In Conversation with… Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Colour Revolution’

September 2023

Curator of Nineteenth-Century Decorative Arts at The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

When we speak with Matthew Winterbottom, it is the last day of installing the 170 exhibits to be included in the Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design exhibition at the Ashmolean.

Matthew has co-curated this exhibition with his colleague Professor Charlotte Ribeyrol from the University of Sorbonne, who has been working on the subject since 2017 and was very interested in Colour, “a hot topic because of its interdisciplinary nature.” Charlotte visited Oxford, and upon seeing the works on paper at the Ashmolean’s collection and hitting it off with Matthew, they successfully pitched the idea for the exhibition to the museum Director.

Matthew knew from an early age that he wanted to become a museum curator: “My parents were big antique shops people. I always loved collecting as a small child, and when I was about ten, I got very interested in objects of the 19th century. I loved things that gave an insight into how people lived in the past.

He studied History of Fine and Decorative Arts at Leeds University and after graduating, he interned in the Silver department at the V&A for six weeks which led to a 4-year stunt at the museum. He then joined the Royal Collection as a Research Assistant in Decorative Arts, putting on shows at Buckingham Palace, and later moved to Bath to help redisplay the Holborn Museum. In 2014 he joined the curatorial team at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Lady’s day dress,1865-70

Matthew describes Colour Revolution as “his baby”: “One of the main thoughts behind this show is to shock and change the idea of the Victorian era.” Matthew notes a few examples in the exhibition: “One of the objects in the show is a beautiful bright violet lady’s day dress from 1865-70 that was worn by a Baptist Minister’s daughter in Leicester. It’s the first time such an ordinary person would’ve been able to wear such a bold colour because of the synthetic colour revolution. That started in the late 1850s. The Tinted Venus sculpture in the show (c. 1851-6) is very subtlety coloured with red lips, blue eyes, and hair, showing the Victorian’s interest in the colours of the past. The exhibition also explores the themes of Japanese, Middle Eastern and Indian colour influences on the Victorians.

The Tinted Venus, c. 1851-6

Colour Revolution includes a variety of objects ranging from oil paintings to a hummingbird necklace from over 35 collections. One of the favourite aspects of Matthew’s day-to-day job is caring for such eclectic pieces. In light of the alleged thefts from the British Museum there is increased scrutiny on inventory management.  Matthew comments: “We have to make sure our records are up to date. Some of these collections are so old there was no process at the time they were created. Our own collection goes back to the 1680s. Everything I look after is documented. We have 400,000 prints in the collection that we are systematically cataloguing but this obviously takes time and requires funding.

Philanthropy is hugely important. We’re very lucky here when we see what’s happening across the sector. We have wonderful private supporters like the Huo Family Foundation who enable us to do so much – we’re able to re-display our permanent galleries and open spectacular temporary exhibitions like ‘Colour Revolution’. It also enables us to acquire objects that constantly enrich our already extraordinary collections.”

The Huo Family Foundation has supported Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design with a grant of £25,000.