Collector of curiosities
Before it was shut for the final refurbishment at the end of 2008, the stairs to the right of the entrance to the Ashmolean Museum led to a small first floor gallery of treasures and paintings. Almost, but not quite, dominating the space are two portraits of Elias Ashmole, the creator of the Ashmolean Museum. Both are by the painter John Riley. The first, inside a spectacular frame by Grinling Gibbons, surmounted by Ashmole’s arms and his motto, Ex Uno Omnia — all things come from one — shows Ashmole wearing a gold chain and portrayed with objects reflecting his scholarly interests, particularly as an antiquary and herald. He holds the book, Ashmole of the Garter alongside portrait medallions of Frederick William, Elector of Brandenberg and Karl Ludwig of Bavaria.
Probably painted and presented to the new museum in 1683, it is a clear visual statement of Ashmole’s status and interests. But of equal interest is a later study of Ashmole, completed shortly before his death. The portrait is more unadorned but his character still comes through strongly — satisfied, genial, self-confident, no-nonsense and, above all, determined.
Elias Ashmole was born in Lichfield (also the birthplace of Dr Johnson) in 1617, the son of a saddler. This modest start belied the fact that his grandfather enjoyed the rank and style of a gentleman, while his mother was descended from generations of ‘good family’. He attended Lichfield Grammar School before leaving for London, aged 16, where well-placed relatives guided his subsequent studies in law and music, together with dancing lessons.
In 1638, Ashmole began to ‘solicit in Chancery and had indifferent good practice’. There followed four humdrum years, and the loss of his first wife.
By 1642, Ashmole had decided to leave London, strongly disagreeing with the powers of the Long Parliament.
“The trouble in London growing greate, I resolved to leave the City and retyre into the Country,” he wrote. In May, 1644, he was appointed a commissioner for the gathering of excise in Staffordshire and Lichfield.
In 1683 the Ashmolean Museum was finally established in Oxford, with Ashmole recording in his diary: “The last load of my rarities was sent to the barge (to go up the Thames from London to Oxford),and this afternoon I relapsed into gout.’Elias Ashmole
He was sent to Oxford to gain the help of the Royalist parliament against the obstructive Governor of Lichfield. In Oxford, life picked up again. A combination of his abilities, interests and opportunities gained him preferment with Charles I, who had made his headquarters in the city. Although there seems to be no record of Ashmole matriculating, contemporary sources agree that he studied natural philosophy, mathematics, astrology and astronomy and was a student at Brasenose College. As Dr Arthur MacGregor points out, ‘the heady mix of scholarship, warfare and high society would have been entirely to Ashmole’s liking’.
Soon he was in charge of the vital eastern defences of Oxford, and other important posts followed until the Royalist surrender in 1646. Ashmole then boldly returned to London in defiance of orders that former officers in the King’s armies were not to stay within 20 miles of the City. The problem was that he could not practice as a lawyer. His financial needs though were met when he married Lady Manwaring, a rich widow, his senior by almost 20 years. Her family disliked the match and there were many tedious lawsuits until in 1656 all were decided in Ashmole’s favour.
The marriage relieved him of the need ‘to take paines for a liveleyhood in the world’. He was now rich and able to pursue his academic studies, particularly in the areas of genealogy, heraldry and the orders of chivalry. His income allowed him to collect a wide range of manuscripts — from alchemical to magical — and coins and archaeological specimens.
Ashmole also made important friendships between 1650 and 1660, including notable Oxford academics such as John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham and the Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Dr Seth Ward.
The Restoration in 1660 saw Charles II reward Ashmole for his loyalty. In particular, he was appointed Windsor Herald and, later, after many years research published his famous Institutions, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.
As his position in society became secure, so his thoughts turned to Oxford and its university. But the creation of the Ashmolean Museum was to be a long project with even longer antecedents, dating back to the beginning of the 17th century with the emergence of the polymath, John Tradescant. This botanist, plantsman and collector served under several wealthy patrons. He was a great traveller, visiting Russia, the Levant and Algiers, bringing back seeds and bulbs for his botanic garden in Lambeth. And alongside the garden was ‘The Ark’, to house his collection of natural history and ethnography — the ‘cabinet of curiosities’.
He ended his career as Keeper of the Royal Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms to Charles I and was responsible for introducing into English gardens the lilac, evening primrose, the passion-flower, acacia and many other plants, flowers and trees.
A decade or so after Tradescant’s death in 1638, Elias Ashmole met John Tradescant the younger, who had continued to build up his late father’s wide ranging and unsurpassed collection of plants, mineral specimens and other ‘curiosities’ from around the world. Ashmole, ever eager, helped to catalogue this extraordinary collection and then in 1656 financed the publication of the Musaeum Tradescantianum, the first museum catalogue to be published in England. Events now become somewhat murky, or certainly less clear. In 1659, Tradescant legally deeded his collection to Ashmole, who would take possession at Tradescant’s death.
But when he died in 1662, his widow Hester contested the will, claiming her husband had signed it — some said when drunk — without knowing the contents. The matter was finally settled, after much ill will, in Chancery in favour of Ashmole, with Hester holding the collection in trust for him until her death.
Ashmole was undoubtedly acquisitive, rich and determined to get the collection, but the Chancery verdict suggests that he acquired it by fair means rather than foul, though some 19th and 20th century writers have found this hard to accept. Not long after the claim was upheld, Mrs Tradescant was found drowned in her garden pond.
In 1669, Ashmole received a Doctorate in Medicine from Oxford University, and keeping up his links with the university, he wrote to the Vice-Chancellor: “it has long been my desire to give you some testimony of my Duty and filial respect and when Mr Tradescant’s Collection of Rarities came to my hands . . . I firmly resolv’d to deposite them nowhere but with you”. And it came to pass.
In 1683 the Ashmolean Museum was finally established in Oxford, with Ashmole recording in his diary: “The last load of my rarities was sent to the barge (to go up the Thames from London to Oxford), and this afternoon I relapsed into gout.’ The nucleus of his collection included a diverse and rare range of Tradescant curiosities, including ‘a Babylonian vest, Easter eggs of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, and a Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big’. In addition there was ‘the claw of the bird Rock: who as authors report, is able to trusse an elephant, blood that rained in the Isle of Wight, attested by Sir Jo: Oglander, a brazen-ball to warme the Nunnes hands’ and much else besides.
The university undertook to build premises to house the institution in Broad Street — the Old Ashmolean: the first floor for the collection, the ground floor as a lecture room and ‘school of natural history’ and the basement as a chemical laboratory.
One of the most important features of the new institution, though founded primarily for academic purposes, was that it was open to the fee paying public and thus the first truly public museum in England. This principle was established in Ashmole’s earliest set of proposals (Tradescant’s Ark in Lambeth had also been open to visitors for sixpence, then the price of a pound of butter).
Understandably, Ashmole was concerned about his collection being protected from the public: ‘that the Rarities shalbe shewed but to one Companye at a time, and that upon their being entred into the Musaeum, the dore shalbe shut’. But the reality was otherwise. Zacharias von Uffenbach, visiting Oxford in 1710, observed: ‘The specimens in the museum might be much better arranged and preserved. But it is surprising that things can be preserved even as well as they are, since the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion, taking no rebuff from the sub-custos.’ His first attempt to visit the museum was on a market day and he found present crowds of farmers, bargees and servants — as well as scholars and gentlemen. Ashmole always kept a close eye on the development of his foundation and disapproved particularly of the long absences away from Oxford of Dr Robert Plot, the first keeper of the museum.
But Elias Ashmole’s life continued to be a great deal wider than his links with Oxford. Having received several royal offices at the Restoration in 1660, he in time became Accountant General of the Excise. It made him responsible for large portions of the king’s revenue, with accompanying income and power of patronage. Charles II certainly valued Ashmole as an able and loyal subject, with his keen interest in learning of all kinds.
Ashmole was also one of the founding members of the Royal Society in 1661, and although he did not play an active part in its affairs, he welcomed the new emphasis on experimental tests while remaining confident, perhaps too confident, that astrology and alchemy would have much to offer the ‘new learning’.
He never lost his fascination with horoscopes, casting them before taking any action. He was renowned for it, and Charles II consulted him on more than one occasion. Ashmole even tried his luck in politics, standing in Lichfield in 1678, and again in 1685.
In the first election, he did not visit the constituency. In the second he was up against the favourite of King James II. Unsurprisingly, he was not elected on either occasion. He also studied Rosicrucianism and was one of the earliest freemasons — both interests prompted, no doubt, by his love of the antique and unusual.
He died at his house in Lambeth in 1692. In his will, Ashmole bequeathed the remains of his collection and library to Oxford University, as well as his collection of medals. His widow, Elizabeth, later married a stonemason.
Elias Ashmole was an upwardly mobile member of 17th century England. From small, though secure, beginnings he achieved much.
Able and ambitious, he succeeded modestly in law, business and politics, and was talented at making friends and influencing people. But his real forte and his real love were for his collection and his scholarly pursuits. Above all ‘acquisitiveness was his master passion.’ A passion that has served Oxford University and city well over the years, both through his wide-ranging and surprising collection and, above all, through his great museum.