Royal Agricultural University and Oxford University linked by agriculture-themed art collection

By Hannah Rowlands.

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food is building relationships with organisations in the Oxford area which have an interest in food system research, including the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester.

The RAU, established in 1845, is recognised nationally and internationally as a leader in the delivery of education, research and consultancy, in and relating to, agriculture and the rural environment.

But one link already exists. Many of the beautiful, agriculturally themed 18th and 19th century paintings on the walls at the RAU are on permanent loan from the University of Oxford.

The paintings are part of the Orwin Collection, which was put together by Dr C. S. Orwin, Director of the Institute for Research in Agricultural Economics at Oxford University from 1913 to 1945. It reflects the UK’s great agricultural prosperity of the latter eighteenth century which meant improvements in livestock and methods of farming to feed the growing industrial population.

Here are two examples of the paintings. First, the “Two Pounder” by J. Digby-Curtis, painted in 1790:

This sheep was a revolutionary New Leicester ram, the progenitor of most of the sheep in Australasia today. The New Leicester sheep, as can be seen in the painting, was a barrel-shaped animal that produced long, coarse wool and also provided a good yield of high-quality meat, hence the name: this sheep produced '2 lbs. of mutton where there was only 1 lb. before

“Two Pounder” was bred at the end of the 18th century by Robert Bakewell, who was one of the first to breed both sheep and cattle for meat. He was also one of the first to let his animals for stud, and his annual auctions attracted great attention, including from King George III, “Farmer George”.

The artists of the day were commissioned to paint sheep and cattle to advertise them. The farmer got the artists to exaggerate the animal’s best features – a straight back, thick wool and a meaty body.

Not all the paintings are agricultural. The second example is of badgers, painted by Thomas Weaver in 1823, a time when badgers weren’t linked to bovine tuberculosis:

Thomas Weaver was a Shropshire artist who mainly painted portraits of livestock for breeders and pedigree cattle.

The badger seems to be taking an unusual interest in a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) resting on a foxglove leaf, and underneath the leaf a frog [?] peeps out.

See more paintings from the RAU’s Orwin Collection on the BBC Your Paintings website.

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