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This exhibition was curated by OBU Art History undergraduate students. Over the course of the semester, students on the 'Curatorial Practice' module have been considering what it means to curate works of art in a modern museum or gallery setting. Topics they have engaged with include what we mean by 'curation', the responsibilities of custodial work, audiences, funding, contested heritage and the critical assessment of current exhibitions. In response, the students put together an exhibition drawing from the collections of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History. This digital précis presents a selection of works displayed at the Harcourt Hill campus of Oxford Brookes University, April 2022.

9 artworks
  • James Smetham and the Natural World

    James Smetham was a Pre-Raphaelite artist whose artworks reflected the aesthetics of Romanticism, often making reference to the natural world. This included subjects such as religion and representing everyday life, and often using literary references. Although Smetham remained relatively unknown in his career, he was undoubtedly a prolific artist. This is reflected in his vast output of works including over 500 paintings, etchings, and sketches. Although better known as a visual artist he also produced a substantial number of poetry and writings. Despite not being heavily featured in previous Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions, this will hopefully be the first of many.

  • Hugh Miller Watching for His Father's Vessel

    Resembling a putto, we know this playful child is Hugh Miller, who gazes out to sea for a sign of his father’s boat, a shipmaster in the coasting trade. The words written by Smetham provide a bittersweet tone to the composition and this combination of words and pictures so as well as the gilded oak frame is typical of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics.

    Hugh Miller Watching for His Father's Vessel 1866
    James Smetham (1821–1889)
    Watercolour on paper
    H 40 x W 70 cm
    Oxford Brookes University
    Hugh Miller Watching for His Father's Vessel
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Woman with a Tambourine (Irene with a Tambourine)

    This painting exemplifies Smetham’s association and collaboration with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood mainly due to close personal friendships with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an integral artist of the brotherhood. Painted in Rossetti's studio, the woman’s appearance is remarkably like that of Rossetti's wife and muse Elizabeth Siddall. It is also one of his most sensual paintings mainly because of the man’s directed gaze at Irene’s chest whereas her gaze is averted.

    Woman with a Tambourine (Irene with a Tambourine) c.1864–1868
    James Smetham (1821–1889)
    Oil on canvas
    H 14 x W 14.1 cm
    Oxford Brookes University
    Woman with a Tambourine (Irene with a Tambourine)
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • The Beloved ('The Bride')

    The Beloved ('The Bride') 1865–6
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Oil on canvas
    H 82.5 x W 76.2 cm
    The Beloved ('The Bride')
    Photo credit: Tate

  • James Smetham - Methodist and Artist

    In this part of the exhibition, we follow Smetham’s works chronologically, to explore how his work shifts from being explicitly biblical to a Pre-Raphaelite approach which has a religious interpretation at its core. We can observe an increase in maternal imagery, labour and pastoral idylls as he adjusts his art to be in line with his Methodist teachings. Smetham etches didactically to spread awareness of his religious principles whilst veering away from art’s indulgences so as to justify his work as God’s work, with Heaven as the ultimate goal.

    “If it should please God to give me health and strength for a few years longer, I may be able to show them a phase more likely to meet with their approval" - James Smetham, 1863

  • The Lord of the Sabbath

    Here Smetham borrows imagery from the Bible’s “The Lord of the Sabbath” with a wheat field. The landscape lends itself to the Pre-Raphaelite undertaking of nature; infusing it with the close family orientated principles of the Methodist doctrine as a mother teaches her child the bible story as she points to the labours. This comments on the Christian ideas of duty and community as the boy observes the field workers.

    James Smetham, etching on paper (1861)
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • The Death of Earl Siward

    Three figures stand in front of an arch, Earl Siward stands in the middle being held. The etching ‘The Death of Earl Siward’ depicts and commemorates the death of Siward the Strong, leader of the English army in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who wished to die clothed in his armour standing upright. This print reflects ideas in the Methodist church about how death is a step closer to eternal life with God.

    James Smetham, etching on paper (1861)
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Missionaries and Colonisation

    By linking these paintings with thematic similarities this exhibition aims to publicly raise the question whether it was the missionaries’ intention to radically take control over Africa during the nineteenth century, or if they were unintentionally assisting colonisation by spreading their beliefs to the native people. Arguably, missionaries cannot be categorised in the same group as political and economic colonisers, since their intentions seem to have a different cause. Their cause was possibly not driven by selfish intentions, but perhaps by their responsibility to the Church and spreading the word of God.

  • Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman (1809–1890)

    Thomas Freeman, a British Methodist missionary, is shown disengaged with the viewer, turning his head in three quarter profile towards the landscape. The background situated him on the Gold Coast. He established multiple schools focusing predominantly on biblical knowledge, literacy and arithmetic and was regarded as a pioneer to this institute in West Africa.

    Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman (1809–1890) 1975
    David Grice (b.1922)
    Oil on canvas
    H 76 x W 63.5 cm
    Oxford Brookes University
    Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman (1809–1890)
    © by permission of the Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes. Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Pounding Rice

    This work is a watercolour on paper, depicting a young woman practising a method of dehulling rice by continually raising and then dropping the heavy head or pestle of the pounder into a block or mortar. The artist served as an Educational Missionary in South India from 1923-1951.

    Pounding Rice 1923–1951
    Agatha Gay Hellier (1897–1980)
    Watercolour on paper
    H 32 x W 25 cm
    Oxford Brookes University
    Pounding Rice
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • From Matron to Matriarch

    Using six works from the Brookes Collection, this exhibition focuses on the representations of a collection of women in art, from the early 19th century to the late 20th century. Between c.1800 and 1958, there has been a significant development in the role of women in both a religious and educational setting and this exhibition aims to reflect this. It will focus on three themes: the role of women within the Methodist Church, the damsel in distress; a favoured subject matter of the Victorians, and the role of women in senior positions within academia.

  • Mary Taft (1772–1851)

    This painting by John Jackson depicts a praying Mary Taft, who was a key female figure in the Methodist Church. Her preaching was inspiring to many yet she was also a problematic figure within the debate of whether to allow female preachers within the Church. In 1803 at the annual Methodist Conference, strict restrictions were placed against female preachers. These restrictions would not be lifted until 1973.

    Mary Taft (1772–1851)
    John Jackson (1778–1831) (after)
    Oil on canvas
    H 47.5 x W 34.5 cm
    Oxford Brookes University
    Mary Taft (1772–1851)
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Sketch for 'Miss Dora Cohen'

    Commissioned by Bletchley Park College, which Cohen transformed during her time as principal, the preparatory sketch depicts the hand of the sitter for her official portrait. The college served, during a time where opportunities for young females were scarce, as an educational institute for women to learn about engineering, science, music, and the arts. Cohen is remembered for spearheading the emancipation of women within academia in the twentieth century.

    Sketch for 'Miss Dora Cohen' 1958
    John Stanton Ward (1917–2007)
    Oxford Brookes University
    Sketch for 'Miss Dora Cohen'
    © the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • The Life and Lost Works of Evelyn Dunbar

    Over 1000 lost works by Evelyn Dunbar were recently discovered and auctioned, including the sketches for Dunbar’s work at Bletchley Park College such as the preparatory sketches for ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’ panels (1957). The finished versions of these originally hung in the library of Bletchley Park and moved with the College in 1966 to Wheatley which eventually became part of Oxford Polytechnic in 1975, later Oxford Brookes University in 1992. The works on display are now part of the Evelyn Dunbar Collection owned by the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History. Through displaying these collections of sketches and preparatory works Dunbar’s legacy can be further celebrated.

  • Preparatory Sketch, 'Alpha and Omega'

    Dunbar’s ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’ panels were painted for the library of Bletchley Park College as an alternative to Dunbar’s unfinished Bletchley Mural. They are based on the college motto ‘In my ends is my beginning’ which is represented by the shape of the hunting horn and an idea related to a chapter in Revelation. The finished panels have since been moved to Wheatley and now belong to Oxford Brookes University.

    Preparatory Sketch, 'Alpha and Omega' 1958
    Evelyn Mary Dunbar (1906–1960)
    Ink on paper
    Oxford Brookes University
    Preparatory Sketch, 'Alpha and Omega'
    © the artist's estate. Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Sketchbook, Alec Dunbar

    This sketch is thought to be of Evelyn’s brother Alec, the second youngest of her four siblings. There is speculation, however, that it may in fact depict her eldest sibling Jessie, as a portrait of her shows her with a very similar haircut. Furthermore, she is often depicted in side profile or with her eyes closed due to a squint in her eye, as seen in Jessie Dunbar, c.1932.

    Evelyn Dunbar, sketchbook (c1940s)
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Calm & Chaos: Illustrating Climate Change

    The thunderous crashing of wages, the thick air of smoke. A dizzying Escheresque interior; the stillness of an English field. Each sensory image in this collection seeks to explore moments of relative calm in contrast to catastrophic turmoil. The theme of climate change echoes within the works. The artists showcase particular interests in the world surrounding them - there is an emphasis on the equally beautiful and startling violence that accompanies an unsteady climate.

  • Effect of Cyclone Flora on Bainet, Haiti

    Cyclone Flora was a category 4 hurricane which hit the Caribbean in 1963. Jean-Baptiste's painting trembles on the cusp of Petite Riviere de Nippe, seconds before the cyclone hits. The immense intensity of the wave overpowers the structures below, highlighting the relative fragility of humankind. Cyclone Flora originated from the collision of the Intertropical Convergence Zone trade winds, which area significant cause of atmospheric heating.

    Effect of Cyclone Flora on Bainet, Haiti 1963
    Edgar Jean-Baptiste (active 1960s)
    Oil on board
    H 71.4 x W 96.5 cm
    Oxford Brookes University
    Effect of Cyclone Flora on Bainet, Haiti
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University

  • Flora

    Flora is a token of Smetham's lifelong fascination with the English countryside. As a friend of John Ruskin, Smetham aimed to accurately portray nature as it appeared before him, following the hallmarks of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Smetham recalls the Yorkshire countryside in his letters, as he would "...[regard] the distant blueness of the hills, and [see] the laurels shake..." The countryside gave Smetham inspiration to paint from life.

    James Smetham, watercolour (19th cent.)
    Photo credit: Oxford Brookes University