An Art Lover’s Guide to Oxford

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An art gallery wall displaying three framed paintings: a larger central painting featuring a group of people, flanked by two smaller paintings. The wall is covered with patterned green wallpaper, and there are small plaques beside each painting. A wooden bench is in the lower right corner.
Lex McKee, Ashmolean Museum

Reno, Nevada goes by the slogan “The Biggest Little City in the World”, and what Reno is to gambling, Oxford is to art. It seems unlikely that anywhere else on the planet could contain as much world-class art in such a small area, particularly with such breadth and variety.

Oxford isn't short of art and culture, so we found all the best spots for an art enthusiasts day out in Oxford.

The first port of call for the art lover in Oxford is a venue of global renown: the Ashmolean Museum. While particularly well known for its historical treasures and classical sculptures, the museum is also home to a formidable collection of European artworks. Hidden away at the top of the building, these galleries are an Aladdin’s cave filled with artistic treasures. There is Paolo Uccello's Hunt in the Forest, one of the first paintings to use perspective; a portrait by Frans Hals; and a superb collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Alongside this, the Ashmolean holds pictures by Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, not to mention one of the best collections of paintings by the Camden Town Group, and an excellent collection of modern art including work by Lucian Freud.

Image Credit: Jolyon Hunter, Ashmolean Museum

The art addict left somehow still wanting may wish to visit the print room, which can be accessed by booking at the front desk, and contains original drawings and prints by J. M. W. Turner and John Ruskin. In recent years the museum has also been increasingly making a name for itself with several large-scale temporary exhibitions, including a retrospective of early modern painting based around Cézanne, and its current exhibition of drawings by Raphael.

Image Credit: Raphael, 'Saint' (c) Ashmolean Museum

The next stop is Modern Art Oxford, nestled away just off the high street inside a long tunnel decorated with all the great posters from their previous exhibitions. Since its opening in 1965, the gallery has established itself as one of the major UK institutions displaying the cutting edge in modern and contemporary art. It has displayed many notable exhibitions of work by the likes of Tracey Emin, Donald Judd and Joseph Beuys, as well as being the gallery that launched the career of former Tate director Nicholas Serota. It has recently hosted current Turner Prize nominee Lubaina Himid as well as showing the photographs of local fish and chip shop owner Kazem Hakimi. The museum also has an excellent café - the perfect place to settle down and study.

Image Credit: Modern Art Oxford

The thriving local art scene is represented through a number of small galleries, which frequently put on excellent exhibitions for free. The OVADA gallery space is the contemporary art museum to MAO’s modern art hub, situated within a converted warehouse near the train station. The exhibitions here are always innovative and often experimental, having played host in the past to video art and experimental music festivals. Nearby is the Jam Factory, another converted venue containing a restaurant and bar as well as a temporary exhibition space for local artists. Elsewhere there is the North Wall arts centre in Summertown, which also hosts local work as well as a recent exhibition of photographs by film director Ken Russell. The presence of two major art education institutions, the school of arts at Oxford Brookes University and the Ruskin School of Art, also means that each year sees new talent introduced at degree and foundation shows at the two universities.

Image Credit: North Wall, Oxford

Oxford University itself holds a huge collection of art. The Christ Church Picture Gallery, situated within Christ Church College, contains around 200 old master paintings and over 2,000 drawings, including the famous picture by Annibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop. Visiting any college is likely to lead to accidental art discoveries, for instance the Barbara Hepworth sculpture hidden away in the grounds of New College, Augustus John’s portrait of T. E. Lawrence in Jesus College and perhaps most famously the Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt, which is in the chapel at Keble College.

Image Credit: Dave_S, Christ Church College

The final stop for an art lover in Oxford is also one that will last the duration of any visit to the city; the grand architecture of the historic university that has formed in beautiful clusters of sandstone across the city centre is a work of art in itself. It seems fitting in a place with such a high concentration of great art that going for a simple stroll through town is an extension of the experience of seeing the great works the city holds.