ashmolean

Ex Uno Omnia
Everything Out of One

A Student Engagement Project at the Ashmolean Museum, 2014

Rahul Kulka

The Gibbons frame: A window to the man Elias Ashmole

Standing out from the frame’s leaves and tendrils, the helmeted male bust and the two infant-like figures framing Elias Ashmole’s crest are Mercury and Gemini, his zodiac signs. Ashmole, who meshed interests in alchemy, astrology, and astronomy, sought patterns in his personal experiences to predict his future. He also gave highly sought-after astrological advice to friends and relatives, including his patron King Charles II. Grinling Gibbons had his horoscope cast by Ashmole in 1682, possibly in connection with the making of the frame.

The juxtaposition of planets with plants on the frame also references Ashmole’s interest in the pharmaceutical powers of plants, which he, like many contemporaries, attributed to specific planetary constellations. The same blending of science and botanical imagery we see in the frame also appears in the preface of Ashmole’s first publication, Fasciculus Chemicus (1650), where he used a botanical metaphor to describe the scientific treatises edited in the work: “…the choicest Flowers, growing in the Hermetick Gardens”.

The frame's juxtaposition of rich floral matter with the astrological signs on Ashmole's crest (Mercury and Gemini) may remind us of Ashmole's wider scientific interests. While likely interested in plants (and indeed, through the Tradescant legacy he had inherited what was possibly Britain's most significant botanical collection at the time), Ashmole subscribed to the contemporary notion of an integrated universe in which all things were interrelated, and was therefore particularly intrigued by the supposed relationship between a plant's medicinal characteristics and the movement of the planets. Rather like the horoscopes made for humans, the kind of astrological botany Ashmole practised attributed great importance to the specific time and planetary constellations prevalent when seeds were sown and herbs gathered.

The early modern scientific culture Ashmole participated in reflected a great desire to understand the workings of the universe and to harness them for one's own use. A similar concern underlay Ashmole's forays into magic, such as the casting of figures or sigills, which must be seen in close relationship with the calamities and illnesses he and his friends suffered.

In our attempt to grasp the meaning Ashmole might have given to the frame's abundant flowers it is interesting to note that he used a floral metaphor ("the choicest Flowers, growing in the Hermetick Gardens") when introducing the treatises compiled in his first publication, Fasciculus Chemicus (1650).

Much of Gibbons' artistic mastery and the effect of his work on the beholder is achieved by the breath-taking degree of naturalism in his crafting of botanical matter. Given the wide range of both domestic and exotic species represented, it is a valid question to what extent he was working with actual specimens. While it is very likely, there is no definite proof that Gibbons copied plants he saw in Ashmole's collection.

The theme of observation from nature in sculpture reappeared in Oxford when the University's new Science Museum was constructed in the mid-nineteenth-century. The O'Shea brothers and their nephew Edward Whelan had been commissioned to provide columns for the museum courtyard, carving each from a different type of British rock, and to furnish them with capitals representing the botanical orders. Before the project was suspended due to the lack of funds, the O'Sheas completed almost fifty intricately carved columns for which they were supplied natural specimens from the Botanic Garden as models.