In the art gallery and out, undisputed masterpieces

Off-and-on good weather in Oxford this week, which has meant off-and-on touring. But more colleges were visited, a meal was had at a famous pub and a great art exhibit was seen.

Inside the Eagle and Child pub.
Inside the Eagle and Child pub.

Let’s start at the Eagle and Child pub, which J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other members of the “Inklings” referred to as the Bird and Baby when they met there starting in the 1930s.

Residence building at St. John's College.
Residence building at St. John’s College.

Walking past the busker playing the baritone and then across the street, we find St. John’s College, founded in 1555. In the size of the student populations, the colleges here are in great contrast to the big U.S. universities, and many colleges as well. St. John’s, for example, has less than 400 undergraduates, 250 grad students, 100 fellows and 25 lecturers, according to its web site. Former prime minister Tony Blair went to St. John’s as did novelists and poets A.E. Housman and Robert Graves, the web site reports.

Tom Quad at Christ Church College. Selfie sticks are everywhere, and two tourists are using one here.
Tom Quad at Christ Church College. Selfie sticks are everywhere, and two tourists are using one here.

Down the street from the Eagle and Child is Christ Church College, one of the largest colleges at Oxford University with 430 undergrads and 215 graduate students. It was founded in 1524 by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as Cardinal College. But when Wolsey fell out of favor with Henry VIII (that happened a lot with Henry), it was refounded by the king as Christ Church.

It has the largest quad, a grand dining hall and an ornate chapel with a soaring stone ceiling.

The dining hall at Christ Church College.
The dining hall at Christ Church College.

Visitors were being shooed out of the chapel today so that the Women’s Institute could commemorate their 100 years in existence. One of the women setting up for the event told us the organization got its start in Canada. Its web site says it came to the United Kingdom in 1915 “to revitalize rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.” It’s the largest volunteer women’s organization in Britain, works on education for women and campaigns on issues important to them and their communities.

The chapel at Christ Church College.
The chapel at Christ Church College.
The purple arrangement at the altar.
The purple arrangement at the altar.

My favorite chat was with a woman setting up the flowers for the event. She was not happy with the arrangement at the altar. “Purple is a receding color,” she said as she tried to bring out that color in her arrangement by playing the purple flowers against the white ones. “But it’s what they want,” she said. Looked quite lovely.

On to the dining hall, which was re-created in a studio for one of the Harry Potter movies.

The
The “firedogs” in the Christ Church dining halls.

Another famous story may have roots in the dining hall. The andirons in the fireplaces have a familiar look to anyone who remembers the telescoped shape “Alice in Wonderland” took after eating the cake marked “Eat me.” Charles Dodgson, who taught mathematics at Christ Church College, is better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of the story. The Alice in the story comes from the daughter of a dean when Dodgson was there in the 1860s.

The portrait of Alice Liddell is in the left window. The White Rabbit is in the lower left corner.
The portrait of Alice Liddell is in the left window. Alice in Wonderland is in the lower left corner.

A portrait of the real Alice is in one of the stained glass windows above the tables in the dining room. With the portrait of Alice Liddell are images of the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen.

Edith Liddell as St. Catherine in in the center panel.
Edith Liddell as St. Catherine in the center panel.

Alice is not the only Liddell daughter to be immortalized in stained glass at Christ Church College. Her sister, Edith, appears as the face of St. Catherine of Alexandria in one of the windows in the chapel.

The current exhibit at the Christ Church Picture Gallery comes from Gen. John Guise, who bequeathed his collection to Christ Church in 1767. The collection includes more than 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings, some from Michelangelo (1475-1564), Titian (1480-1576), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520) and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528).

The drawings were especially well displayed in cases with effective lighting, explanations with insightful information on what to look for in the drawings and even a railing to lean on while you read the words and related them to the works.

Entitled “Undisputed Masterpieces,” the exhibit marks 250 years since Guise’s death. A nice way to be remembered.

Touring Oxford, relishing Shakespeare

Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.
Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.

By Kathy

Day 3 of our adventure in England was packed with discoveries, revelations and inspiration. We walked a mile from our flat to the center of town to join a tour highlighting important sites, including one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges.

Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.
Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.

Our personable guide, Katie, introduced us to the centuries-old university and how it works: each college independent yet allied; nearly all quite small (just 22,000 students in the entire system), housed primarily in decorous stone buildings surrounded by well-worn walls (yet open to the public at certain times). The schools, with their manicured courtyards, ornate edifices and streams of students, dominate the look and feel of the central city.

We visited Jesus College, co-founded by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century for the people of Wales. Students live, study and play together on the campus, where they meet with their professors once a week for “tutorials” in which they review projects assigned throughout the eight-week terms.

The dining hall at Jesus College.
The dining hall at Jesus College.

Students go off the grounds to auxiliary campuses around the city for lectures, research and more. The “collegiate” feel of the place came across most vividly in the dining hall with its soaring leaded-glass windows, carved oak panels and enormous communal table. I expected to see Harry Potter at any moment.

Speaking of which, we had a chance to walk through the old Divinity School now surrounded by the incredible Bodleian Library (which houses more than 13 million volumes and counting). The school, made entirely of carved stone, is a wonder of architecture and beauty. A ballroom scene in one of the HP movies was filmed here.

The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.
The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.

We celebrated all that we’d seen by stuffing ourselves at the cozy White Horse pub (one of the city’s oldest); fish & chips and a pint of Guinness for me, “toad in the hole” for John. The pub appears in the Inspector Morse TV series, which we hope to find time to watch (our apartment has the complete set of DVDs).

Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.
Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.

After a rest back at the flat, we returned to the central city and the newest part of the Bodleian (the Weston Library) for what may have been the most extraordinary “college lecture” I’d ever heard. John has already written about Professor Wells (emeritus, Univ. of Birmingham), but I thought I’d share a few impressions, too. We are still discussing all that he said, looking up film clips of Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, finding Sonnet 29 to read again, and so on. Such is the “imprinting” power of a fine teacher/writer.

As an editor most of my working life, I trafficked in the power of words. Wells spoke with passion and insight about Shakespeare’s skill and why he still matters more than four centuries later.

Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.
Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.

Quoting from memory Hamlet, Lear and more, he made us feel the lyricism of the words, moving from complex syntaxes to simple declaratives, soft and loud, thoughtful and emotional; sometimes simply silent. More than the meaning, we felt the majesty.

Beyond the skill at crafting words, Wells explained, Shakespeare possessed the ability to convey a set of values that live across the ages: the importance of intelligence and wit, of moral courage and plain kindness; an appreciation of individual idiosyncracies (“what a piece of work is man”) and of the transformative power of imagination.

Certainly, Professor Wells possesses transformative powers of his own. Ah, to have been his student!

The terms -- after the Latin word terminus -- surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.
The terms — after the Latin word terminus — surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.