- One must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Machiavelli Niccolo
Visit Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The present Ashmolean was created in 1908 by combining two ancient Oxford institutions: the University Art Collection and the original Ashmolean Museum. The older partner in this merger, the University Art Collection, was based for many years in what is now the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian Library. The collection began modestly in the 1620s with a handful of portraits and curiosities displayed in a small room on the upper floor. In 1636 and 1657, Archbishop Laud and Ralph Freke added notable collections of coins and medals, later installed in a strong room of their own and now incorporated into the Ashmolean coin collection. The objects of curiosity included Guy Fawkes’ lantern and a sword said to have been given by the pope to Henry VIII, both now in the Ashmolean, as well as a number of more exotic items, including Jacob’s Coat of Many Colours, long since lost. However, as there was a museum for curiosities of this kind in the University Anatomy Theatre, objects like this tended to go there or to the Ashmolean, after it opened in 1683, leaving the Bodleian gallery to develop as a museum of art.
In the 1660s and 70s, the collection grew rapidly. It was, at first, a gallery of portraits of distinguished contemporaries but from the mid 1660s, it began to acquire a more historical perspective with the addition of images of people from the past: college founders, scientists, soldiers, monarchs, writers and artists. Several painters donated self-portraits. In the eighteenth century, they added a number of landscapes, historical paintings and scenes from contemporary life. Other donors, former members of the University, added collections of Old Masters so that by the early nineteenth century, it had become an art gallery of general interest and an essential point of call on the tourist map.
The public was admitted on payment of a small charge. Catalogues, written by the janitor, were available at the entrance and the paintings were well displayed in a large, panelled gallery. It was only with the gift of a collection of ancient Greek and Roman statuary from the Countess of Pomfret in 1755 that the need for a new art gallery became urgent. The Pomfret statues had formerly belonged to the Earl of Arundel and they joined a group of inscribed marbles from the same source which had been given to the University in 1667. The marble figures were too heavy to place in an upstairs gallery and were installed in a dark ground-floor room in the library quadrangle pending the creation of a new museum. Funds, however, were not forthcoming. In the 1830s, a sum of £1,000, bequeathed by the Revd Francis Randolph in 1797 towards building a museum was added to a much larger sum bequeathed to the University in 1788 by the architect, Sir Robert Taylor, for the purpose of building an institution for teaching modern languages. Because of this, the new building, designed by Charles Robert Cockerell and built on the corner Beaumont Street between 1839 and 1845, combines an art gallery in the western half and an institute for teaching modern languages in the east.
When the new museum opened in 1845, the Pomfret sculptures were transferred to galleries on the ground floor and in the basement and paintings from the Bodleian Picture Gallery were hung in a large first floor room. There were fine things among the paintings. Works by Batoni, Reynolds and Van Dyck which were at one time in the Bodleian, still count among the more noteworthy works in the museum. But the average quality was meagre and over the years, the original collection has given way to more important acquisitions. Even before the new museum was finished, a major group of drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo, formerly in the collection of Sir Thomas Lawrence, was purchased by public subscription for the new galleries, establishing, from the start, the importance of the Oxford museum as a centre for the study of Old Master drawings. In 1861, John Ruskin, in an act calculated to emphasise the importance of contemporary art alongside the Old Masters, donated an important group of watercolours by J. M. W. Turner. The collection was further enriched in 1863 by the addition of a collection of prints and drawings which had been bequeathed to the Bodleian in 1834 by the antiquarian, Francis Douce. The new museum also attracted gifts of paintings. In 1851, the Hon. William Thomas Horner Fox-Strangways presented a collection of early Italian paintings which included Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest, one of the museum’s major works of art, and many other works of importance and charm by artists of the 14th and 15th centuries. A fine group of paintings, bronzes prints and drawings was added by Chambers Hall in 1855. These included oil sketches by Rubens, paintings by Canaletto and Guardi and drawings by Claude Lorrain and Leonardo. Finally, in the last major benefaction received by the Galleries before they merged with the Ashmolean, Mrs Martha Combe bequeathed an important group of Pre-Raphaelite paintings which had been collected by herself and her husband, Thomas Combe, printer to the University and a major figure in 19th-century Oxford society.
In the course of the eighteenth century, the bonds that linked the various elements of the Museum were progressively loosened and the collection of specimens lost a great deal of their academic relevance. Important acquisitions during this time were few with the notable exception of the Alfred Jewel, donated in 1718, mineral specimens and antiquities from the Cornish antiquary, the Revd William Borlase and a collection of ethnographical materials collected on Captain Cook’s Pacific voyage of 1772-5. Meanwhile, the inevitable processes of decay took their toll on the original collection with the result that when John Duncan took office as keeper in 1824, he found that “the skins of animals collected by the Tradescants had fallen into total decay, that cabinets for those objects which were liable to injury from time were wholly wanting, and that the apartment dedicated to the exhibition of them had become much dilapidated”.
Refurbished in 2009, the way that the collections are displayed in the new galleries & enjoyed by the public became the driving force behind a major transformation. The galleries are now interlinked by one theme, Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time. This encourages exploration of new connections between the collections of the Ashmolean. Adding 39 new galleries to the original 1845 Cockerell Building, the Ashmolean's new wing was designed by award-winning architect Rick Mather.