Oxford is a wonderful place for a day trip from London. The college and university buildings are the most obvious attractions, even though some of them are off limits to tourists (take a look at this list of colleges and check the individual links to find out about visiting). But too many tourists neglect the university's many museums and exhibition spaces, whose shows are always interesting and can be spectacular, drawing as they often do on uncommonly rich collections of art, books and manuscripts.
During an early December trip to London, my wife and I boarded an express bus (see below for travel tips) and spent a few hours in Oxford to meet friends for lunch and to see two of those shows: one at the newly expanded Ashmolean Museum and one at the Bodleian Library. We're in the lucky position of knowing the town reasonably well, so we were able to resist the temptation to turn this into a full day of tourism. Even if you're a stranger to the place, however, you may want to make time to take a look at one or both of these exhibitions.
The one that originally drew us to Oxford and was the focus of our day was the Ashmolean's "Threads of Silk and Gold: Ornamental Textiles From Meiji Japan," which runs until January 27. We'd recently been to Japan and thought it might be fun to see this selection of dyed and embroidered decorative works made between the 1860s and the early 20th century -- but intended for the Western market not for Japanese customers. Not surprisingly, little of this exported material is to be found in Japanese museums, and one institution in particular, the Kiyomizu-Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, has been making an effort to collect examples and bring them back to the country in which they were made. Most of the works on display come from that museum; they are supplemented with pieces lent by private owners or drawn from the Ashmolean's own collection.
For the most part, these then-trendy items were used in Victorian homes as wall hangings, draperies and screens and in other decorative ways. So many artists of the era adored them. A couple of photographs (I wish there'd been more) show such fabrics in densely furnished, high-ceilinged English rooms. Nothing could look more different from the spare, compact domestic arrangements in Japan, and to a modern eye the scale seems all wrong: it is odd to see 10 or 12 feet of space between the top of a folding screen and the ceiling.
But then, these are not the sort of fabrics we'd expect to see in a traditional Japanese house: They are themselves busy and crowded, often gaudy in fact. For example, a group of hyper-realistic, highly colored embroideries of animals such as lions look disconcertingly like things you'd see at a sidewalk art show, perhaps painted on velvet. It is as though the makers, with a certain impression of their customers' tastes, were interested less in conforming to Japanese aesthetics than in showing off their technique.
And what technique! Once we got over the shock of the busyness of most of these works, we started looking at them more closely and were bowled over by the perfection of the dyeing and the stitching. In one of the works, "Cranes," the glossy whiteness of the silk threads is almost luminescent, and a piece that appears in the show's publicity material, an embroidered peacock screen, could almost be gold-decorated lacquerware (maki-e). Even those wild-animal panels -- frankly hideous to a 21st-century viewer -- are marvels of needlework and worthy of scrutiny. Presumably, Victorian customers thought they were buying authentic Things Japanese; it would have been useful for the exhibition to address this in greater detail.
Especially if, like us, you tend to think of Japanese artisans as invariably practicing a Zen-like minimalism, spending an hour viewing these works might be a useful correction -- and it will certainly be entertaining.
No less entertaining (and rather more satisfying aesthetically) was a last-minute addition to our itinerary: "Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond," a modestly sized but splendid exhibition at the Bodleian Library which will be open until April 28. It features gorgeous 13th- to 18th-century illustrated manuscripts from Persia, Moghul India and Ottoman Turkey, mostly on the theme of human or divine love. Most museum-goers will have seen at least a few leaves of what are broadly called Persian miniatures, combining calligraphy, illustration and decoration. Here, you will get to see many pages from manuscripts of stories, love poems and semi-mythic histories, full of beauty, joy and emotion.
I wish we'd spent a little more time there, but shadows were lengthening and the London bus beckoned.
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From London you can get to Oxford in as little as 58 minutes by train from Paddington Station, and tickets booked well in advance can be amazingly cheap: We've paid less than £5 ($7.50) each way when we've had sufficient foresight to catch the best online deals at www.nationalrail.co.uk. But typical fares are far higher -- a last-minute round trip ticket could cost the better part of £30 -- and a reliably inexpensive travel option is one of the express bus services that run frequently between the two cities: Oxford Tube and the Oxford Bus Company's X90. The fare is £16 round trip, which you pay as you board without having to commit to a specific time for the return journey.
The bus routes begin at Victoria Station, with stops near Marble Arch and elsewhere; there are a couple of equally useful stops in Oxford, including on the High Street, and the buses terminate at Gloucester Green, far more central than the railway station. The trip can take 90 minutes or it can take longer if you get stuck in traffic, but it is a pleasant, comfortable ride during which you can revel in the free wifi.