Eccentric England: The Headington Shark

Headington Shark
Henry Flower

Once again, I’m back in Oxford for my annual summer working holiday. I love this place. This quintessentially English city offers beautiful colleges, the world’s coolest museum, even the chance to bump into the Queen.

But all this pales in comparison to the sight of a giant shark crashing into a roof.

The Oxford suburb of Headington is a bit dull, so local resident Bill Heine at 2 New High Street decided to commission sculptor John Buckley to create a 25-foot shark to adorn his roof. It was put up on August 9, 1986, the 41st anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. As Heine explained, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation … It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”

The clipboard Nazis in the local council were not amused. They tried to have it removed as a pubic hazard. When their engineer said it was perfectly safe, they tried various other excuses. Much legal wrangling ensued.

Decades later, the naysayers are all gone and the shark is still there. It’s a much-loved local landmark, a modern folly. I see it every time I come in on the bus from London and enjoy pointing it out to newcomers. There’s even a Headington Shark Appreciation Society on Facebook with more than a thousand members. So if you’re coming to Oxford, pop on over and see the Headington Shark.

Shakespeare Slept Here: Hidden Old Room In Oxford Once Hosted The Bard

ShakespeareBehind an eighteenth-century facade in downtown Oxford, just above a clothing shop, is a bedroom that was once used by William Shakespeare.

It was part of the Crown Tavern, owned by Shakespeare’s friend John Davenant. The Bard frequently stopped in Oxford on his trips between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. A nearby courtyard may have hosted his troupe’s performances.

Known as the Painted Room, it’s been remarkably preserved since Elizabethan times and still has hand-painted wall decoration from the late 16th century. This rare artwork survived thanks to oak paneling installed in the following century, and was only rediscovered in 1927.

Part of the decoration includes a religious text:
“And last of thi rest be thou
Gods servante for that hold I best / In the mornynge earlye
Serve god devoutlye
Feare god above allthynge. . .”

This week the Oxford Preservation Trust is offering guided tours of the Painted Room. If you can’t make it, BBC has posted a video tour of the room, led by some silly guy in an anachronistic tricorne hat. The Trust is also working on making the rooms permanently available to the public.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Bumping Into Queen Elizabeth II In Oxford

Queen Elizabeth IIIt’s not every day that you bump into Queen Elizabeth II on your way to work.

Walking from my house to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to research my next book, I noticed a large crowd and dozens of cops outside Christ Church College. It turned out the Queen was coming to take part in an old English tradition – giving away Maundy Money.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, and since the Middle Ages, English monarchs have been giving away money on this day. Since the 17th century this has taken the form of a special issue of coins and the tradition developed to give them to old people who have shown good service to the Church and community. The monarchs used to wash people’s feet too, but that ended with James II.

I joined the crowd lining the street and waited for the Queen and Royal Consort, Prince Philip. I hadn’t seen them since taking part in the Field of Remembrance ceremony at Westminster back in 2000 and so I was looking forward to seeing them again. We really haven’t been keeping in touch as much as we should. Perhaps I should friend them on Facebook.

The crowd was a mixture of tourists and locals, some waving flags sold by an old man who hurried from one side of the street to the other, completely ignoring the cops who were trying to clear the way.

The royal motorcade soon appeared with her and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in the back of a beautiful old Rolls Royce. A great cheer rose up from the crowd and everyone waved. The Queen looked her usual regal and relaxed self and gave her trademark wrist-only wave. She didn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. Prince Philip gave a more enthusiastic wave but I couldn’t help noticing he was beginning to show the burden of his 91 years.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that this is the first time in almost 400 years that the ceremony has taken place in Oxford, so I was incredibly lucky to stumble on it. It’s one of those coincidences that always make up the highlights of any trip.

Tradition holds that the monarch rewards a number of people equal to her age, and so the Queen gave coins to 87 worthy people at Christ Church Cathedral in the college. Soon after the ceremony she headed out of town. Sadly, she didn’t have time to stop for a pint with me. Maybe next time. Long Live The Queen!

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. It was one of those "I really should have brought my camera" days]

Ashmolean Museum In Oxford Receives Major Gift Of Renaissance Art

Ashmolean Museum
Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has received a major bequest in the form of nearly 500 works of Renaissance gold and silver from the collection of Michael Wellby (1928–2012), the museum has announced.

Wellby was a well-known antiques dealer specializing in German and Flemish silver of the 16th and 17th centuries. He ran a shop in London for many years. As is typical with antiques dealers, he kept some of the best pieces for his personal collection.

Some of the pieces were made for royalty, like a silver gilt ewer made in Portugal c.1510-15 that bears the Royal Arms of Portugal. Another stunning item is a lapis lazuli bowl with gold mounts made in Prague in c. 1608 by the Dutch goldsmith Paulus van Vianen. Many of the pieces incorporate exotic materials such as ostrich eggs and nautilus shell, items that were just becoming available to the wealthy of Europe through the new global trade routes.

The collection will go on display in a temporary gallery this month and will remain there until a new permanent gallery is opened to house the collection. The Ashmolean already has an impressive collection of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern art, including a large display of English silver.

The Ashmolean, like the equally famous Pitt-Rivers, are both free museums, making Oxford a good budget travel destination.

[Photo copyright The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford]

%Gallery-177873%
Share on Tumblr

6-Year-Old Saves Manet Painting For UK (With A Little Help)

ManetLast weekend my family and I visited the Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford. My 6-year-old son loves this place because of all the headless statues, the bow you can use to shoot deer in the Prehistoric Europe room, and the gold coin of the Roman emperor Julian, who he’s named after.

In the European art section we came across several paintings by Manet. One was “Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus,” painted in 1868. The Ashmolean has been campaigning to keep this painting in the UK.

As an Ashmolean press release explains, “The painting was purchased by a foreign buyer in 2011 for £28.35 million. Following advice from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, the picture was judged to be of outstanding cultural importance and was placed under a temporary export bar … the painting was made available to a British public institution for 27% of its market value.”

So the museum set out to raise £7.83 million ($12.25 million). Julian puzzled through the fundraising plea with a serious look on his face, reached into his pocket for some coins, and plunked them in the box.

Three days later the Ashmolean announced they’d raised the money.

This is what I love about museums. They connect people with the world’s heritage. In some cases, like with the Ashmolean, they connect them for free. Art like this doesn’t belong in the living room of some asshole banker who makes his money from sub-prime mortgages and keeps it in offshore accounts. More and more, art and antiquities are seen as investments for the super rich, commodities to be bought and sold instead of appreciated. I’ve had to mingle with these plastic people in galleries like Sotheby’s in London. It’s the only chance I have to see the art for sale there before it disappears into a private collection.

I don’t even like Manet all that much, but that’s not the point. His work has touched millions of people for more than a century. So congratulations, Ashmolean, thanks for keeping this painting in the public eye where it belongs. And thanks for teaching my kid an important lesson in democracy.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]