JCR Arts Officer Flora Symington joins us to introduce the new self-guided tour of Somerville artworks that forms the centrepiece of this year’s Arts Week. Created by Flora and her fellow Arts Officer Ursula White, the tour offers a rare opportunity to appreciate many of the artistic gems within the Somerville collection.
The idea for the art tour was born when I visited the ‘Making Modernism’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in January. There I was surprised – and thrilled – to see that one of the paintings on loan was from Somerville’s collection. It was ‘Landscape with Windblown Trees’, a small oil painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker, who was the lead artist in the exhibition aimed at raising awareness of the female artists of the modernist movement.
Seeing Somerville’s name among those of the great art collectors and galleries of the world got me thinking that there must be far more fantastic art in the college’s possession than we appreciate on a daily basis. I was already thinking of running for Arts Officer of the JCR and this made the decision for me – I knew Arts Week would be the perfect opportunity to display the collection to the Somerville community.
Unfortunately, my newfound resolve gave me rather a compressed time scale in which to get the exhibition organised, since the date for Arts Week had already been set for the third week of Hilary term. However, our wonderful College Librarian Sarah Butler and Archivist Kate O’Donnell responded to my frantic request for support with enthusiasm, and we managed to get the project rolling incredibly quickly.
My fellow Arts Officer Ursula and I duly spent a lovely afternoon wandering around college, taking photos of any artworks we liked the look of to pass onto Kate, who then sent us back all the information she could find relating to the paintings themselves, their subjects and how the college acquired them. With a little of my own research added in we came up with a tour of 17 of the college’s most interesting artworks, from a self-portrait by our very own namesake Mary Somerville to the contemporary sculpture ‘Triad’ by Wendy Taylor, which we all pass every day without thinking on the Main Quad.
Highlights of the tour include two paintings by Roger Fry, brother of Principal Margery Fry and member of the famous Bloomsbury Group, a full-size portrait above the library stairs of Honorary Fellow Vijaya Lakshimi Pandit, the first female President of the United Nations General Assembly, and a woodcut of tutor Enid Starkie accompanied by a hand-written note from its donor.
Although the Modersohn-Becker painting is of course not in college at the moment so can’t be included, its fascinating history merits a special mention. The painting was donated by Fellow of the college Dr Lotte Labowsky, who grew up in the same region as Modersohn-Becker, studying in Munich and Heidelberg before completing her doctorate in 1932 and eventually teaching at Somerville. As Professor Almut Suerbaum (Fellow and Tutor in German; Associate Professor of German) highlighted, Lotte Labowsky came to Oxford as a refugee from Germany in 1934 when Jewish scholars were expelled from their positions. She was one of 12 scholars whom the college supported through the newly founded Academic Assistance Council (later Council for At-Risk Academics, through which Somerville is now again supporting refugee academics from Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine). You can find more details on Lotte Labowsky and Somerville’s support for refugees here. Labowsky remained at the college for the next 50 years as librarian and academic, and bequeathed the painting to the collection as a sign of her gratitude in 1991.
The last piece in the puzzle was the beautiful hand-drawn map created for us by another Somerville undergraduate, Libby Wilcox-Pearce, which highlights where each artwork is located within College. We launched the art tour as the inaugural event of the Somerville JCR’s Arts Week 2023, inviting students, staff and fellows to get involved and see these wonderful works then and there, or later at their liberty.
For next year’s Arts Week we hope to take the exhibition even further, with an expert speaker to introduce the collection and a physical exhibition that brings together the college’s most notable artworks in one room. In the meantime, we will be working over the next year to develop descriptions for the rest of the collection, which will then be uploaded to the website along with photos of the artworks for those not in college to enjoy, so look out for uploads in the next few weeks.
The Somerville College Arts Week runs for one week from Sunday 29th January – Saturday 4th February (see flyer below).