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The Ashmolean, home to Oxford University's outstanding art and archaeology collections, is not only Britain's oldest public museum, but possibly the oldest museum in the world.
Founded in 1683, what started as a single room of paintings and curiosities grew into an institution of superlatives. It is home to the biggest collection of Raphael drawings; the most significant collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts apart from the British Museum; and the greatest Chinese collection in the West.
In 2009, the museum's interior was entirely redesigned in a £61 million project that not only doubled the gallery space but fundamentally rethought the way in which the collections were displayed.
With fine art from the medieval period to the present day and internationally significant archaeological collections from all the major ancient civilisations, the Ashmolean offers all the heft of a major museum within a fairly compact framework.
Highlights of the Western art collection include Uccello's glorious The Hunt in the Forest, paintings by Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo, and drawings by Rembrandt, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The museum's strong gallery of British art is dominated by landscapes from Constable, Turner and Samuel Palmer, and the 20th century is represented in works from Cézanne, Picasso and Monet, as well as a large collection of Sickert. Of interest also is John Ruskin's teaching collection, The Elements of Drawing, comprising drawings, etchings and texts that elaborate his philosophy and approach to art.
Among the antiquities, the museum houses the finest pre-dynastic Egyptian collection in Europe, featuring alongside jewellery and domestic objects a charming hippopotamus in red pottery with jaws gaping wide. The Arthur Evans Minoan collection is the most significant in Britain, and the museum's collection of papyri include manuscript copies of the Old and New Testaments.
Applied arts are also well represented in the new-look Ashmolean, with a fine new display of textiles not previously available to public view, as well as collections of musical instruments, ceramics and coins.
Curiosities abound through the various museum collections, with notable objects including an Arab ceremonial dress belonging to Lawrence of Arabia, the lantern carried by Guy Fawkes during the 1605 Gunpowder Plot (part of the Ashmolean's original collection) and the death mask of Oliver Cromwell.
Art Funded works
Nominally inspired by Lucretius' De rerum natura, Piero di Cosimo's The Forest Fire takes its scientific subject and embellishes it with fantastical creatures from the artist's imagination: Bulls, bears, lions and deer-like creatures with human faces all flee wearily from a fire.
Rubens' portrait of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel dates from about 1629. The Earl was a great collector, and Rubens had painted the earl's wife a few years earlier on a visit to Antwerp. This drawing in pen and ink with a chalk base is unusually informal, reflecting perhaps the comfortable relationship between artist and patron.
It's worth saving your visit to the Ashmolean until summer, just so you can take advantage of the new roof-terrace restaurant. While there is a glass-fronted indoor section, there can be few more spectacular spots to eat in good weather than outside, looking out over the rooftops and colleges of Oxford. The menu favours rustic European flavours, and there's also an extensive wine list.
For something quicker and simpler, the vaulted café offers a convenient alternative, serving light meals and snacks throughout the day. Located alongside the shop, you can now browse the art books, textiles and ceramics inspired by the Ashmolean collections, and food and wine products while enjoying your cup of tea.
Art we've helped buy at Ashmolean Museum
Permanent collections are free to all
Tue – Sun, Bank Holiday Mon, 10am – 5pm
Closed 24 – 26 Dec