Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Disturbing images

The saga of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel continues. The latest developments are recorded by the Daily Telegraph at cecil-rhodes-statue-taken-oxfords-oriel-college/, by the Daily Mail at Cecil Rhodes WILL fall: Oriel College in Oxford opts to remove statue and by the BBC at Rhodes protesters continue fight after statue vote.

I made my view reasonably clear in my recent post Iconoclasticism and stand by what I wrote there.

As I reflected on this latest instance of what and who are not deemed “politically correct” my thoughts as a historian strayed down Oxford High Street to a building from the era when Rhodes was alive, the University Examination Schools. This is one of the least appreciated buildings of the city, rarely if ever open to the public, but a spectacular creation to house lectures and examinations. After the soaring entrance hall one goes along a gleaming marble-paved corridor past smaller lecture rooms and then up the grand staircase - and it is grand with it generous use of marble and polished granite - there are portraits of British monarchs, most prominent a huge copy of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Coronation portrait of King George IV, which continue on the landing. In the North School are portraits of past Chancellors - Curzon et al and portraits of others from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The even grander South School houses a copy of Alan Ramsey’s Coronation portrait of King George III and those of foreign monarchs upon whom the University of Oxford has conferred degrees, and here is to be found my favourite in the whole collection. 

To the left of the podium is a full length portrait in the crimson robes of an Oxford DCL of His Imperial Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm II. One is, even now, taken slightly aback upon first seeing it, but there it very clearly is.

Emperor Wilhelm II
Alfred Schwarz, 1908
Image: vads.ac.uk

The German Emperor stands in a suitably majestic pose, wearing the riband of the Order of the Garter, the Garter Itself below his knee, and with a Prussian decoration at his neck. His jacket is the Windsor Uniform, created by King George III for his family to wear at the Castle.

The University has conferred the degree of DCL upon the Emperor in 1907 and in return he presented his portrait - it was the sort of gesture he was keen on doing. There is a photograph of the Kaiser thus attired posing for the portrait, which is by Alfred Schwarz of Berlin and dates from 1908. This was close to the time of the Emperor’s stay at Highcliffe near Christchurch and his less than successful, however well intentioned, Daily Telegraph interview. The painting had arrived by January 1909 and was initially hung in the galley at the Ashmolean and then in June it was moved to the Schools.

The painting seems to aim to symbolise Anglo-German shared identity at the highest level, the shared traditions of two Royal houses, of a shared northern European culture, of the mutual public recognition of academic excellence.

Five or so years afterwards, the subject himself having been ejected from the Order of the Garter, the painting disappeared into store as being fairly obviously unsuitable - or vulnerable - when the building became a military field hospital. Rolled up it went into store but in 1957 it reappeared, when it was rehung in the South School.

In a way it is comparable to those War Memorials at Balliol and New which include German members who were casualties of one or other of the World Wars. In Oxford membership of a college outranks mere nationality. It is a path to reconciliation of countries and traditions, to share and transcend them, and that was part of the vision of the benefactor to the University who established their scholarships and, oh dear, they were Rhodes Scholars...

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