Fresh Perspectives on an Old City
“So many things come together to create a special atmosphere: the range of architectural styles from mediaeval to modern; the population mix of permanent residents, students and tourists, the combination of strong cultural, commercial and industrial sectors and the green spaces in the heart of the city."
Oxford Preservation Trust was set up in 1927 to protect the views of Oxford and its striking skyline, painted by Turner and many other famous artists. Today the architecture and the vibrancy of the city continue to inspire artists and so, to celebrate the city for both ‘town’ and ‘gown’, new views of old views have been painted by a variety of artists from near and far all competing to win the new Oxford Art Prize.
In June, artists flocked to the city with their stools and sketchpads, palettes and easels to capture what they saw en plein air. Two months later, they are returning the pictures that resulted from their days on location to hang in an exhibition in Oxford’s Town Hall and the O3 Gallery in the historic Oxford Castle Quarter.
Steve Daggitt is an Oxford artist who paints the architecture, people and streets of Oxford. The well-known buildings and sights of the city appear in his work but so do out-of-the way spots and residential streets. “The city of Oxford is an endless source of inspiration,” he explains. “So many things come together to create a special atmosphere: the range of architectural styles from mediaeval to modern; the population mix of permanent residents, students and tourists, the combination of strong cultural, commercial and industrial sectors and the green spaces in the heart of the city.
In each drawing Steve aims to convey the sense of excitement and dynamism that these things give to the city, whether the flow of a crowd in the street, the seemingly chaotic movement at a junction, figures dissolved in the light of a midday sun or low winter light glowing on the upper stories of buildings. He records the essence of a scene in fast drawings, black and white, that take between ten minutes and half an hour. In this way he records the strongest forms and the movement and light of the scene, taking photographs for additional information about colour and detail, and returning to the same spot at different times of day and in different weathers. Back in the studio he then develops these into more finished works in oil, acrylic and other media.
Katherine Shock is another Oxford artist who has painted many of the city’s sights, recently offering a visual tribute to the city with a series of pictures to illustrate a sequence of poems by award-winning poet John Elinger, the nom de plume of Sir Christopher Ball, sometime Warden of Keble College. These were presented in a book That Sweet City, a phrase coined by Oxford’s Victorian poet Matthew Arnold. Designed in the form of seven walks across and around Oxford, and radiating out into the surrounding countryside, the book maps Katherine’s travels as she sketched the buildings and landscapes, both famous and less well-known, that have witnessed and shaped the city’s history.
Katherine describes the pleasure of discovering spots around Oxford in which to capture its immensely beautiful cityscape, odd corners crammed with character or characters and the gentle light on its mellow stonework. “But perhaps above all,” she continues, “I most enjoy the people passing and stopping to watch me draw and have a chat. It is one of those few times in life when the great barriers of reserve simply disappear and everyone feels comfortable to pause and talk. Bring seen with the early stages of a painting could embarrass me but the enjoyment of sharing my pleasure with so many varied people overrides it.”
Over the years spent painting outside, she thinks that nothing works as well as time spent in the fresh air contemplating a subject. “That’s when I notice elements that simply would not have occurred to me from painting a photo” she explains, and “I find that even being aware of the changing light, the temperature or the breeze when it isn't too fierce, helps add vitality to the painting.”
“And as you look up and look down, or glimpse something through a doorway, that’s when you discover new angles on what you see, the present and the past too.”
One of the poems in That Sweet City describes the War Memorial Garden in Christ Church, laid out in 1926 to commemorate college members who fell in the First World War, just one layer of history in the grounds of the college traditionally considered the most aristocratic of all those in the university, which once housed the parliament of King Charles I during the English Civil War. And it was here that Lewis Carroll first espied Alice Liddell, the namesake of Alice in Wonderland, and here that he wrote the classic children’s story, published 150 years ago, beneath the Cheshire Cat tree.
The Memorial Garden
I think continually of those who died in battle
Amidst the screams of shells and wounded men
Sitting alone, in sunlight, in this quiet garden
who never saw the sun or home again.
They were cold, frightened, unprepared for death, bewildered –
I love this peaceful place, its flowers, its trees –
in all that cruel mud and wire, the blood, the gunfire…
birdsong and this still pool, this gentle breeze.
I wonder if they thought about the Alice garden
Crouched in a crater waiting for their death
where the White Rabbit led her down its magic burrow
crying for Wonderland with their last breath.
Take a journey to the O3 Gallery in Oxford Castle Quarter with its Norman Tower, ancient crypts and chequered history as a gaol, and to Oxford’s grand Town Hall with its dancehall, panelling, fireplaces and chandeliers, to look again at a city you thought you knew, and be delighted by fresh and interesting perspectives.
The exhibition runs from Saturday 29th August until Sunday 13th September. For further details see www.oxfordartprize.co.uk. And on that last weekend you’ll also have a chance to inside scores of interesting spaces within the city that are usually closed to the public for Oxford Open Doors (www.oxfordopendoors.org.uk).
To see more illustrations by Oxfordshire Artweeks artists Steve Daggitt and Katherine Shock visit www.stevedaggitt.com and www.kspaintings.co.uk respectively.