Choices at Churchill: collection as dialogue

I am standing in Churchill College on a rainy afternoon, in front of Four-Square (Walk Through) (1966), a monumental sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Next to me, Barry Phipps, the College’s curator and an expert in modern and contemporary British art, is telling me about the history of the collection. Before us, the imposing four-piece bronze construction looms over our heads. The natural golden tone of the material is covered by a thick, dark patina that makes the object turn a variety of shades between green and black. Two square slabs of bronze, set vertically onto a concrete pedestal, support two other slabs of the same dimensions, set transversely. Each of the four components is pierced by a circular hole, which creates an interesting interplay between the hard geometrical borders of the square and the curving lines within them. In fact, the whole artwork is a game of contrasting elements, alternating straight and curvilinear lines, positive and negative space. Since the two levels of the construction are set one transverse to the other, every side of the piece appears equally complex, and the viewer is invited to walk around, enjoying the artwork over a period of time. Every impression is different from the next.

Barbara Hepworth's 'Four-Square (Walk Through)' sits in ChurchillPeter Minnig

As we are talking, Phipps tells me that Four-Square (Walk Through) was not the first piece by Barbara Hepworth to occupy the College grounds when it was installed in the late 1960s. In fact, it succeeded Square with Two Circles, which had been given to the college as a temporary loan. This too was a monumental bronze statue, made of three joint vertical plaques pierced by two circular holes. The concept resembles that of Four-Square. However, Square with Two Circles is far flatter than its successor. It favours a frontal mode of engagement, while the other work encompasses several different points of view, depending on the position of the observer. Arguably, the presence of multiple points of view better suits the context where it is now set, in the middle of a green lawn surrounded by the college’s buildings. As one walks around, the object’s image is juxtaposed with fragments and details of the brown brick structures behind it, changing its overall appearance. Churchill has unusually lofty spaces for an Oxbridge college and the low Brutalist buildings alternate with broad lawns. The architects who worked on the College favoured simple geometrical shapes of imposing volume. According to Phipps, the resulting style is “bold, modern and poetic,” and the openness of Hepworth’s creation turns it into a monumental frame of this peculiar collegescape.

When Square with Two Circles was removed, the students of the College, showing an unexpected attachment to the piece, decided to reconstruct their own “mini-Hepworth” made of bricks. An historical sepia picture in the college archives shows it. I do not know whether Hepworth would have been flattered by the comparison, but she was definitely moved. When she found out about the reproduction, she decided to offer a new work to replace the previous one. As Mr Phipps points out, the voluntary origin of many works of art at Churchill is an important factor for the collection, which does not have a dedicated fund for new acquisitions. In fact, the collection has been able to grow thanks to the interest of students and fellows, who over the years have either donated new works or catalysed the collaboration between artists and the college. Four-Square has remained important in defining Churchill’s identity, and, on a lighter note, it acts as the backdrop in many pictures taken by students in formal attire heading to formal or the annual spring ball.

Pictured: Bernard Meadows' 'Pointing Figure with Child' in ChurchillPeter Minnig

As we continue our visit, I ask Mr Phipps about the process behind new acquisitions. He describes this as a moment of encounter with the artist. “Thoughts are exchanged and relationship develops”, he says, pointing out that Churchill’s collection has grown out of a direct interest of the College’s members in the visual arts. Peculiarly, the College is the only one in Cambridge to own two paintings made by its founder, Sir Winston Churchill, who was also an amateur painter. These, together with a variety of portraits of Churchill himself by notable artists such as Jacob Epstein and Oscar Nemon, constituted the original core of the collection.

Churchill is a virtuous example of how engaging initiatives can create a dialogue between students and the art world through the colleges and their collections

As I ask Phipps about the relation of Churchill’s students with the collection, he acknowledges that it is difficult to assess the immediate influence of the artwork on students. But he points out that Churchill has been quite proactive in seeking the students’ collaboration. The Sizarship programme, for example, allows two students each year to take part in the collection by promoting it among the JCR and MCR. Moreover, the College has an Artist Fellowship scheme, which is a legacy of artists being associated with the College from the outset; for example, Henry Moore was an Honorary Fellow who displayed a number of sculptures at Churchill during its early years.

I reflect on what I have just seen. Churchill is one of the most recently founded colleges in the University, and yet it has managed to amass a formidable collection of artworks over a few decades. Following the words of my host, I see that the key agent in this process of growth seems to lie in the direct engagement of the College’s founder, fellows, and students from the early beginning. Churchill is a virtuous example of how engaging initiatives can create a dialogue between students and the artworld through the colleges and their collections.

Horses and history in Jesus College

Jesus College has a quite different history, as Dr Donal Cooper is about to tell me. We are sitting in his office, which overlooks the spacious College gardens. Cooper, an expert in Italian Medieval art, has been recently appointed curator of the collection, which holds sculptures by renowned artists such as Barry Flanagan and Eduardo Paolozzi. The College was founded in 1496 by Bishop Alcock of Ely, following the dissolution of the Benedictine nunnery whose chapel and cloister still constitutes the core of the College. Despite its famous sculpture park, Jesus’ historic collection is limited in comparison to other colleges and mainly features portraits, prints, and Dutch genre scenes. In fact, the College’s fame as an art site is quite recent and began during the mastership of Lord Andrew Colin Renfrew (1986-1996), whose specialisation in archaeology and archaic Greek sculpture mingled with a personal interest in contemporary sculpture. Lord Renfrew cultivated relationships with influential sculptors and began Sculpture in the Close, a biannual sculpture exhibition on the College grounds. In Cooper’s own words, Lord Renfrew “put contemporary sculpture at the centre of the college,” transforming its identity radically.

The Bronze Horse sits in the centre of Jesus College's First CourtPeter Minnig

An example of Lord Renfrew’s wise policy is Bronze Horse by Barry Flanagan, a long-term loan secured thanks to the contacts between the artist and the then-master, and gifted to the College in 2009. It is located in the middle of First Court, whose centre is a squared patch of grass hosting the statue. The title is pretty self-explanatory – I am looking at a bronze statue of a horse with one leg raised from the ground. The pose recalls the long tradition of equestrian statues throughout the history of Western art, from the Marcus Aurelius in Rome to the four horses of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. However, something in the comparison does not seem quite right, as Jesus’ horse appears weirdly small and chubby. In fact, it looks more like a pony than an actual horse.

Young as it looks, perhaps the horse in the statue symbolizes the student. This little horse is posed as majestic historical horses would be, but only through careful training and practice could such a small horse achieve the greatness of its predecessors. Since I arrived at Jesus in October 2016, I have passed in front of the statue endless times, and I see it as the centre of my own university experience (though in a slightly aspirational way): a journey of discovery, personal growth, and self-realisation embodied by a single work of art.

Since I arrived at Jesus in October 2016, I have been passing in front of the statue endless times, and I see it as the centre of my own university experience

Dr Cooper observes that the statue completes the space of First Court. Flanagan’s work is located in the middle of the three-sided court, surrounded by a plain set of red-brick buildings where the only notable detail is the late-Tudor tower, the so-called chimney, overlooking the College’s entrance, adding a touch of solemnity to the space. The horse stands in the middle of the grass, right in front of the archway which leads into Cloister Court, the oldest side of the College, which belonged to the old nunnery. As one walks from there toward the entrance, the horse’s disoriented gaze appears in the middle of the arch. Cooper points out that the horse has become the visual centre of the court, attracting the gaze of those who enter the College. As a student living on Jesus’ grounds, I can only agree – the statue is effectively a symbol of the College both within and outside its borders.

I ask Dr Cooper about the collection and its development. Like Churchill, the College does not have an acquisition fund. Potential loans and donations are all discussed by an art committee, composed of Fellows of the College with an interest in the visual arts. Even though there are not specific criteria concerning the content of the collection, the art committee ensures that the quality of the works remains consistent. Unlike Churchill, Jesus does not have a scheme for artists in residence, even though last year the college hosted the renowned American painter Hernan Bas. With a note of pride, Dr Cooper adds that Bas’s production while in Cambridge was particularly prolific – an encouraging signal that this experience is worth extending. In his view, one of the main challenges is not only providing artists with the means of living (Bas’s residence was sponsored thanks to the generosity of an external donor) but also finding an appropriate studio space for them to work in.

Cooper also explains that he intends to improve the collaboration between the collection and the students in both the JCR and the MCR. Jesus JCR owns a peculiarly good collection of art, which is separate from the College’s and allows students to borrow pieces to decorate their rooms. I have personally benefited from this scheme and I appreciate the possibility of engaging with an image for a prolonged period of time, especially in a space as personal as one’s private room. In this regard, Dr Cooper hopes that the College may benefit in the future from a more cohesive engagement in the arts among its members. The peculiar case of Lord Renfrew shows how much individual initiative can benefit the whole collection.

These galleries offer the colleges a great occasion to enrich both their own collections and the city’s artistic landscape by opening up to the broader public

Toward the end of our interview, I ask Dr Cooper about the recent West Court development campaign, which has given the College a new gallery space. While describing the addition as part of the College, he underlines that West Court is outward looking and its entrance for the public on Jesus Lane aims at creating a point of contact with the outside world. Dr Cooper also praises the Heong Gallery at Downing College, which has proved that colleges can play a key role in fostering artistic engagement with professional standards. Since its opening in 2016, the Heong Gallery has indeed hosted notable exhibitions, including Cubes and Trees by the outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. These galleries offer the colleges a great occasion to enrich both their own collections and the city’s artistic landscape by opening up to the broader public.

Art down alleys in Murray Edwards

For the last stage of my tour, I visit Murray Edwards, whose outstanding collection, founded in the 1990s, gathers the works of prominent women artists,  making the college one of few examples of this kind in Europe. My interest in the College stems from the fact that the collection is not gathered in a single space but rather spread throughout the rooms and alleys of the big 1960s concrete complex that hosts the institution, offering an unprecedented degree of connection with the works of art. For this reason, I am here to interview some students about their experience

The college is home to Beth Fisher's 'Hanging the Laundry and Feeding the Cats' Evelina Gumileva

I meet Constance, a fellow art historian, and I ask her about the influence of the collection on her daily life. She points out that living among works of art made by successful women artists provides an empowering environment and fulfils Murray Edward’s vocation as a female college. For this reason, Constance argues, the College’s collection creates a wonderful synergy with its student body. Imogen, an Engineering student, agrees and adds that the collection makes the College much more open toward the outside world, as people are allowed to wander around and look at the pieces on display. As I walk around the corridors, the works of art hang from the walls humbly, one after another. The space does not have the same imposing aura of a museum, even though the works are able to shine thanks to the simple, repetitive form of the architectural setting.

The space does not have the same imposing aura of a museum, even though the works are able to shine thanks to the simple, repetitive form of the architectural setting

When I ask about the students’ engagement with the art, the responses vary. Constance says that she often sees students commenting on the arrival of a new piece or the removal of an old one (the works rotate throughout the year), although some students find contemporary art difficult to interact with. Nadia, who studies Natural Sciences, is more pessimistic and says that many are indifferent, limiting the engagement with those works exhibited across the main walkways. Even though Constance points out that students receive termly emails about the changes to the collection, the level of personal engagement still depends on one’s own interest. For this reason, Nadia suggests that the College should give the students a say in what is displayed. I immediately think of what I have seen at Churchill, where the Sizarship programme allows student representatives to sit in the hanging committee.

Finally, I ask the students about their favourite works of art. Everyone gives different responses, showing that students are aware of the collection and have gathered their own favourites. The piece is that is mentioned more often is Birds by Tracey Emin. The work consists of a lithograph of two small birds alongside with an inspirational quote – “You inspire me with your determination and I love you.” According to Constance, the artwork embodies the spirit of the College and the positive attitude of its hard-working student community, thus showing how art can complement or craft the aura of a space. Nadia mentions Blue Stretched Diamond by Liza Gough Daniels, a painting with a peculiarly elongated rhombus frame. The piece uses a variety of shades of blue, grey, and yellow to create a crystal pattern which vaguely resembles the cross-section of a slab of polychrome marble. The colour is vivid and enlivens the otherwise monotone architecture of the College.

Murray Edwards houses Europe's largest collection of women's art Evelina Gumileva

Murray Edwards’ collection is distinctive in the way it focuses specifically on contemporary women artists. This is particularly relevant because of the nature of the College as a female institution, which adds a further layer of complexity to the interaction between the art and the College’s inhabitants.

The collection adds a further layer of complexity to the interaction between the art and the college’s inhabitants

However, the interviews suggest that the mere presence of the works of art does not guarantee students’ engaging with the collection. As Marcel Duchamp provocatively said, artworks die when placed in a museum. No work of art is such without the interaction with its public. Both the cases of Churchill and Jesus show how beneficial individual engagement can be. This is an invite to all of us as students to get involved and participate in the artistic heritage of our own colleges.

Understanding the works of art around us will make our experience richer and multi-faceted, adding further complexity to the already dense historical background of Cambridge. And our own individual care can contribute to the artwork (think of Hepworth’s statue at Churchill, the result of the students’ interest and affection) and possibly bring more beauty to the places where we live, study and grow as humans.