In seventh week of this term, the Pembroke College JCR Gallery will open its doors to the public for the first time in its history. In doing so, it will join the coterie of Oxford’s ‘secret galleries’, most of them hidden within colleges, or down side alleys across the city.
The Pembroke JCR Art Collection is mostly the product of a series of happy accidents, and it had an unusual genesis. Its origins lie in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, where a young British soldier, Anthony Emery, was held during World War Two. During his incarceration, Emery staged a parody of the 1938 ‘London International Surrealism Exhibition’ which, perhaps understandably, fell rather flat among his audience of fellow prisoners. But the bruised pride of the young soldier was impetus enough for him to establish, upon arriving at Pembroke in 1947, an undergraduate art collection; to correct what he believed was an ‘ignorance about the art of our time’.
Perhaps the happiest accident of all was the acquisition, in 1950, of Francis Bacon’s Man in a Chair. Art buying had been entrusted by the JCR to a small committee, who after traipsing across London galleries for hours, happened upon the studio of a then little-known artist, Francis Bacon. So taken were the committee with Bacon’s paintings that they resolved to spend the entire year’s fund – approximately 150GBP – on Man in a Chair; much to the dismay of their fellow students, one of whom commented, ‘Who on earth would want that in their room!’. Sadly, no longer can the Bacon painting be seen in the Pembroke Gallery. In 1997, the committee realised no longer could they meet the rising costs of insuring the painting, and it was sold to a private collector for 400,000.
The public opening of the Pembroke Gallery comes at a time when Pembroke, and other art committees in colleges across Oxford, are beginning to reassess their role in the contemporary art world. Lincoln College have agreed to lend Pembroke a painting for their upcoming major exhibition, and Nuffield college have taken on Paul Hobson (Director of Modern Art Oxford) as a visiting fellow to advise them on their impressive contemporary art collection.
By another strange and happy accident, Emery’s system of art buying means the Pembroke JCR Art Collection – now worth nearly a million pounds – is controlled solely by undergraduate students. This gives students a sense of agency over our collection which is unique in Oxford. As Chair of the Art Fund Committee, I collaborate with our curator, Sarah Hegenbart, to grow our collection and art-related talks and events throughout the year. In Trinity, Pembroke will hold its first major public exhibition, with works loaned from the Royal Academy; and to celebrate our public opening,
Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, will be giving a talk in the college. More details to follow for these events; but in the meantime, as the Pembroke Gallery moves decisively onto the Oxford art scene, perhaps the Collection will be not so ‘secret’, anymore.