History of the British Collections:

The Eighteenth Century

Edward Lhwyd (Keeper 1690-1709) succeeded Robert Plot as Keeper. Lhwyd did much to improve the collections, even donating his own collection of fossils in 1708, and spent a lot of time away from the Museum carrying out research in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Britanny. For this he was reproached by the University authorities and resulted in a 'falling off' of curatorial standards. Plot had retired as Chair of Chemistry and from then on the successive Keepers were no longer involved with the Chemistry Department. So, within a decade, the unity of the foundation of the museum was being compromised. The teaching and experimental sides continued to flourish, whilst the collections did not.

Edward Lhwyd died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1709, aged 49. It was thought the combined effects of asthma, pleurisy and a chill caught from his damp living conditions at the museum caused this early demise.

His successor, David Parry (Keeper 1709-1714), died a premature death five years later. Parry's curatorship at the museum was documented in the travel diaries of a German, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, who visited the museum on an Oxford market day only to find it overrun by visitors running about and touching the exhibits. 'Even the women are allowed up here for sixppence, they run here and there grabbing at everything'.

Edward Lhwyd

Portrait of Edward Lhwyd from the Book of Benefactors

Von Uffenback noted that no-one was taking any notice of the 'sub-custos' (attendants) and he was very surprised at the condition of some of the objects. He found the laboratory dirty and unkempt, and probably unused.

John Whiteside succeeded Parry and some improvements were made. Visitors came in larger numbers than ever. Whiteside had the 'Particular Room' cleaned and decorated and bought new scientific equipment and lectured on experimental philosophy. A printed catalogue was discussed but never produced.

One of the most important acquisitions and treasures acquired by the museum in the eighteenth century was the nineth century Alfred Jewel, given to the Museum in 1718 by Nathaniel Palmer.

George Shepheard and Joseph Andrews were the next Keepers. Shepheard died of smallpox in 1731, only one year into his Keepership. Andrews died about a year later.

The next Keeper, George Huddesford (Keeper 1732-1755), President of Trinity College, proved to be a disastrous appointment. Potential benefacors, such as Sir Hans Sloane who was later involved in the founding of the British Museum, were turned away from the Ashmolean and the museum reached a very low state. Huddesford manouvered his son, William, into the next Keepership upon his own retirement in 1755.

William Huddesford (Keeper 1755-1772) earnestly applied himself to the post. With the help of valuable older contacts, such as the Cornish antiquary and clergyman, William Borlase, the younger Huddesford acquired new objects, catalogued the collections and added to the library. Borlase gave his important collection of mineral specimens and antiquities to the museum, which encouraged other collections such as fossils from Joshua Platt and material from the Welsh naturalist, Thomas Pannant. There were also losses to the collections as an audit by Huddesford revealed many objects in such decay they had to be disposed of.

Following Huddesford's exemplary Keepership, the Museum took another step backwards with the appointment of William Sheffield (Keeper 1772-1795). Sheffield's other duties with Worcester College kept him away from the Museum. To quote one recorded statement 'at the close of the 18th century, the museum stood still and William Sheffield stood still with it'. Acquisitions in this period were few.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Museum had a long way to go to redeem its prestige. The Keeper who saw out the century was William Lloyd (Keeper 1796-1815). He was a quiet, possibly lazy, gentleman 'having no pretensions to science or scholarship'.

The Ashmolean's British collections from the eighteenth century include the following examples:

Alfred Jewel

Alfred Jewel (AN1836p.135.371)

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Arthur MacGregor
January 2012