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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford

What is the Christ Church Picture Gallery?

The Christ Church Picture Gallery is a purpose-built gallery inside Christ Church College of Oxford University. It offers an important collection of Old Master paintings and drawings.

Christ Church Picture Gallery

Christ Church Picture Gallery History

Sometimes walking around Oxford feels like being in a museum: surrounded by beautiful and historically significant buildings, with something rare and interesting to spot in every direction. However, it also boasts several official museums with very impressive collections. Christ Church Picture Gallery is one such example, but it’s a treasure hidden within the college’s grand and imposing centuries-old architecture. To reach it you need to walk through a warren of tiny passages and into 18th-century student accommodation in the basement. From here you’ll access a Modernist building of glass and cement opened in 1968 and designed by Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell.

Unlike many other modern museums where the exterior form is prioritised, critics have described this museum as being built from the ‘inside out’; the art exhibited is the priority here. And what a collection it is! The gallery is home to one of the most important collections of Old Master artworks in the country. (Old Masters is the term given to artists working in Europe from 1300-1800.) And Christ Church’s collection is really a Who’s Who? of the major artists of this period, including works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Anthony Van Dyck and Paolo Veronese. Small exhibitions are mounted from the reserve collection, changing roughly every three months, which means there are always interesting works newly on display.

The majority of the artworks were donated by General John Guise, an 18th-century art collector who had studied at Christ Church. In 1765, he bequeathed the gallery its most impressive work: The Butcher’s Shop by Baroque artist Annibale Carracci. The painting is massive – 190 by 272 centimetres – and is of great historical significance, as it marks the first time a relatively lowly subject matter (a tradesperson’s shop) was treated on such a grand scale.

Guise also donated 200 other paintings and 2,000 drawings to his former college. Originally, most of the paintings hung in the Lower Library, where they could be visited by appointment; The Butcher’s Shop, appropriately, hung on the walls of the college kitchen.

The gallery made the headlines in the spring of 2020 when it was the victim of a major art heist. A gang of thieves took Salvator Rosa’s A Rocky Coast, With Soldiers Studying a Plan, Anthony van Dyck’s A Soldier on Horseback, and Annibale Carracci’s A Boy Drinking, thought to be worth over £10 million in total. They climbed onto the roof of the gallery and smashed through a skylight, using two ladders that had been stolen from Christ Church Meadow to get in and out. It’s thought they then carried the paintings away by boat. The paintings have yet to be found.

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