Hidden Oxford: Architecture and Aquatints
"The professor told me that granite and glass were an impossible alliance which would never work"
Evelyn Waugh famously described Oxford as ‘a city of aquatint’, an evocative phrase that captures the city’s gentle loveliness.
Waugh waxed lyrical about spacious yet quiet street vistas that appear as if painted in watercolour or washed in a soft ink palette: “Her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.”
September is the month to explore these streets and enjoy the hidden spaces through arches, behind gates and beyond the golden stone. Over 150 spaces welcome you on in as part of Oxford Open Doors on 9th and 10th September, for the UK’s biggest Heritage Open Day event.
Waugh’s novel ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was set in Oxford and includes many references to Oxford landmarks, churches, pubs and university colleges, particularly Christ Church, a college which has an often undiscovered picture gallery (hosting an exhibition on caricature and satire in the first half of the month – Scraps of laughter, until 11th – and Drawing in Rome from the 18th).
For a display focused on Waugh himself, head to the vast Weston Hall in the newest part of the Bodleian Library on historic Broad Street. It has been cleverly designed by architectural practice WilkinsonEyre to showcase the original building within an amazing airy atrium. It’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect from an old book storage facility, and I’m told there are nearly 2,000,000 books and 40km of shelf space on-site which includes a jaw-dropping 17th century gateway to Oxfordshire’s Ascott Park on long-term loan from the V&A Museum strikingly framing the doorway to the readers’ entrance.
The Bodleian has historic printing presses and other treasures on show for Open Doors, and is only one of several university libraries open for the weekend. Just 100 metres down the road neighbouring Trinity College is opening its library to the public for the first time. Open Doors is also a chance to see Trinity College’s magnificent chapel resplendent with exceptional architecture, sculpture and painting. It has been restored recently and boasts wonderful stained glass and extensive lime-wood carving by celebrated sculptor Grinling Gibbons, who is best known for his work in Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Another ecclesiastical space open this month (from 13th September until 1st October) in which to find fresh art and sculpture are the hidden cloisters at St John the Evangelist on the Iffley Road, opposite the track where Sir Roger Bannister ran the first ever four-minute mile in 1954. This complex of buildings was, from 1866 to 1980, the mother house of the Society of St John the Evangelist and of the ‘Cowley Fathers’, the first religious community for men founded in the Church of England since the Reformation. The church and cloisters themselves were designed by GF Bodley, an English Gothic Revival architect in the latter half of the 19th century who worked with William Morris. And in these cloisters the Oxford Art Society, part of the city scene for 100 years, shows new work by current members including striking sculpture by Johannes von Stumm in combinations of glass, metal and stone.
“When I was studying fine art,” von Stumm laughs, “the professor told me that granite and glass were an impossible alliance which would never work. However, I had grown up in the Alps where water, stone and wood are seen together in beautiful natural combinations so this was an irresistible challenge for me. I was also intrigued by how age-old materials speak to the soul and wanted to capture that in my sculpture. I persevered and experimented, and after several years and a lot of broken glass I finally developed a way of joining the opposing forces of the different materials in an inseparable and interdependent form as a carpenter might join two pieces of wood.”
With a combination of very different and apparently contradictory materials, von Stumm’s sculpture represents both the fragility and strength of life, the solid and the liquid, the dark and the transparent, all meshed together perfectly to form harmonious static entities which have a fluidity and dynamism. (You can also see one of these extraordinary combinations of elements at the stunning stately home Buscot House near Faringdon, where von Stumm’s contemporary take on ‘Three Graces’, the famous sculpture of the mythological three daughters of Zeus, stands proud on the stairway.)
For more sculpture albeit very different, behind the rather unassuming Summertown Library on South Parade, there’s a tranquil space that all year round houses a changing sculpture exhibition and, for September, is an iron aviary with a flurry of life-size birds and bigger, created by metal sculptor Diccon Dadey. Most of Dadey’s sculptures are fabricated entirely from sheet metal but some introduce mixed media in the form of salvaged wood or driftwood to enhance the natural feel of a piece, whilst others are made entirely from scrap metal – where pieces are weathered rather than galvanised they boast a rich rusty patina. Owls fly, swoop, land, and watch in steel whilst woodpeckers and kingfishers nip in at the edges, all capturing the unique movement, character and alertness for which the different species are known and loved.
And for those excited by modern architecture, Open Doors also allows you to discover new cloisters and buildings including the Exeter College Cohen Quad which opened earlier this year at the site of the former Ruskin College on Oxford’s Walton Street: behind the old red brick facade that remains in place there’s a vast new space under a glistening ‘armadillo roof ’.
One local artist, Cathy Read, describes how she finds herself drawn to the intriguing architecture and spaces of more contemporary building design set against green or city backdrops.
“I love to paint Oxford because it’s known for its historic architecture and yet there’s a very contemporary side to the city,” she explains. “The university dominates the city and its dreaming spires are iconic. However, despite that strong flavour of a historic past, there are lots of surprises and hidden architectural gems that are very much a vision for the 21st century.”
Cathy draws with masking fluid, outlining pencil-drawn buildings and architecture in a white liquid which protects paper from paint, before adding free-ranging watercolours and acrylic ink applied with a pipette. It is the precision of her lines combined with a relaxed fluid approach to colour that gives her urban landscapes such a distinctive style.
The buildings she chooses are usually distinctive, and her Oxford series includes the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, from Wolfson’s square blocks, which are a contrast to the classic image of an Oxford College, to St Catherine’ striking buildings in glass and concrete by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, and the Keble College ‘Spaceship’ (which is open for Open Doors), a glass-sided college bar, a striking building, the lines of which Read shows with an emphatic glory.
Related Articles: Where to See the Sea in Oxfordshire