Ah Oxford. Punting on the river, mist rising from the water meadow as horses graze on the horizon and early-morning joggers get their groove on, while the bells in the church spires ring out as choristers chant the matins. Students hunch over their latest essay crisis, fearing disapprobation in their next tutorial as sunlight falls on the honey-coloured stone of their ancient colleges. The Idealist has loved Oxford since we first stepped off a train here.
But ugh, the High Street and ugh even worse, Cornmarket! Where’s a stylish interiors fan to go to find some furniture or some design pieces for their north-Oxford family home? Oxford feels like a town divided. The never-loved Westgate shopping centre now being pulled down, but the hard-to love Cornmarket street still treating its heritage buildings with so little respect you wonder how they get away with it. But look just beyond the centre, dear Idealist, and you will find some real treasures, whether you seek a sleek modern look, or some real pieces of history: Oxford has charm in abundance. Our guide today is Juliette, senior director at the University of the Arts, who studied in Oxford and settled there with her family on Osney Island, just west of the city centre. While her profession has taken her to London to which she commutes, she still loves Oxford for its quirky mix of old and new, town and gown and its lively art and arts scene; her partner is a painter and her son plays guitar in a band. Oxford is after all the cradle of Radiohead, many of the Pre-Raphaelites and countless writers, thinkers and politicians.
We start our hunt half way down the High, where Sanders of Oxford have been selling prints, antique maps and suchlike for over 100 years in a building that’s been standing since the 1500s. They have a wonderful mix of modern prints from up and coming artists, historical maps of both Oxford and the wider UK and further afield and some beautiful historical Victorian and older lithographs and other prints. They tell us that while antique maps are perennially popular as gifts and amongst visiting professors and students, other prints come in and out of fashion as moods and seasons change. Right now they have a wonderful collection of Pre-Raphaelite prints on display and we were surprised to learn how affordable some of them are (from a few hundred pounds each) given the fact they are ‘photogravures directly reproduced from the original paintings’ from around 1900 and signed by Philip Burne-Jones, the eldest son of Edward, the original artist.
Their contemporary prints are incidentally much more edgy than you might imagine from the look of the shop front and come cheap too, starting at around £40.
Objects of Use
Objects of Use is quite a curio in a town full of puzzles. Located in the Covered Market, but actually reached from the street, it’s a shop full of very well chosen objects of domestic use that you would never want to actually use because they look so good. Imagine if you were working on a tv production and responsible for buying props for, let’s say, a film based on a Victorian novel, or set in Paris in the 1960s or in a St Ives artists’ enclave… Well, the homewares, candles, toothpaste, brushes, pots and pans here all feel serious and honest and beautiful. Every object in this little shop lives up to the adage of the other Pre-Raphaelite William Morris “Have nothing in your house, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”.
Modern Art Oxford
Modern Art Oxford just across from the dreaded Westgate shopping centre is housed in an old brewery building in a warren of streets south of the high street and is home to an exhibition space which showcases cutting edge contemporary art through a range of free exhibitions and events, having featured in the past such luminaries as Sol Le Witt, Tracey Emin, Joseph Beuys, Gary Hume and Howard Hodgkin. Exhibitions are free, but if like us, sometimes modern art leaves you a little non-plussed, then the cafe is charming and the dedicated shop has some great gifts, design pieces and distinctive art ranging from the hundreds to the thousands for limited edition prints.
The Old Fire Station
The Old Fire Station is a complex of arts and performance spaces with close connections to the local community. Their shop has a fun range of giftware and design pieces that would really bring a distinctive artsy look to a kitchen or living space (think earthenware jugs, tea towels, tea cosies, limited edition prints etc). We loved the outdoorsy themed mugs with their own little lids: perfect for keeping your tea warm while you make a weekend fry up.
Head back up north along Walton Street you’ll reach the part of town the locals call Jericho. The story behind this is unclear except that originally Jericho was outside the city walls and a home to weary travellers. More recently, it has found a place in fiction in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Inspector Morse and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Home to artists, students and the university press, Jericho has a bohemian feel and has some wonderful cafes, bars and restaurants.
For interiors fans, its stand out destination is without a doubt Central Living on Little Clarendon Street. This is home to all the big brands in contemporary design that you can think of such as B&B Italia, Ligne Roset, Knoll, USM, Muuto, Kartell, Fatboy, Flos, LSA International, Alessi, iittala … you get the idea. And the shop is packed with stock. You can get everything from kitchen utensils to lighting to designer living and dining room furniture including Robin Day chairs, Ligne Roset sofas and beautiful walnut desks from Nazanin Kamali.
For the well-heeled of north Oxford, we rather like the look of Stella Mannering Interior Design just up from Central Living on the Woodstock road. Stella and her team have done some beautiful redesigns of some amazing properties in Oxfordshire, London, and further afield and cover everything from single rooms to whole houses, B&Bs and formal residences. Their signature look is about rich textures and sumptuous finishes, so the other end of the spectrum from Central Living and much more ‘Oxford’ if that makes sense.
Of course Oxford is also home to the Ashmolean Museum, Christ Church Picture Gallery, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum. The Ashmolean has a rather fine museum shop, nice cafe and breathtaking restaurant on the roof. The Pitt Rivers is a very British Empire feel museum of anthropology which is famous for its drawers full of curios and displays of shrunken heads and other examples of the Victorian mania for collecting grotesque ephemera. You can easily spend a day in Oxford drifting from coffee shop to bookshop to museum (and shop) without ever setting foot in any of the colleges, or indeed walking down Cornmarket street at all.
- Central Living – 33-35 Little Clarendon street, Oxford OX1 2HU, 01865 311141
- Modern Art Oxford – 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, UK OX1 1BP
- Stella Mannering Interior Design – 2 Woodstock Rd, Oxford OX2 6HT, 01865 557196
- Objects of Use – 6 Lincoln House, Market Street, Oxford OX1 3EQ, 01865 241705
- The Old Fire Station – 40 George St, Oxford OX1 2AQ, 01865 263980
- Sanders of Oxford – Salutation House 104 High St, Oxford OX1 4BW, 01865 242590