Arts

An Introduction to the Picture Gallery

The paintings depict poverty, criminality, loneliness, horror, disdain and seduction. Everything suggests an underlying vulnerability- but why?

I cannot hope to convey the exquisite grandeur and delight of Holloway’s Picture Gallery in just a few hundred lines. It would be folly and arrogant to assume one could. The paintings within are enigmatic and priceless. Purchased by Thomas Holloway expressly for the purpose of furnishing the Founder’s building and as a place of reflection for its students, the vast and priceless collection includes many of the world’s greatest paintings. Indeed, the College once came into huge controversy as it sold of one of our treasured Turner paintings for £1.1million pounds to an undisclosed buyer- and thus, we lost a masterpiece. The bastards. But let us not dwell; the splendour of the Picture Gallery, is unparalleled. One would think that the paintings would reflect the ambience of grandeur: stony-faced military men dressed in their court apparel, are a norm in many a university college. Imperious portrait after portrait of alumni, politicians or scenes of superiority have been the fashion for generations- yet this is where our Picture Gallery breaks tradition, and brilliantly stands out.

The paintings are beautiful, make no mistake, but the collection is distinctly threatening. The paintings depict poverty, criminality, loneliness, horror, disdain and seduction.  Everything suggests an underlying vulnerability- but why? Clearly the thematic agenda of our gallery aims to tell us something. There is an informing juxtaposition between the pomp and grandeur of Founder’s and the gallery, to the scenes of depravity and horror in the actual paintings themselves. Founder’s optimises the Victorian middle class, with all its money and encroaching social Darwinism. It seems the paintings are a chilling reminder of what the real world is and can be. For example, if we take Oxford, we are presented in their dining hall with row after row of men staring back at you with wistful arrogance. Our gallery could not be more adverse. One of the many great paintings is Edwin Longs’ ‘The Babylonian Market’. The painting is crude and rough, punctuated by spots and bouts of beauty and vulnerability. It depicts a slave auction of women. The market is crowded, and wealthy businessmen jostle and shout as a slave girl is presented to them on a pedestal, lightly and seductively veiled in white linen. Below, a long line of girls await their turn.

Several paintings along you will find the infamous Princes in the Tower, by pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everret. The two boys dressed in mourning black huddle together in fear, but with a strange defiance. The looming shadow of their killers hangs forebodingly in the corner. Further along, a painting depicts a dusty and empty street in Cairo and a mosque jutting out of sprawling hovels. Sir Samuel Luke Fildes’ ‘Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward’ shows a cold snowy street. The poor line up in misery, a policeman stares suspiciously, and women weeps whilst a dog barks into the night. There is none of Founder’s gargantuan serenity here, just reminders of its polar opposite; depravity and violence.

It would be wrong to say that all the paintings are of this nature. William Powell Frith’s fascinating classic, ‘The Railway Stations’, shows a teeming Victorian train station, bursting with colour and life. Like our dear Founder’s, the painting fills the eye, with much going on as we are presented with a full spectrum of class in the Victorian era. Clearly, this was for the students’ benefits. It reminded them of the world outside our great walls, to see and grasp normality and the common man with a vivid clarity. It aimed to be expressly educational, and it still can be. I cannot impress enough, get down to the gallery and be the judge.

Of course there are infinite other ways of reading and interpreting these paintings – mine is only one train of thought. Regardless, what stands out for me is the overriding macabre and sombre theme to our gallery, which makes the gallery unique amongst the swamp of other university galleries. It does not celebrate illusions of grandeur, but instead impresses a reassessment of our own lives and delusions. The violence of the gallery intrudes on our thoughts and challenges us- but that is what we as students need, and the main purpose of art.

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