HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I STUDIED AT OXFORD?Excuse me, did I say "studied"?I meant to say I read at Oxford—specifically, art history at Christ Church College, the largest and most beautiful Oxford University college.
So what if it lasted only a week?For seven lovely days I was a full-fledged member of the college, enjoying the perquisites of a real-life Oxford undergrad. I scuffed along gravel paths trod by cogitating scholars for 700 years. I took my meals in the Hall, the dauntingly sober 17th-century dining room. I slept in a private room in the 18th-century Peckwater Quad building.
Now when I'm at a dinner party, I artfully steer the conversation toward Higher Learning, regaling guests with sparkling tales of "My Days at Oxford."
What to wear?Since I didn't have time to ring a London tailor to whip up an understated bespoke suit, I grabbed my credit card and went retail: conservative, nearly knee-length navy crepe box-pleated skirt (Lord & Taylor); black-and-white checked single-breasted jacket (Agnes B); simple navy pumps (Pappagallo).
A gray-haired gent in a bowler guarded Tom Gate, the arched stone entrance to Christ Church College. I must have passed muster, because he pointed me toward a registration table a few steps inside. I was handed a card marked "Peckwater Staircase 6, Room 5A."
A young man took my bag and walked with me along the perimeter of the Great Quad, beneath another stone arch, and across the dusty paths of Peckwater to a doorway: Staircase 6. He showed me my room—a bit shabby, but clean, with a single bed, a sink, a tatty upholstered chair, a scuffed wooden desk, and a wardrobe. The main attraction was a nearly floor-to-ceiling window framing a view of Peckwater Quad. The light, ever-changing as clouds crossed the sky, painted the golden stone of the facade opposite.
The transition to student life continued at orientation, when I took a seat on one of the long benches in a lecture room. My 100-odd fellow students were in their forties to sixties, with a few younger faces here and there.
"Welcome on behalf of Christ Church College, where you'll be a privileged student for the next week," said Malcolm Airs, doctor of philosophy and director of the Oxford Experience program. Membership, he reminded us, has its privileges: access to the private Masters Garden, unlimited admission to the Picture Gallery, with its collection of old masters, and, best of all, the freedom to roam through the college wherever and whenever we pleased, with the exception of the library (tourists are tossed off the grounds at 6 p.m.).
My class, "The English Face in the 16th Century," gathered later for a brief meeting. We arranged ourselves in mismatched chairs in a loose circle. Among us were young students from Paris, Kyoto, and Amsterdam; three British women; and Stanley, a retired theater teacher from Vancouver.
"We're going to be concerned with faces all week—how people looked at them, and why they looked at them in a particular way," said Rosemary Kelly, our instructor. A former history teacher, she's now a freelance lecturer at the National Portrait Gallery. Easing our only worry, she added, "Nobody's going to ask you to write an essay."
I walked back to my staircase with my British classmate Hillary, who, having noticed my American accent, wanted to make sure I understood the importance of where I was: "Christ Church is a very pres-TI-gious college."
Fearlessly, Rosemary confronted the awful secret of art history classes head-on. "Let's face it," she said. "Slides put you to sleep." She assured us her feelings would not be hurt if we nodded off. With that, she began weaving a tale that combined historical gossip, anthropological insights, and artful juxtapositions. We were in no danger of snoozing.
"On a normal morning, from the cereal box, to the TV, to newspapers, we are battered with visual images," she said. But in the 16th century, of course, there were no such things. So it's hard for us to imagine the impact that a painted portrait had on viewers back then.
During the Middle Ages, she went on, most paintings were religious in theme, designed to indicate social status or tell a story rather than accurately re-create appearance. It wasn't until the Renaissance, with its emphasis on individuality, that lifelike portraits became important: If the face is the mirror of the soul, they reasoned, its likeness ought to be captured.
Today Rosemary introduced us to Hans Holbein. The German-born artist, Henry VIII's court painter, created the images that we associate with the massive, merciless king. Before he met Anne of Cleves, a future spouse, Henry sent Holbein to paint her. The resulting portrait seems as contemporary as an Annie Leibovitz photo.
Later I learned that the founders of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, the oldest in England, had made a significant miscalculation. "The first greenhouse had brick walls and a slate roof," said Louise Allen, the garden's education officer. "In the 17th century, they didn't know how much light plants needed." The garden has a serious purpose: it's a living library of plant species. She showed us an enormous tree—"the oldest magnolia in the garden, from 1870"—and explained that the tomatoes we saw growing in a cage were imprisoned "not to keep the vegetables in, but to keep the visitors out."
Dilemma: Should I go punting on the Thames or join Malcolm Airs's trip to 18th-century Woodperry House?There was no contest: I couldn't pass up the chance to snoop around in an inhabited English country house. Only 20 minutes away, it turned out to be a jewel. The interior designer and his barrister wife who bought it 15 years ago spared no expense in its restoration. When we walked into the pale yellow sitting room, I heard a sigh of delight from my classmate Stanley. I shared his enthusiasm. From the piles of books stacked on a pine table, to the chairs with worn upholstery, to the light streaming in through the French doors, it immediately felt like home.