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Visit to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Tuesday 19th October 2010

"A collection of collections" is how I have heard the Ashmolean described. From its founding as Britain's first public museum in 1683 under the auspices of Elias Ashmole to the present day, it has benefitted from donations and bequests through the centuries to make it rich and diverse with important paintings, curiosities and objets d'art to match any in the modern world. A £61 million project of building and redevelopment, designed by the architect Rick Mather and opened in 2009, made it a "must see" for Cranleigh DFAS and so we did just that last Tuesday.

Cranleigh DFAS arrives on the steps of the Ashmolean

Having made an early start and good progress we arrived with plenty of time for a leisurely coffee in the spacious café in the basement before our conducted tours. For these we were split into three groups and were treated to a whirlwind tour with an expert guide through a labyrinth of galleries, floors and halls, pausing to admire the finer points of the amazing architecture of the building or to have our attention drawn to particularly interesting or unique items in the collections.

The "journey" of our group started in the ancient world in the Greek and Minoan rooms (I particularly liked a large Minoan urn from Knossos depicting a huge six-tentacled squid). We progressed up the stairs of the daylight-filled atrium decked with plaster busts by Sir Francis Chantrey of notable personages of his day to the marvellous music gallery. Here the best of musical instruments collected and donated by the Hills Brothers were displayed and we admired in particular the Stradivarius "The Messiah" resplendent in its own glass case. From here we were whisked through various art galleries and paused to revere a self-portrait by Rembrandt and be introduced to a collection of Dutch Delftware all in blue and white as it struggled to emulate the Chinese porcelain which was popularly making an appearance at the time. We saw Baroque paintings relating to the grand tour and eighteenth century oils and sketches before visiting the Mallett Gallery in the old building decked in red damask and sporting a large portrait of Hercules wavering in his moralistic choice between Vice and Prudence.

The Alfred Jewel

From here we were led through the Fortnum Gallery where was displayed a wonderful collection of Renaissance majolica, described by the childless owner, Charles Fortnum (of Fortnum & Mason fame), as his children, on to a gallery of silver which housed a spectacular crozier of Bishop Richard Fox and a magnificent silver toilet service being a gift from Lord Treby to his bride in 1724.

In the Renaissance Gallery we met Uccello's "The Hunt in the Forest" which besides illustrating a riotous medieval hunt was also an exercise in perspective where the stag disappeared into the vanishing point in the forest and the mille fleurs of the forest floor were on closer inspection not flowers but mushrooms! In the West meets East section we saw Chinese and Japanese galleries before being whisked on to the England gallery where we saw the magnificent Anglo-Saxon Alfred Jewel depicting the form of Alfred the Great on the end of a pointer for following the text of a manuscript, which had been worked in gold, rock crystal and cloisonné enamel. After this, it was porcelain and the Marshall room of Worcester porcelain including a complete display of a Georgian dessert table. We ended our tour in the basement in the money section and were shown one of the greatest treasures of the Ashmolean, a gold coin called the Oxford Crown which depicted Charles I mounted on horseback over an Oxford cityscape.

The Oxford Crown

This concluded the morning's activities and, after a lunch of our choice, we were free to follow our own programme of activities. Most devoted their allotted time to exploring in more depth the five floors of exhibits and treasures. Wherever I wandered I came across little knots of our party closely examining a particular item, gazing at a painting or even musing about which snuff box they would most like to take home! Several people chose to visit the special exhibition on The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy on the third floor, which I gather came up to expectations. Some even escaped the Ashmolean altogether for the delights of shopping in the covered market or for rediscovering old haunts in the surrounding streets.

A particular delight for me personally was to track down this portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of "Penelope Boothby", a little three year old girl in a mob cap whom he painted in 1788. Penelope died in 1791 and is celebrated by an exquisitely carved white marble tomb of a sleeping child in St Oswald's Church in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, which John and I stumbled across by chance earlier in the year.

At 4.00pm we assembled on the coach and were driven home by our excellent driver who took us on a scenic route to Cranleigh through rainbows on the M40 and bypassing Guildford altogether which was that time apparently suffering an accident-induced gridlock.

Altogether it was a splendid day.

Hilary Baker