skill, was restoration or replacement of decayed or destroyed medieval originals. The famous ‘Emperors’ Heads’ round the Sheldonian were again replicated, in the 1960s, by Michael Black The best new Victorian work is both on and in the University Museum, where John Ruskin encouraged the O’Sheas, an Irish family of sculptors, to imitate the medieval masons in taking designs creatively from nature. Sadly, their work on the decoration of the exterior remains unfinished. The O’Sheas were dismissed for the rudeness of their caricatures of university worthies.
Inside the museum, the O’Sheas and others carved beautiful columns capitals in stylised, natural forms. Here you can also see life-size portraits of eminent scientists, carved by the best sculptors of the day and placed all round the dramatic central space.
The most surprising 19th-century monument in Oxford is the Shelly memorial (by Onslow Ford) in University College (ask in the lodge for permission and directions). The drowned poet is shown, lying naked on a slab of Connemara marble. His vivid white figure is supported by a bronze catafalque, with two winged lions and the Muse of Poetry. Shelly, only 30 when he drowned, was earlier a rebellious student of the college, expelled without a degree.
The best early 20th-century work in Oxford was by the multi-talented Eric Gill. His emasculated figure of St John in the Wilderness is on the inside of the gate house at St John’s. Gill’s incised Stations of the Cross are in St Albans Church in East Oxford. He also carved the lettering on the large war memorial in the anti-chapel at New College, near where Jacob Epstein’s masterpiece, the haunting figure of Lazarus breaking free of his burial bandages, stands. On a visit to Oxford in the 1960s the tough Russian dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, saw this sculpture and said the memory would keep him awake at night.
Since the end of the Second World War, abstract forms, in a variety of material, have dominated sculpture and Oxford has its fair share. There are examples of Barbara Hepworth’s work at New College and St Catherine’s.
The biggest piece in the city, the Y Bat by Mark Wallinger, recently commissioned by Magdalen College to mark their 550 anniversary, sits amongst the trees at the end of Addison’s Walk, one of the loveliest places in Oxford.
Among many other examples of modern work in the city you’ll find a delightfully peaceful sculpture garden at the rear of the Summertown Public Library. This small, permanent collection is augmented from time to time with exhibitions of local artists’ works.
But there is much more to enjoy for Oxford is replete with classic treasures of sculpture, waiting among our buildings, ancient and modern. Youwill find further suggestions and coloured illustrations of the sculptures mentioned in this article — and many more — in a little booklet Oxford Sculpture, one of a series of specialist Oxford guides, available in the Tourist Information Centre in Broad Street and in selected book and gift shops.