The most important connection that the Pre-Raphaelite artists had with the city of Oxford was through the support they received from the wealthy superintendent of the University Press, Thomas Combe (1796–1872), and his wife Martha (1806–1893).
The Combes were a generation older than the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but they almost adopted them. With no children of their own, the Combes became surrogate parents to the young artists, especially William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
The young, serious-minded artists would come and stay in their Oxford home, while they supported them through buying and commissioning works.
The informal sketch (above) by Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles Collins depicts an evening at Thomas Combe’s house with the white-haired publisher reading by candlelight – perhaps from the Bible – as the household gathers round. Martha apparently darns a sock while the lanky-legged Millais sits on the floor.
The contrast between this slight sketch and the wonderfully finished chalk drawings of Thomas and Martha Combe by William Holman Hunt (below), made a decade later, could not be more striking.
Get closer to the Combe drawings in this exhibition video clip with Ashmolean director Xa Sturgis
These important early Pre-Raphaelite patrons are commemorated masterfully in Hunt's proficient pair of portraits. Thomas sparkles with wit and good humour from behind his voluminous hair, eyebrows and beard, although the depiction of Martha is somewhat less flattering.
From September to November 1850, Collins and Millais, who were close friends, stayed with the Combes at their house in Oxford. Here Collins and Millais worked on two significant paintings, both of which are now in the Ashmolean. One of these, Convent Thoughts (below), painted in the Combes' garden, is an especially vibrant example of the early Pre-Raphaelite use of bright colours and intricate details.
Collins' depiction of a nun was of great interest to the Combes as they were keen supporters of Tractarianism, also known as the Oxford Movement. Thomas Combe bought the painting for £150 – the largest sum that Collins ever made for a picture. It hung on the Combes' wall with two other religions works by Holman Hunt and Millais in a symbolic triptych of Hope, Charity and Faith.
This triptych now hangs in the Ashmolean's Pre-Raphaelites Gallery, thanks to the subsequent Combe bequest.
You can find out more about the Combes and Pre-Raphaelite artists in the Oxford Brookes University video