A statement in response to Black Lives Matter

The History of Art department joins with the rest of the university and the wider community in expressing its anger and sorrow over the recent racial violence we have all witnessed in the United States. That sorrow is joined by frustration that the spectre of racism continues to haunt the United Kingdom, in word and deed, leading to fear and prejudice and denying equal opportunities to many in our society. This is a moment when we all need to reflect on our own complicity in the current state of affairs, and actively seek ways to demonstrate our tolerance and respect for difference and diversity.  As a department, we need to ensure that both our recruitment procedures and our teaching embrace that diversity and ensure fairness for all. As art historians, we need to think about how our own practices address themselves to these same issues. Representation is a key issue in both propagating racism and advocating for justice. In this context, our skills in analysing images and debating their meanings and significance have never been more crucial. The questions we ask in our research, and the ways in which we engage with and listen to others, manifest within the microcosm of academia the kind of society in which we would all like to live.

Dr Jon Whiteley 1945–2020

The Department of the History of Art mourns the loss of its great friend and invaluable colleague Dr Jon Whiteley, who died on 16 May. A renowned scholar of French art, Jon spent most of his professional career in a curatorial role at the Ashmolean Museum. Jon’s knowledge and love of the collections of Western Art ran very deep. His last major publication, a catalogue of the Ashmolean’s French paintings since 1800, will be published next year. Alongside his scholarship, Jon was also an extraordinary communicator and teacher. His early formation as an Oscar-winning child actor in films remained evident, as he held diverse audiences rapt in front of paintings in the Museum. (The Bodleian Library catalogue contains not only his many learned publications but some of the films in which he starred, including Hunted (1952, with Dirk Bogarde), Moonfleet (1955, directed by Fritz Lang) and The Spanish Gardener (1956, again with Bogarde).) In talks unlike any others in the genre, he would deliver orations of beautiful and memorable clarity.

Jon believed strongly in the teaching role of the Museum, and he inducted numerous undergraduates into the world of nineteenth-century French art. His pupils learned unforgettable lessons in the value both of close looking at images and of critical attention to the language of contemporary criticism. The rigour of his teaching set an admirable if at times daunting example; but his underlying kindness and sense of humour were always close to the surface. His inspirational guidance, combined with his invariably dapper appearance, gave him a cult status with his students.

He had taken his first degree in history at Oxford, progressing to study the history of art with Professor Francis Haskell. Haskell was a model of the art historian who combined an attentive eye for the artwork with extensive archival research and an interest in the social context of art. Together with Haskell, Jon and his wife, Linda, herself a scholar and teacher in the same field, taught several generations of graduates taking the Diploma in Art History which preceded the Master’s degree,  contributing a significant chapter to the long story of the history of art in Oxford University.

With the foundation of the BA degree in the History of Art in 2004, Jon and Linda became significant collaborators with the expanded Department. Both have contributed to the shaping and delivery of the new syllabus, and have been unfailingly generous in their supervision and guidance of both undergraduate and graduate students. Fortunately for the Department, Linda continues her connection as a Research Associate. In the context of art history in Oxford, the two have stood for a combination of historical research with close attention to the object of study which leaves an important legacy – one to be treasured.