ashmolean

History of the Ashmolean

The Ashmolean, c.2010

The present day Ashmolean

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.

Elias Ashmole (1617-92)

Elias Ashmole (1617-92)

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.

John Tradescant the Elder (d.1638)

John Tradescant the Elder (d.1638)

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.

John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62)

John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62)

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.

Old Ashmolean, c.1760

Old Ashmolean, c.1760

Had Elias Ashmole (1617-92) not stipulated that his collection of curiosities and antiquities should be placed in a custom-built museum, it would have been installed in the Bodleian or in the Anatomy Theatre. In the event, Ashmole’s benefaction was placed inside a small but imposing building adjacent to the Bodleian which opened its doors on 24th May 1683 with much fanfare. The collection presented to the University by Ashmole was in origin already half a century old by this time, having been founded by John Tradescant (d. 1638) and displayed to the public (for a fee) first by him and later by his son John (1608-62) in their house at Lambeth, widely known as “The Ark”. The contents were universal in scope, with man-made and natural specimens from every corner of the known world. By the time it passed to Ashmole by deed of gift, the Tradescants’ collection of miscellaneous curiosities had grown in scale and stature to the point where its new owner could present it to the University as a major resource. When it opened in Broad Street under its first curator, Dr Robert Plot, it was designed to be an integrated, three-part institution, comprising the collection itself, a chemistry laboratory for experiments and rooms for undergraduate lectures. From the time of its opening members of the public were admitted to the Ashmolean as they were to the Picture Gallery. This measure was noted with disapproval by one German visitor in 1710 who expressed his surprise at the numbers of “ordinary folk” who were allowed to run free in both institutions.

The Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel

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”.

The ground floor of the Ashmolean in 1836

The ground floor of the Ashmolean in 1836

Under John Duncan and his brother Philip who succeeded him in the keepership in 1829, the collections were comprehensively redisplayed according to the tenets of “natural theology” with the declared purpose of demonstrating that they were “the media of divine manifestation”. Natural history specimens were acquired in large numbers by the Duncans to illustrate this belief and man-made “curiosities” were relegated to a secondary role. The character of the Museum was established in this way until mid-century when the University established a new Natural History Museum (now the Oxford University Museum of Natural History) at which point all the natural history specimens from the Ashmolean were transferred to the new institution.

Arthur Evans

Arthur Evans

Having lost what had become the most important element in its collection, the Ashmolean was to find a major new role in the emerging field of archaeology. The first important tranche of material of this kind had been received as early as 1829 when the Douglas collection of Anglo-Saxon antiquities from Kent had been presented by Sir Richard Colt Hoare. In the decades that followed, collections of material from local excavations were added, antiquities from Rome arrived by way of one of the keepers, J. H. Parker, and numerous pieces were purchased in Egypt and the Near East by the Revd Greville Chester.

C D E Fortnum

C D E Fortnum

With the appointment in 1884 of Arthur Evans to the keepership, the Museum was driven ever more energetically in this new direction. Some 2,000 new acquisitions a year from Europe and the East Mediterranean were being made under Evans’ regime when the prospect of an even bigger coup presented itself – the acquisition of the collection of classical and Renaissance bronzes and ceramics belonging to C. D. E. Fortnum. The original Ashmolean could not cope with the influx and Evans persuaded the University to build a new structure at the rear of the University Galleries on a site ear-marked for the expansion of the Galleries. The key to this move was a promised donation of £10,000 from Fortnum to fund the new building.

Present Museum, view from St Giles

Present Museum, view from St Giles

The transfer of material to the new extension was completed in 1894 and, after co-existing for several years, the two institutions were merged in 1908 to form the present day Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. The founding Departments of the new museum, The Department of Fine Art (since divided into Departments of Eastern and Western Art) and the Department of Antiquities remain relics of its dual origin. In 1922, the coin collection from The Bodleian Library was transferred to the Department of Antiquities and became the basis of a new Department in 1961 with the creation of the Heberden Coin Room. In 1961, the collections of the Indian Institute were amalgamated with the Islamic, Japanese and Chinese materials already in the Ashmolean to form the Department of Eastern Art. The cast collection, which had grown vigorously as an aid to the teaching of classical archaeology, was likewise separated from the Department of Antiquities and installed in a space of its own in 1959. The creation of these Departments brought about a new emphasis on scholarship in these specialised fields and also gave a new impetus to collecting in the different areas of interest covered by the Departments. It is this which accounts for the wealth and variety of the present collections. As a result of the merging of the two very different institutions, the present Ashmolean contains both art and artefacts from across a wide range of cultures: early stringed musical instruments, objects from Minoan Crete, Worcester porcelain, Chinese Shang bronzes, Japanese ceramics, European Paintings and drawings and many other specialist collections.

The Atrium

The Atrium

One consequence of the union of 1908 was to create a vacuum in the centre of the museum administration. This was rectified in 1973 by the creation of a post of Director which has given the Museum a greater sense of unified purpose than was previously the case while the Departmental structure provides an essential basis for the work of scholarship and education which have, since the beginning of this history, justified the existence of a museum at the heart of the University.

Further reading

  • R F Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (1986)
  • C H Josten, Elias Ashmole 1617-1692 (1966)
  • A MacGregor, Tradescant's Rarities (1983)
  • A MacGregor, The Ashmolean Museum: a brief history of the institution and its collections (2001)
  • J. Whiteley, “The University Galleries” in The History of the University of Oxford, vol. VI (1997)