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Celebrating VE Day and Our Founder Antony Emery

This weekend marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the end of WWII.

Portrait of Antony Emery

We all owe a lot to those who fought, died and lived through the war and rebuilt and progressed society, politics, law, medicine, economics and culture during the post-war period. The Pembroke College JCR Art Collection is particularly indebted to one man who fought during WWII – Antony Emery (1919 – 2015), who was the driving force behind the establishment of the Collection in 1947. He was brought up in South Africa and India, arriving at Pembroke as a mature undergraduate to read History in 1947 after 6 years as an Army Infantry Officer.

But the story really starts much earlier in 1943 when Emery was taken a prisoner of war by the Italians during an operation in North Africa. He managed to escape as he was being transported to a POW camp and spent some time on the run only to be recaptured by a German ski and taken to a POW camp in Brunswick Germany.

During their imprisonment POWs would often put on reviews to keep their spirits up and for the general entertainment of their fellow prisoners. During one of these reviews Emery and some friends staged a parody of a famous art exhibition held in London in 1936, namely the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition which showed challenging and strange art by Avant-guard artists, including Salvador Dali. Dali arrived wearing a deep sea diving suit carrying a billiard cue and leading a pair of Russian wolfhounds. He gave a lecture entitled ‘Fantomes paranoiaques authentiques’. Dressed in this peculiar way he proceeded to deliver his lecture but was soon gasping for breath due to lack of oxygen. Close to fainting he was rescued by a young surrealist poet, David Gascoyne, who unscrewed the helmet with a spanner which he happened to have in his pocket. Upon his rescue Dali commented “I just wanted to show that I was ‘plunging deeply’ into the human mind”.

Emery’s parody of this event fell rather flat amongst his fellow POWs since only a very small number of them knew about the event. This caused Emery to begin thinking about ways to combat what he called “the ignorance of the majority about art of their own time”.

“There is a growing consciousness in England that to appreciate art would be to double the joy of living, and as this joy has sadly diminished through world troubles, a craving to live more through the mind has grown”.

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. The above quote is from a 1940s magazine called Studio, and offers a potential explanation of why the student body took to Emery’s idea. It seems so relevant in the current situation that art can ‘double the joy of life’ in these desperate times.

Antony Emery at Pembroke

This desire for art was reflected in society, governance and politics. The government exhibited a reinvigorated interest in the cultural life of the nation founding the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946 “for the purpose of developing a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts”. This in turn funded the Institute of Contemporary Art grounded on the assumption that “living and progressive art made for and understood by its contemporaries, is essential in any vital community”. Not surprisingly these post-war years were of seminal importance to the history of collecting art, the very nature of which was in itself changing, invigorated by the post-war vigorous appetite for collecting modern art.

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. 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 battles 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.

Emery persuaded Sir Kenneth Clark, then Oxford’s Slade Professor of Fine Art, previously the Director of the Ashmolean and the National Gallery, to help the students procure art. He became the Collections ‘eminent voluntary buyer’. Together he, Emery and other students visited artist studios and young galleries in search for the emerging modern artists. During the late 1940s and the early 1950s works by now internationally celebrated British artists were acquired including John Piper, John Minton, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Duncan Grant, Cecil Collins, Michael Ayrton, Paul Nash, Peter Ibbetson, Victor Pasmore, Patrick Heron, John Craxton, Prunella Clough, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Lynn Chadwick, Ceri Richards and Frances Bacon.

We owe the current Collection, continued student involvement and inspiring exhibitions to Emery. Discover some of the Collection here.

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