This is not considered strange within the college walls, where there is also a ‘Steak Fairy’ who distributes, yes, steaks to the needy and is perhaps unique as far as JCR food producing positions are concerned… save for the baking wonders that are Christ Church’s ‘Cake Representatives’, of course. Disappointingly, the existence of a wheelchair provided by Magdalen’s JCR for the use of any of its undergraduates too drunk to walk could not be confirmed by any JCR member.
By providing for them in their own, individual ways, JCRs may appear to consider their student members to be their most valuable assets. Some investigation into what they actually own, however, might make you question just how much you are worth to your college’s beloved democratic institution.
Take the priceless portraits that line the walls of Oxford’s halls- they might make for fantastic dining partners, but they just do not have the same exciting appeal as the shy, artistic wonders our JCRs seem to have secretly stored away in dusty rooms over many years. Lurking slyly in the shadow of neighbouring Christ Church’s imposing ‘Tom Tower’, Pembroke is a hidden treasure in itself.
Even some of its students are not aware that it boasts one of the best collections in the country of post-WWII British art. Matilda Smith, Pembroke College JCR Art Representative, agreed to show me the collection. At the very top of several winding staircases is a door fit only for an explorative hobbit, behind which lies a room housing one of the best kept secrets of Oxford’s JCRs. A charming library with wooden beams extending towards a large assortment of books serves as the back-drop to a plethora of artistic gems.
Established in 1947 by Anthony Emery, an undergraduate at the time, Pembroke’s JCR art collection now includes a mixture of sculpture and painting, with works by quite a crowd: Tom Phillips, an alumnus of St Catherine’s College as well as the Ruskin, and elected to the Royal Academy in 1989; Lynn Chadwick, the famous sculptor; and Dame Elisabeth Frink, who needs little introduction. Whilst obviously not claiming to be on the level of Christ Church’s picture gallery, somehow Pembroke’s collection is so exclusive it seems considerably more ‘Oxford’. This must be one of the few cities in the world that can afford to have a significant art collection displayed for the benefit of seemingly nobody. Each year, the JCR has about £3000 to spend on either enlarging the collection or undertaking some restoration work. A trip to Sotheby’s is yet to happen for this year’s purchase, although the fact that last year’s budget was not spent, giving this year’s buyers double the funds, means there is much excitement for those in the know surrounding potential new editions to the collection.
Indeed, there have been some shrewd buys on the JCR’s behalf in the past, perhaps most notably Francis Bacon’s ‘Man in a Chair’, purchased well before Bacon’s face-contorting artistic genius had been recognised by the art world. Sold in 1997 for a considerable profit, Bacon’s painting has essentially funded the continued existence of the art collection, which is now a registered charity: The Pembroke College JCR Art Collection Fund. And the charity continues to provide financial support to Pembroke students. Matilda Smith sums up the collection in a nutshell: “it’s such a shame it’s so hidden away”.
Plans for an extension to Pembroke’s current accommodation will also provide a new, purpose-built home for these much undervalued treasures, making them more of a College focal point.
In comparison to University JCR’s art collection, however, even the existing exhibition at Pembroke is excessively, even crudely, advertised. One has to physically seek out the artistic wonders that linger in the darkest corners of University.
A remarkable range of paintings donated to the College lies mouldering in an Engineering tutor’s room. After some digging into some College archives, it seems literally thousands of pounds worth of art is concealed from anyone that it might possibly interest.
The Univ JCR art collection comprises over twenty works, amongst them a Paul Nash watercolour, ‘Landscape of the Malvern Distance’, valued by Sotheby’s in 2003 at £5,000 despite being “in a very sorry state” according to the October 1999 University College Record; a Francis Newton Souza oil on canvas valued in the same year at £10,000; and a number of etchings by Renee Magritte valued at £1,500. According to records there is also an Henri Matisse print, ‘Women and Monkeys’- but its location remains unknown.
The University collection was reassembled in 1997 after works were – literally – pulled from behind the JCR President’s filing cabinets, the College cellars and various other rooms. An Art Society was established, prompted by donations from a College Old Member, but this has since ceased to exist. After never having found a permanent home, the collection has again been absorbed into obscurity.
So what are we to make of all this? By lacking institutional memory and just generally being quite disorganised, our JCRs seem to have managed to cling on to some of Oxford’s most prized possessions, almost without knowing it. Pembroke and University are just two out of thirty undergraduate Oxford colleges.
If your JCR is anything like these, it probably has several valuable secrets waiting to be discovered. The one million pound Fra Angelico lost masterpiece, found in someone’s spare room in Oxford in 2006, is just waiting to be put to shame…