ashmolean

Ex Uno Omnia
Everything Out of One

A Student Engagement Project at the Ashmolean Museum, 2014

Dina Akhmadeeva

Where Art and Nature Meet

The frame is a natural material – limewood – that in the hands of Grinling Gibbons became a highly crafted sculptural object. The limewood, in turn, masquerades convincingly as flowers, leaves and fruit. In 1692, the poet laureate Nahum Tate conveyed the appreciation felt for Gibbons’s illusionism when in a poem dedicated to the artist Tate praised his skill in creating carvings “whose tender leaves seem ruffled with the wind”. Such delicate carved leaves twist along the surface of the frame, bunches of plump grapes hang as if ready to be picked, Turk’s cap lilies open their petals and jostle for space next to roses and plums. In the frame the categories of the natural and the artificial have become inseparable from one another. Nature’s intricate work is cast into the role of craftsmanship, while art competes with nature’s creations. Gibbons’ frame raises questions about where the boundaries between these categories might lie. Such questions played a role in 17th- century aesthetic appreciation and in collecting, which is also visible in the arrangement of natural specimens and artworks side by side in the Tradescant Ark room around you.

1965 Catalogue
1656 catalogue of the Tradescant
collection, later to become the basis
of the Ashmolean collection.

A Collection of Rarities: the Early Modern Collection as Microcosm

In John Tradescant’s catalogue of 1656, whose collection Ashmole purchased in bulk, the concepts of nature and culture already existed. Tradescant stated that ‘Now for the materialls themselves I reduce them into two sorts; one Naturall […] The other sort is Artificialls’.

Yet even in spite of Tradescant the Younger’s attempt to create a dividing line between the objects within his collection, not only were the objects squeezed together as part of a collection of what might otherwise be heterogeneous elements of naturalia and artificialia, but even in each object art and nature shared a common space.

Take, for example, section eight of Tradescant’s catalogue, entitled Mechanicks, choice pieces in Carvings, Turnings, Paintings: the artificial. Within it, among a landscape painted by a Sir Nathan Bacon, carved figures supposedly by Hans Holbein, Tradescant lists ‘Several Heads cut on Agates’, ‘Divers[e] Figures cut on Shells’, and even ‘A Cherry-stone, upon one side S.Geo[rge] and the Dragon, perfectly cut: and on the other side 88 Emperours faces.’

The Early Arrangement of the Ashmolean: Cutting Across Taxonomies

Sometime between August and September 1710, a German scholar named Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach visited the Ashmolean museum during his stay in Oxford and described his stay, offering valuable information where visual evidence is lacking:

‘we saw an extraordinarily big tortoise as also the skin of a Turkish goat. […]In the windows stood about thirty glass vessels with all kinds of Indian botanical specimens, plants and flowers in spirit.’

While the first parts of von Uffenbach’s description of the layout occupied itself with the natural, his gaze moved effortlessly to the objects touched by the hands of a craftsman.

[…] In one corner stood a cabinet in which were many beautiful lapes pretiosi [precious stones] Also several artistic objects of turned ivory. Several beautiful Rosaria in crystal and other materials. […] Two gold chains. […] We were then shown a very curious stone, for when it was struck a piece of money [coin] was found in the centre, which had grown into the stone, or rather the stone had grown around it.

Had the cast coin grown into the stone or had the stone grown around it? Like the object in which the natural and artificial had grown into one another, the collection itself – in its early formation – spoke of natural specimens and cultural artefacts growing into one another.