The paintings and sculptures in this gallery give a taste of the diversity of 20th-century art: from expressive paintings of human figures, to abstracted still lifes, to entirely abstract compositions of colours and forms.

Since 1900, European artists have challenged the idea that creating ‘realistic’, figurative art was the ultimate achievement. Through a series of radical art movements, they redefined the concept of art, and introduced new materials and techniques. Featured artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, and Pablo Picasso all pushed artistic boundaries in different ways, and drew inspiration from philosophy, psychology, literature, music, and traditions beyond Europe and North America.

Modern and contemporary ceramics, and silver work, are displayed in the corridor outside the gallery.


The IN FOCUS series in this gallery presents special loans and works from the Ashmolean’s collections for short periods of time. Through the rotation of works the display aims to remain exciting also for regular visitors.

The IN FOCUS artworks currently on display are two drawings by Maggi Hambling (born 1945) of her friends: Portrait of Rick Mather, 2013, charcoal on white paper and Portrait of David Scrase, 2017, charcoal on white paper. Both works are acquisitions that entered the Ashmolean's collections recently.

Rick Mather, who died in 2013, was the American-born architect of the Ashmolean Museum expansion that opened in 2009. His late husband David Scrase was Assistant Director of Collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. 

Maggi Hambling has worked extensively in portraiture, depicting both famous figures and sources of inspiration such as the painter Francis Bacon (displayed in this gallery), as well as her close friends like Mather and Scrase. 

Maggi Hambling portraits of Rick Mather and David Scrase (close friends of hers) in the Modern Art gallery

Hambling's set of portraits on display

The couple are drawn in her typically dense and energetic expressionist style in charcoal on a blank background. As in the Bacon portrait, Hambling focuses on the emotion in her sitters’ faces: Scrase appears more reserved, while Mather beams out at the viewer. 

Evocative portraits like these – which Hambling often creates from memory or imagination – reflect the artist’s intimacy with her subjects. As she has remarked, ‘every portrait is like a love affair.’