I get criticised for the unusual names I have for the characters in my stories, but I don’t think I have ever had such a strange name as Elias Ashmole. He gave a cabinet of curiosities to the University of Oxford and they named the museum to house them after him. He lived between 1617-1692 and was a man of many parts, politician, astrologer and alchemist and a founding member of the Royal Society.
I had never visited the museum until earlier this week when I went with a friend we spent the morning there but there was just so much to see so we confined ourselves to the wonderful and varied art on display. We looked at some seventeenth century Dutch painters; there was one wonderful picture of a transaction taking place between two men, one buying chickens from the other surrounded by interested parties. The one selling the chickens was obviously a rogue you could tell not just from the twinkle in his eye but by the expression on the faces of the others. A couple of chickens were scratching around and one poor bird dangled from the buyer’s hand. There was a milk-maid, simpering out of the picture, her yoke propped up beside her, a basket of eggs on her lap, and in the background a couple of drunken looking fellows were exchanging quips and maybe bets. It was a wonderful picture; the faces could be seen in any pub or market place today, the expressions, the clothing, the action, the stillness of the maid… I just wish I could remember who painted it!
We then went to the Pitt Rivers Museum, another eccentric collector who established a wonderful and eccentric array of very important exhibits and had a museum named after him. It was much recommended, and it was worth visiting for the building alone… however, I did not find it quite as amazing as everyone who had recommended it did; I enjoyed it, but would return to the Ashmolean rather than Pitt Rivers. Now Mr Pitt Rivers, another great name Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers; he was a nineteenth century collector and archaeologist. He was ethnologist and an early advocate of cremation – his body was cremated in 1900 after he had died (thank goodness) at the age of eighty-three, two years before cremation was formally legalized.