Bodleian Libraries

Gerrit van Honthorst, Portrait of Princess Palatine Elizabeth, oil on canvas; Richard Rothwell, Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1840-43), oil on board (all images courtesy the Bodleian Library)

The Bodleian Library acts as something of the University of Oxford’s cerebral hub with over 11 million items, but what has been an inaccessible secret is its large holding of art.

Bodleian Libraries

Unknown artist, Portrait of George Buchanan (16th century, oil on panel

Now 300 of its paintings are now viewable on Your Paintings hosted by the BBC. While by their own admission “the quality of the artworks is not uniformly high,” the oil paintings do offer an intriguing look at the evolution of portraiture from the 1600s on, as well as something of a yearbook of the authors, administrators, and donors whose work has formed the base of the Bodleian Library. The acquisitions started in 1602 and they were originally on view to all in England’s first public gallery, yet for years they retreated to storage or private reading rooms and offices with only about 30 being on display to the public.

Now anyone can see them online, such as a portrait of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in a flowing blue dress with a rose in hand, dark lace twined around her pale arms. There’s also a portrait of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, with just the barest of lines suggesting it might be after he lost his nose in a duel (caused by an argument over a mathematical question) and chose to wear a prosthetic, as well as what has to be the least flattering portrait of French author Michel de Montaigne. The large part of the oil paintings are portraits of the European upperclass, as that’s generally who was donating and bequeathing the paintings, although there are some outside this scope, such as an 18th century Qajar portrait of Fath Ali Shah Qajar, who ruled Persia from 1797 to 1834.

Bodleian Libraries

Wilhelm Sonmans, Portrait of William of Wykeham (1670), oil on canvas; Cornelis Ketel, Portrait of explorer Sir Martin Frobisher (1577)

Bodleian Libraries

Unknown artist, Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, oil on canvas; Unknown artist, Portrait of Fath Ali Shah Qajar (1797), oil on canvas

Many of these portraits are by anonymous artists, although there are works by such notable portrait painters of England as Robert Peake, Godfrey Kneller, and Peter Lely. The digitizing was done by the Public Catalogue Foundation, which started in 2002 as a nonprofit aimed at this making the art of public collections more visible. Although you could make an appointment and travel to the City of Dreaming Spires and get face-to-face with the stout portrayal of Napoleon or the gloomy portrait of Scottish historian George Buchanan, that isn’t quite the public ease of access that the donors of these paintings likely intended. Now all the faces of the Bodleian Library can stare out from screens anywhere in the world for the widest public access possible.

Bodleian Libraries

Unknown artist, Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596), oil on canvas; Unknown artist, Portrait of Michel de Montaigne, oil on canvas

The Bodleian Library paintings are viewable online at BBC – Your Paintings.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...