In Memoriam Dr Cathy Oakes

An art historian who loved poetry, acting and hiking and was passionate about lifelong learning


Dr Cathy Oakes, Director of Studies in the History of Art, died unexpectedly in early August 2019, of sepsis. She was 63.

Cathy believed utterly in the value of liberal adult education and gave herself wholeheartedly to it. In the days following the unexpected news of her death, hundreds of emails were received at the Department from colleagues, current and former students. They tell of a dedicated tutor, supervisor and friend – and an educational legacy that reaches around the globe.

Professor Angus Hawkins, Director of Public and International Programmes, said, ‘The outpouring of shock, sadness and loss following the news of Cathy’s sudden death has been extraordinary. Testament to the myriad ways in which she touched and enriched so many lives. Passion for her subject, the devotion to her students, her inspirational teaching, and her value as a colleague were qualities that blessed us all.’

Philip Healy, former Director of Public Programmes, said, ‘She was the perfect combination of scholar and teacher; she loved her subject and she loved teaching it.’

Giving in memory of Dr Cathy Oakes

If you would like to make a gift in memory of Dr Cathy Oakes, we would be most grateful. Gifts in her name will support students studying subjects that Cathy was passionate about, such as Literature, History and the History of Art, at the Department.


Cathy was born in Leeds, where she attended Lawnswood school, and won a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to study history in 1974.

Her career began in museum education at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She gained a part-time PhD – learning from personal experience the challenges of studying as an adult – before moving on to academic posts, first at Bristol University and then (from 2001) at Oxford where she was appointed as Director of Studies in the History of Art.

A medievalist specialising in Romanesque art and architecture, Cathy Oakes’ area of research explored the interrelation of word and image in western medieval culture. Her publications included work on French and English Romanesque subjects, and Marian iconography. She served a visiting professor at American universities three times and was invited to lecture widely both in the UK and in Europe.

Cathy directed our Master of Studies programme in Literature and Arts and was co-director of both the Postgraduate Certificate in Historical Studies and the DPhil programme in Architectural History. Her wider History of Art programme, which includes short courses as well as award and degree programmes, enrolled more than two thousand students in the 2018-19 academic year.

Working across communities

Cathy’s passion for the History of Art extended beyond the limits of the University, leading her to initiate projects in which artists worked with non-practitioners to demonstrate the interdependence of art practice and art history. In the local community, she ran an Arts Council funded project exploring photography as a tool of local history and as a creative outlet for recording the present. With the Kings Fund (a major health charity based in London) she worked on arts projects with Health Service Senior Management personnel. 

Since her undergraduate days, Cathy was a keen actor. She appeared in large numbers of student drama productions, and continued up to the present day with the Oxford Theatre Guild and others.

Her love of poetry led her to establish a reading group, comprised of colleagues and students, which met regularly to discuss a wide range of poetic works over wine in the evenings at Rewley House.

Memories and tributes

Philip Healy, former Director of Public Programmes, remembering her appointment as Director of Studies in the History of Art in 2001 said: 'I can still remember vividly phoning Cathy on the evening after the interviews to offer her the post. I can still hear the thrill and excitement in her voice as she accepted. She joined the Department as an exile from Bristol University, which had closed its Continuing Education Department and ‘mainstreamed’ its academic staff. Bristol’s loss was Oxford’s gain. Cathy was born to be an adult educator. She was the perfect combination of scholar and teacher; she loved her subject and she loved teaching it.'

Marianne Talbot, Director of Studies in Philosophy: 'Cathy and I celebrated our 60th birthdays with a two-week walk along the Amalfi Coast. We had a great time, especially on the day it rained so hard that there was nothing to do but take the day off and drink cocktails in our hotel. Cathy’s love of her discipline was evident in the side trips she often took to see a medieval pulpit, some ivories or the statue of a particular saint. That she loved her students and their education was also evident from the frequency with which we would discuss their welfare and the importance and value we both placed on widening participation in our disciplines. '

Mary Acton, tutor in the History of Art: 'I appreciated her deep understanding of adult education, and the inclusive attitude she brought to it. She was always so intelligent, emotionally as well as intellectually. She was a wonderful teacher, and all the students loved her for her ability to communicate the medieval world, and bring it alive, and for her understanding of them as individuals, with varying problems and abilities. I, and both students and staff, will miss her in ways that are beyond words.'

From Karen Hewitt, tutor in Literature, a description of seeing Cathy teach a group of visiting Russian university teachers: 'She began with a vivid but mysterious manuscript drawing of the Last Judgement – God, anxious souls and ferocious devils. This is not a genre of religious painting as well known in Russian Orthodoxy as in Western Christianity, so she sat there, quietly, asking them to ponder on it. She gave them time. They pondered. One or two made comments. She nodded and waited. More comments, hesitations, questions… and then, from her, a thoughtful explanation which picked up their observations and opened up into further discussion. She then moved to the Wilton Diptych which was really her area of expertise. That examination was enthralling, but again her method was to invite her students to look – and to give them time. And then to bind their reflections together with real scholarship. I sat among the group, watching the best kind of adult education tutor at work, with admiration and delight.'

Sharon O’Connor, alumna, MSt in Literature and Arts: 'I never went to university when I was young: I finished my Open University undergraduate degree the same year I started the MLA and of course she … applauded people who did degrees while also working. She nominated me for an engagement award which went a long way to curing me of the feeling that I didn't belong at Oxford. Whenever I went back to Oxford after the course had finished I would pop in to see her and she was always so interested to hear what I was doing. Nearly everyone in our cohort thought she was being particularly supportive to them 'behind the scenes'; it's only now that we realise she was doing that for nearly all of us, and presumably for other cohorts too… what a legacy Cathy leaves. An academic's legacy is particularly rich because of all the lives it touches and inspires. Cathy inspired me and supported me. I have lost a friend.'

Jean Lambert, alumna, MSt in Literature and Arts and Postgraduate Certificate in Historical Studies; current student on the MSt in Historical Studies: 'I had the privilege of being taught and supervised by Cathy during four years of Master’s study. So kind, generous and supportive, with a gentle sense of humour, she inspired me, my research, with new ways of seeing. Cathy is and will continue to be a major presence in my work. I have much to thank Cathy for, much to remember her by.'

Published 13 September 2019