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The Ashmolean, by degrees

It has everything from mummies to Pre-Raphaelites and a modernist extension

John Carey | March/April 2012

It was the outside of the Ashmolean that attracted me first. For a year in the late 1950s, as a junior research fellow at Balliol, I had rooms that looked out across St Giles. Every morning as I shaved, I watched the early sunlight playing on the east wing of the museum, with its four pale-gold Ionic columns, topped by gesticulating female figures, whose purpose and identity I speculated upon inconclusively. It seemed to me a building that would be more at home in Paris than in Oxford. I suppose that was partly because the east wing housed the Modern Languages Library, where I sometimes worked—a lofty, hushed, old-world place where the assistants were as likely to whisper to you in French as in English.

The grand classical portico that gives access to the museum was round the corner in Beaumont Street, and I hardly ever went through it until much later, after I had married and we had two little boys. On Sundays in the late 1970s we used to take them to the Ashmolean, along with other Oxford parents—in those days, Sunday afternoon was a great blank sheet of paper, not the tempting prospect it is now. Gradually we started to discover the riches the Ashmolean held. We would begin in the Egyptian section, where our favourite thing was a mummified cat, tall and rather spiky. We always checked on him first, to make sure he had not left during the previous week. Then there were scarabs and amulets and seals and shabtis—the little clay or ceramic figures who were going to slave for the rich in the afterlife, or so the rich hoped—and an elegant model wooden boat, shaped like a scoop and packed, as tight as peas in a pod, with swarthy, mop-topped oarsmen who, we thought, might perhaps be shabtis trying to escape. Some of the oars were still there, sticking out at the side, and at the back were two outsize oars for steering. In the middle of the room was a mummy lying at the bottom of a big wooden showcase with a glass top. We would peer down at it and it peered up at us with its painted black eyes. I found that, if I tapped very gently with my toe against the skirting at the bottom of the showcase, it made a passable imitation of a heartbeat. My sons reacted with delighted horror, and thereafter demanded that I should make the mummy’s heart beat.

The pride of the Egyptian collection was a complete little temple—or, strictly, a shrine from a larger temple. Its outside was covered with carvings that showed the Pharaoh Taharqa, to whom it had belonged, hobnobbing with assorted gods. You could walk inside and sit and dream. There were reproduction wall-paintings showing water birds and dancing girls, and you could imagine that when you came out there might be something similar—or maybe just sand and camels and palm trees. In fact, outside there was a life-size ram with curly horns, carved from granite. He was not really a ram, but the sun god Amun, and his nose was shiny from generations of children stroking it.

Leaving the Egyptian section, we would head past the Arundel marbles, a gleaming avenue of Greek statues, brought back from the Mediterranean by a 17th-century nobleman, and climb the stairs to the picture galleries. These are much the same today as they were 30-odd years ago. In the first room, on the right as you go in, is Uccello’s “Hunt in the Forest”, the museum’s great treasure. It is a captivating picture for children because the little horsemen, stock-still against the dark trees, with their orange jackets and harnesses, look as if you could reach in and lift them out, like toy soldiers. You have to look hard to see the dance of tiny deer and hounds that is being performed far off among the tree trunks, and you realise at once that the deer will never get hurt, for this is a picture frozen in a flash of time—one rider still has his mouth agape in shock, and several of the hounds have been caught in mid-air. There is not even a breeze to stir the flowers.

The other great picture in the room is a complete contrast. It is just an oil sketch of four people on a muddy-looking green background, a bit like figures emerging from fog, and it is by Michelangelo. You marvel as you look at it that a few lines and smudges could express so much. The mother is leading her little boy by the wrist, because he is being sulky and will not give her his hand. As she pulls him along, she is leaning forward to restrain her younger boy, who is trying to run on ahead. The father, on the left of the group, is also bending forward to check his mischievous little son. The father and the boys are naked, and the mother almost so. But that is irrelevant. You could dress them in the clothes of any period and the picture’s truth—the facial expressions, the little family drama being played out—would still come through as clear as birdsong. The tentative identification of the figures as the Holy Family with John the Baptist is clearly wrong. They can be seen any day in the supermarket, or going round the Ashmolean.

The room is stacked with other Old Masters—Titian, Tintoretto, Ghirlandaio’s sickly looking young man—but the two we always stopped at were the Piero di Cosimo and the Alessandro Allori. Both are strange. The di Cosimo is called “The Forest Fire”, and sure enough there is a fire blazing away in the background. But the refugee animals standing around in the foreground are a bizarre lot—a cow, a lion, a bear with cubs, some deer and pigs with human faces. None of them seems interested in the others or remotely concerned about the fire. The Allori shows a tall young man in black, with a beautiful silver filigree belt buckle, who regards you with elegant disdain. He is obviously an art-fancier—there is a classical statue on the table, and he has been polishing a medallion. The oddity is the window behind him, which opens on a terrace with a semi-nude male whose classical drapery is slipping down to reveal his pale bottom. It seems like a satire on self-possessed youth, but surely it cannot have been meant like that. Or so we wonder, as we leave the Old Masters and head for the 19th- and 20th-century galleries on the next floor, where most of our special favourites lie in wait.

If you have time, it is worth nipping into the baroque gallery to see a wonderful picture by Francesco Buoneri, a follower of Caravaggio, of a young man in a dazzling white shirt and rakish feathered bonnet who is looking guiltily at you, having just taken a recorder from his lips. The shelves behind him and the table in front are covered in fruit, nuts, gourds, cooking utensils, a cheese and a half-eaten pie, so perhaps he is a kitchen-hand caught practising in working hours.

The rooms at the top of the stairs are full of marvels. Every few steps you come upon a picture that stops you in your tracks. But our two little boys are  getting tired by this time, so we make first for the Pre-Raphaelites, who can be counted on to revive flagging interest because of the stories their pictures tell, or that we tell about them. Here are William Holman Hunt’s “British Family Hiding a Christian Missionary from the Druids”—will he escape? Is he wise to be wearing full ecclesiastical rig?—and Arthur Hughes’s little sailor boy, surely no more than 15, home from the sea and weeping on his mother’s grave, and Charles Collins’s nun in a convent garden gazing at a passion flower—is it Christ’s passion or earthly passion that is on her mind? Most engaging of all is Holman Hunt’s dovecote in a rainstorm, with the pigeons all looking thoroughly fed up about getting wet.

As time is pressing, we race past the four Turners (one of Oxford’s High Street), Samuel Palmer’s visionary pastorals and tousle-haired self-portrait and Corot’s translucent Umbrian lake—they will all be there next week, we tell ourselves—but we are brought up short by Edward Lear’s three landscapes (“Thermopylae”, “The Plains of Lombardy” and “Jerusalem”), each as serene as crystal. Imagine being able to write “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” as well as painting these. Among the Camille Pissarros we linger over “The Tuileries Gardens in the Rain”, with its homely puddles and umbrellas, and the portrait of his daughter Jeanne, aged eight, an abstracted little girl perched awkwardly on the edge of a wooden chair, who died the year after it was painted. The bright sunlight in his son Lucien’s “Eragny Church”, hanging nearby, helps cheer us up—a glittering swathe of grass, with the church reduced to a tiny distant spire.

Hurrying through a gallery at the end of the day alerts you to the tactics some pictures will resort to to grab your eye, even if you don’t really have time to stop. Toulouse-Lautrec’s “La Toilette” does it by flaunting an instantly recognisable human gesture—a young woman, seen from behind, pulling her hair into a plait. Sickert’s “L’Ennui”, the portrait of a broken marriage, does it, like the Pre-Raphaelites, by dangling a human-interest story before your nose. Vuillard’s “Le Déjeuner” does it simply by colour. Osten-sibly a portrait of his mother at table, it is a blaze of reds so intense you might try to warm your hands at it on a chill day. Sargent’s “A Balustrade” does it by its bold design, a brutal curve slicing across the picture space—as strident, in the quiet gallery, as a shout. He meant it to be an affirmation of the enduring power of art—his, and that of the builders and craftsmen of the past—and described it as “a study of a magnificent curved staircase and balustrade, leading to a grand façade that would reduce a millionaire to a worm.”

Before we step out into the Oxford evening, we pay our respects to Powhatan’s mantle, part of the original Tradescant collection from which the Ashmolean grew. It is made from four white-tailed deer hides stitched together with sinews, and decorated with hundreds of tiny sea shells, representing a human figure, flanked by two upright animals, and 31 spirals, perhaps representing villages. Scholars now think it may be a ceremonial hanging, not a mantle, and they question whether it belonged to the great chief Powhatan. But someone, possibly the younger John Tradescant, brought it back from Virginia, and we reflect, as we pull on our coats and head for tea, on the strangeness of fate that has placed in this guarded sanctum the remains of some wild creatures who lived on the other side of the world four centuries ago.

The visit I have been describing belongs to the past too. The little boys are now men—one an editor on the New Yorker, living in Brooklyn, the other a lawyer in London—and the Ashmolean itself has changed just as dramatically. In 2001 Rick Mather Architects were hired to create a £35m, six-storey “new Ashmolean”, supplementing Cockerell’s neo-classical masterpiece. Work began in 2006 and the museum reopened in 2009. Reviewers were ecstatic, stressing the light and airiness of the new galleries and the big gain in display space. To lovers of the old building, though, Mather’s can be painfully incongruous, like a glass-and-steel annexe stuck on the back of a great country house. It seems wasteful of space rather than the contrary. The staircases are sited in a huge empty shaft reaching up to the sky in the centre of the building, purposeless except as a grandiose architectural gesture.

The new galleries have a modern message too. Under the general slogan “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time”, they are, the curator Christopher Brown explains, designed to stress connections rather than differences between civilisations. To this end, showcases are equipped with glass backs, so that you get a vista of other galleries when you are trying to concentrate on the exhibits in front of you, and the lower-ground floor is given over to themed galleries (“Money”, “Reading and Writing”, “Textiles”) which mix up exhibits from different times and places. The change seems calculated to annoy visitors who can make connections for themselves, and to confuse those who cannot.

So it is a relief that the picture galleries remain largely unchanged. The Uccello room still has its lovely drab green walls, and extra space has been found on the third floor to show more of the Ashmolean collection, especially Sickerts and Pissarros. But the greatest transformation is the Egyptian section, which took an additional two years and £5m to complete, and opened in November 2011. The six remodelled galleries trace ancient Egyptian civilisation from its prehistoric remains – coloured pots and ceremonial stone palettes, swarming with the bird and animal life of the Nile valley south of the delta—to the rise of Greece and Rome. A poignant display investigates the community of workmen whose labour built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Letters they wrote—or paid local scribes to write for them, on bits of stone or pottery—have survived, telling of the excuses they made for not turning up for work, or their arrangements for donkey-hire, or disputes about dead donkeys.

The mummified cat is back, looking very fit. But there are some losses. You can no longer sit and dream inside Taharqa’s shrine. The door has been blocked up to form a black-painted alcove housing a statue of Taharqa borrowed from a Southampton museum. Amun the ram no longer has a shiny nose. Scientific cleansing has obliterated the traces of all those vanished children’s hands; today’s children must make do with photo-graphing him on their mobiles instead of stroking him. The wooden boat with its mop-topped oarsmen is gone too. You will find it in one of the themed sections in the basement, not here where it belongs.

All the same, the new Ancient Egyptian and Nubian galleries are magnificent, and they exploit scientific techniques unknown when I took my sons round. Several mummies have been put through ct scans at local hospitals, some with surprising results. The mummy of a priest from a temple in Thebes, one of the grandest in the collection, was found to have no heart. Embalmers would remove the major organs, including the brain, and store them in elaborate jars. But the heart was always put back, or the dead person could not enter the afterlife. This mummy’s heart has been replaced by mud and sand, no one knows why. Another scanned mummy is a boy with a twisted hip and a distorted skull who died, aged two, probably of pneumonia. The artist Angela Palmer has made a glass sculpture based on the scan’s images, which is displayed beside the mummy, so you can look right through a weblike simulacrum of the child’s body. Though they may seem indecent, these scientific intrusions bespeak our insatiable need to know about the dead, wrest their secrets from them, and bring them back to life. Not so different from tapping your foot against a skirting board to make a mummy’s heart beat.

The Ashmolean is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-6pm (plus bank holiday Mondays), closed other Mondays; ashmolean.org

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