Thought to be worth close to pounds 1m, it includes works by Prunella Clough, Lynn Chadwick, Victor Pasmore, Patrick Heron, Elisabeth Frink, Percy Wyndham Lewis and John Piper.
The cache was found by Victoria Wild, who is finishing a doctorate of philosophy on the history of Conservative Party finances and who is a junior dean of Pembroke, one of Oxford's smaller and poorer colleges. Last October she moved into a set of rooms in the college and asked for them to be redecorated. She thought the walls looked bare and asked if there were any prints available. Toldthat there were some old pictures in the basement of a student house, she went to investigate.
"It was full of broken furniture and behind the junk there was another door ... I started picking around. It is a very damp part of the college. There were about 60 pictures in there. Lots had big rips in them, their frames were falling off and they were covered in mould. They had been down there since 1978."
The works were by the cream of post-war sculptors and painters, including Ceri Richards, Humphrey Spender, Terry Frost, Patrick Procktor, Peter Ibbetson, Cecil Collins and Gerald Wilde.
In a room upstairs she found damp and dirty works by Duncan Grant, Heron, Frink, Mary Fedden, Lewis, David Tindle, John Minton and Tom Phillips.
"The collection was astonishing, not only because it was forgotten but because of the story behind its conception," Ms Wild said yesterday.
For the works belonged to the students themselves. All the important pieces had been acquired between 1947 and about 1965 using a fund toward which Pembroke undergraduates originally paid 7s 6d a term.
The collection was the inspiration of an undergraduate called Charles Anthony Emery, a former army officer who went up to Pembroke at the end of the Second World War as a mature student. His idea was to buy works both to furnish students' rooms and to encourage young British artists.
Kenneth Clark, then Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, was the first picture buyer, and acquired paintings including Still Life by Grant, Bridge at Cannon Street Station by Minton, and a John Piper.
Later, in 1954, the president of the junior common room visited Francis Bacon's studio and bought an oil, Man in Chair, for pounds 150 - and was censured for wasting money. It is now in the Ashmolean Museum, and works by Bacon can sell for pounds 500,000.
It seems that the collection ended up in the basement after the paintings became too valuable to stay on students' walls. College folklore has it that one picture by Derrick Greaves got ripped after being balanced on a door so that it would fall on a student's head as he came into the room.
Ms Wild has had the best works in the collection restored through a donation from a former Pembroke student to whom she wrote about her discovery. Another old student she contacted has donated a Head of Balzac, by Rodin, worth at least pounds 25,000.
The Pembroke collection goes on show to the public for just one day, next Saturday. "The students have been thrilled - and amazed - to discover that they are the owners of such a fine collection of post-war art," Ms Wild said.Reuse content