The JCR Art Collection was established in 1947 by Anthony Emery, a mature undergraduate who came to Pembroke to read History following his return from WWII. While imprisoned during the war, Emery and some of his friends staged a parody of the famous, or infamous, opening of the 1938 London International Surrealist Exhibition. In particular, the group attempted to recreate a stunt in which Salvador Dali delivered a lecture in a full diving suit ... and almost suffocated in the process. According to Emery, the jokes that their parody relied on fell rather flat because only a very small handful of his fellow prisoners had ever even heard of Surrealism. This caused Emery to begin thinking of ways to combat what he called "the ignorance of the majority about the art of their own time". It was at Pembroke that he happened upon a way to do this. Upon his arrival at the College, Emery suggested to his fellow students that an Art Collection might be established to provide the Junior Common Room with good modern pictures, as well as a measure of patronage for modern painters of promise who have yet to achieve fame. However, the Collection's raison d'etre soon came to include the hire of pictures by JCR members for display in their rooms. This system of loaning works to students is still in place today.
Famously in 1953, the JCR confirmed its commitment to contemporary art, and secured its place in Oxford's collecting vanguard, with the acquisition of Francis Bacon's Man in a Chair. Peter Triffett, Chairman of the 1953 Art Committee, explained how the purchase came about: "On the verge of exhaustion, after we had visited many unsatisfactory exhibitions, we went into a basement gallery off Bond Street [Beaux Arts Gallery] where a man called Francis Bacon had a small one man show. The impact of the painting was immediate and powerful, so powerful that we decided to spend the entire fund for that year on the one painting." The purchase was not well received. A remembered comment is: "Who on earth would want that sort of painting in their rooms!" Remarkably, the JCR actually censured the Art Committee for "wasting" its funds. In 1997, the JCR decided to transform the Art Collection into a registered charity known as THE PEMBROKE COLLEGE JCR ART COLLECTION FUND. The Francis Bacon that was bought in 1953 for £150 was sold for £400,000 to endow the charity and facilitate its mission of relieving student hardship, supporting student charitable endeavours, acquiring new works of art, and maintaining the existing Collection.
In 2005, a gallery was opened in the College to house the collection, which was a superb seventeenth-century room with original wall panelling and vaulted ceiling. This project was overseen by Lynne Henderson, one of the permanent members of the Art Fund Committee and was completed with the assistance of members of Pembroke College maintenance team and with much support from the Governing Body. The collection was re-hung, with the enthusiastic help of Members of the Art Fund Committee, on 26 May 2006 and was officially opened for guests at the annual Garden Party.
Today, the collection resides in its own purpose built gallery space. The gallery stands at the bottom of the the Rokos Quad, which was formally opened by HRH The Duke of Kent KG at a ceremony in April 2013. It is named for Foundation Fellow and benefactor of the College, Chris Rokos (alumnus, 1989) who gave the lead gift to the Pembroke Bridging Centuries fundraising campaign which went on to raise £17m to fund the new buildings complex which now surrounds the quad. The new build has allowed all works on show to now be hung and lit in a manner befitting the quality of the collection.
Currently, the Collection numbers over 200 paintings, drawings, photographs and prints and is growing. The collection now contains works by some of the most notable post-war British artists, such as Sir Terry Frost, Dame Elisabeth Frink, Lynn Chadwick, Humphrey Spender, Duncan Grant, Mary Fedden, Graham Clarke, Christopher Orr, Dominic Greaves, John Piper, Julian Trevelyan and Patrick Heron. In recent years, the Committee has been able to allocate approximately £2,000 per year to the restoration of older pieces and the acquisition of new ones, with the aim to aquire at least one notable work of art by a contemporary British artist every year.
The fact that the JCR enthusiastically embraced Emery's idea is almost as extraordinary as the idea itself. Students agreed to have £1 per term added to their battels in order to create a fund for the purchase of art - this at a time when money was extraordinarily scarce.Pembroke's JCR was the very first in Oxford (or Cambridge, for that matter) to establish an art collection. But many other colleges were soon inspired to establish collections according to the Pembroke model. Oxbridge JCR collecting received quite a lot of coverage in the national media - most of it very positive. There was some scepticism as well. An amusing article in a 1959 edition of the Spectator by John Hale asserts: "Your Oxford undergraduate is 30 times more likely to become the subject of a painting himself than he is ever to look seriously at a work of art ". Not so at Pembroke, where the JCR was very serious about its art. Anthony Emery managed to convince Sir Kenneth Clark, Oxford's Slade Professor of Art and former Director of the National Gallery, to serve as the JCR's 'Eminent Voluntary Buyer'. Between 1947 and 1950 Clark acquired 19 works for the Collection - works by artists such as John Piper, Duncan Grant, John Minton and Victor Pasmore. These pictures were regularly loaned to national and international travelling exhibitions organized by the Arts Council and the British Council, and the Pembroke Collection was widely recognized as being one of the finest collections of contemporary art in the country.
Emery as part of the 1st Eight in 1946, 4th from the left, middle row.
After: The Gallery Today (2013 - present)
Before: the Old Gallery (2005-2013)