In any other century, the reputation of Elias Ashmole might have been pre-eminent. But alongside Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and countless other thinkers of the Enlightenment, it gets lost in the shadows. His name might even have been forgotten entirely were it not for the perfect jewel of a museum that bears his name.
Born in Lichfield 400 years ago this year, Ashmole had the sort of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity typical of the time. His interests encompassed natural philosophy, mathematics, alchemy and astrology, though he was at heart an antiquarian. He qualified as a solicitor but earned a living through his military role in support of the Royalists and King Charles I. Stationed in Oxford, he lodged at Brasenose College and took advantage of his proximity to the university by studying mathematics and physics.
Despite these academic pursuits Ashmole was practical and ambitious. In order to live comfortably while pursing his intellectual interests he did what any resourceful 17th century gentleman might do: he set about finding a wealthy widow to marry. The lucky lady (if that is the right description) was the thrice-widowed Lady Mary Mainwaring, 20 years his senior. Though successful in its primary purpose of securing his fortune, the marriage was opposed by the bride’s family and led to an acrimonious separation.
After the Restoration, Ashmole was rewarded for his loyalty to the King with many public offices, including that of Accountant-General of the Excise. These conferred not just wealth but the power of patronage; he was a made man.
First and foremost, Ashmole was an antiquarian and a collector, especially of manuscripts. He was always more of a student than a practitioner, obsessively cataloguing his own collections as well as those of others. He befriended the botanist and plant hunter John Tradescant the Younger, whose collection he inherited after Tradescant’s death in 1662. This, combined with his own extensive collection of artefacts and manuscripts, formed the basis of his bequest to found a museum for the University of Oxford. In the event, the Tradescant collection formed the majority of the bequest after a fire at Middle Temple destroyed most of Ashmole’s own contribution, which lead to Ashmole being accused in some quarters of stealing the Tradescant legacy and glorifying his own name.
After two unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament and completing a definitive history of the Order of the Garter, Elias Ashmole died at his Lambeth home in 1692.
Whilst not an Enlightenment A-lister, his name lives on in the outstanding museum, known simply as The Ashmolean, he founded in 1683. With a strong claim to be the country’s first truly public museum (it predates the British Museum by some 76 years), the Ashmolean has a diverse collection of exceptional quality. Its main advantage over the British Museum is its size. A perfect example of the principle that “less is more“, the Ashmolean is human and manageable. And yet it boasts exhibits ranging from very fine European paintings and drawings, to Anglo-Saxon treasures, Egyptian pre-dynastic sculpture and treasures from ancient Minoa. Housed in a handsome neoclassical building on Beaumont Street, the interior was extensively renovated between 2006 and 2009 and now has five floors of excellent exhibition space. This has clearly paid dividends and the Ashmolean is now the most visited museum outside London. Located in the centre of Oxford, it is surrounded by amenities, it is accessible and best of all, entry to all but special exhibitions is absolutely free of charge. More details here: http://www.ashmolean.org/