Odd Oxford: Beauty in the Undiscovered
"Bonn Square ... Hidden away at the back you’ll come across two piles of bronze books, the largest standing 1.2 metres high, with English and German titles."
There’s no denying that Oxford is abundant with eye candy. Glance in any direction as you move around the city and you’ll be greeted with an array of architectural delights, courtesy of its ancient buildings and intriguing alleyways.
Now, search just a little further, and amid all the obvious beauty you’ll find a wealth of public art tucked away awaiting discovery – each instalment complete with its own fascinating story. To illustrate this, let’s take just one short journey through the city. Starting at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ), a ten-acre plot of land nestled between Woodstock Road and Walton Street, which was the site of Oxford’s first hospital. Now being developed by the university, it includes a public footpath to link the two roads. Entering the ROQ via the Woodstock Road, you’ll be greeted by the Triton waterfall, a familiar figure in the city since he was installed in 1857.
According to mythology, Triton was ordered by his father, the Greek sea god Poseidon, to blow his conch to soothe the waves. However, in landlocked Oxford he’s been more gainfully employed by generations of locals as a barometer. A winter can be determined as particularly bitter if he has spent a long spell, rather spectacularly, frozen in action over the winter.
Venture further into the ROQ and you’ll come across an attractively quirky metallic tree, cast from an Ash, by artist Simon Periton. Titled ‘A Chemical Tree’, this is the first piece of public art to be installed at the site by the university. Inspired by historical images of foliage, it symbolises growth, transformation, interdisciplinary collaboration and the quest for knowledge.
On leaving the site, take a short stroll over to University Parks. This haven of natural beauty at the heart of the city centre is home to a number of interesting features – including a tree planted in 1995 to honour Ghandi, and a bench dedicated to the memory of author JRR Tolkien. Keeping with the tree theme, University Parks is also the seventh place in the world to feature a Havel’s Place installation and features the national tree of the Czech Republic. Designed by Czech architect Borek Sipek, the installation comprises a commemorative table and two chairs. The table is enhanced with a Linden tree growing through it, and serves as a place of rest and contemplation, designed to evoke the memory of Vaclav Havel, human rights activist and former President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. Etched into the table, you will find Havel’s 1989 campaign slogan ‘Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred’.
Leaving the Parks and heading south into the centre via St Giles’, you’ll find yourself facing the impressive Martyrs’ Memorial, a prominent city feature since its completion in 1843. It commemorates the lives of three men who were tried for heresy in 1555 and burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs, during the persecution of protestants by Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a great related fact is that his son, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, is renowned for designing the British red telephone box.
Now, turning on our heels, we’re headed for Bonn Square. Hidden away at the back you’ll come across two piles of bronze books, the largest standing 1.2 metres high, with English and German titles. Additionally, a scattering of other books are moulded onto a number of the Square’s benches. Cast from real books, this sculpture by artist Diana Bell was a gift to the city from Bonn in 2009 to commemorate 60 years of the towns’ twinning. Inscribed onto the books, in both languages, are the words Knowledge, Understanding, Friendship and Trust. These two piles of books are symbolic of the strong bond between the two university cities which started shortly after the Second World War – Oxford was the first place to approach a German city with the aim of fostering friendship and sharing concerns.
Taking a left turn into picturesque Broad Street, it is worth scanning the ground to locate the break in the tarmac which reveals a simple cross, poignantly marking the spot where the martyrs met their horrific fate. Look right up in Broad Street to find a stock-still naked man gazing out across the rooftops. Sculpted in iron by celebrated artist Antony Gormley – creator of Gatehead’s Angel of the North – the figure weighs in at half a ton and is based on a cast of the artist’s own body. This iron man is from Gormley’s Another Time series which features installations of similar male figures across the world.