Since the nineteenth century, the University of Oxford has played a significant role in the visual arts. Although during this time it was not a subject in its own right, the history of art was promoted in Oxford for its value within the type of general education the University aimed to provide for students. The Slade Lectures, which were founded in pursuance of the will of Felix Slade in 1869, focused on art historical topics, as they continue to do so today. John Ruskin delivered his first lecture as the Slade Professor of Fine Art in 1870. The Slade Professorship in conjunction with the University’s museums, libraries and college collections helped to foster a wider interest in the history of art.
History of Art was previously pursued as strands within history, languages, archaeology, continuing education and practical art, rather than through a dedicated undergraduate or postgraduate curriculum. The beginnings of a Department of the History of Art, with its own slide library, can be traced back to 1955, when the first Professor of the History of Art was appointed by the History Faculty. The first incumbent of this Professorship was Professor Edgar Wind, whose lectures used famously to fill the Oxford Playhouse to overflowing. A 1958 edition of the University magazine Isis joked that his lectures for the following term were scheduled for the Albert Hall. Wind's successor in 1967 was Professor Francis Haskell, who substantiated the link between artists and their social contexts through documentary research on patronage, taste and collecting in early modern Europe. The career of the next Professor (1995-2007), the leading Leonardo scholar Professor Martin Kemp, stresses the work of the artist as a modeller and empirical investigator of the world. The current Professor, Professor Craig Clunas, has published extensively on the art history and culture of China, with much of his work concentrating on the Ming period, with additional teaching and research interests in the art of 20th century and contemporary China.
During 2001, the expansion of the Department was exemplified by the move of both the Department and the Centre of Visual Studies to Littlegate House, St Ebbe’s, a purpose-designed, expanded and much modernised facility. Prior to 2004, only graduate-level courses and degrees were offered within the Department, although members of the Department were also involved in undergraduate courses and tutorials offered principally through the History Faculty. The first cohort for the undergraduate B.A. degree in the History of Art arrived in 2004.
The Diploma in History of Art was a pre-cursor to the current MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture, running from the 1960s to 1996.
Students who undertook the one year Diploma were required to have a BA Degree. The assessment method was an examination which included both written work and an oral examination, with the two main areas of study being ‘French Art and Art Criticism in the 19th century’ and ‘Art and Architecture in Renaissance Italy’.
Records suggest that the number of students in each cohort was relatively small, with a maximum of 7 students undertaking the Diploma each year.
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