5 Objects to Love in the Ashmolean this Valentine’s Day


Forget match.com and OkCupid, the Ashmolean Museum has all the romance you need this February 14th. The following selection of objects from the museum’s displays, as well as a few gems from the vaults, will give you a taster of what you can expect on a Valentine’s visit.

1) Meet the goddess of love!

On this lekythos (an ancient Greek perfume vessel), Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is depicted riding a swan. The swan was a potent symbol of love in ancient Greece; as well as being associated with Aphrodite, the amorous god Zeus turned himself into a swan in order to get close to one of his many mistresses, Leda, without his wife finding out!

Object not currently on display, find out more here

Attic red-figure lekythos with image of Aphrodite riding a swan, from Tomb 57 at Arsinoe (Marion) donated by Cyprus Exploration Fund (AN1891.451

Attic red-figure lekythos with image of Aphrodite riding a swan,
from Tomb 57 at Arsinoe (Marion)
donated by Cyprus Exploration Fund (AN1891.451

2) A wedding day to forget…

On a tiny gold iconographic ring, Saint George, the patron saint of England, is shown with the famous dragon, and the figure of a princess, dressed as a bride. According to legend, the princess in her bridal gown was to be fed to the plague-bearing dragon that was terrorizing her kingdom. But Saint George slew the dragon and rescued the princess before her wedding day ended in disaster.

Item not currently on display, see the ring for yourself here


3) Roman-ce in the Randolf Gallery

Head to the Randolf Gallery for a spot of romance from the 1st / 2nd century AD. On his tombstone, Lucius Sestius Sotericus, a Roman ex-slave, commemorates his “well-deserving wife / coniugi suae bene merenti”, Sestia Prisca. The tombstone reveals that the only thing Sestia did to hurt her husband was to die! This may not be the most romantic statement by modern standards, but for a Roman woman, this was as high a compliment as any.

Ashmolean ANChandler.3.21, 1st/2nd century AD. On display in the Randolph Gallery.

Ashmolean ANChandler.3.21, 1st/2nd century AD. On display in the Randolph Gallery.

4) A Kabuki Love Triangle

Woodblock prints were massively popular in 19th and 20th century Japan; they commonly represented actors from kabuki plays, dressed in their theatrical costumes. In this tripartite woodcut, actors are shown performing the story of geisha Kasaya Sankatsu. Two merchants are depicted on opposing panels, competing for her love. Sankatsu, shown in the central panel, extends a red sake cup toward each man, emphasizing her divided loyalties. Both men draw their swords in anticipation of a fight.

Item not currently on display, read more about it here

Here two merchants compete for the love of the geisha Sankatsu. Sankatsu holds the two halves of a red sake cup in her hands, demonstrating her divided loyalties towards the two men. Date 1849 - 1850

Here two merchants compete for the love of the geisha Sankatsu. Sankatsu holds the two halves of a red sake cup in her hands, demonstrating her divided loyalties towards the two men.
Date 1849 – 1850

5) When is three not a crowd?

Part of Flemish artist Jacques de l’Ange’s Seven Deadly Sins series, this oil painting is named ‘A Loving Couple’, who represent the vice of Lust. A young woman sits centrally, holding a candle, wrapped in the embrace of the ardent male figure sitting beside her. Also illuminated by the candlelight is another male figure, gazing out at the viewer with a knowing look. His bare shoulder suggests that something untoward is about to happen…
Not currently on display, more information can be found here

attributed to Jacques de l'Ange (documented 1631-2 - 1642) A23; oil on copper; 36 x 28 cm WA1845.23 A Loving Couple: 'Lust'

attributed to Jacques de l’Ange (documented 1631-2 – 1642)
A23; oil on copper; 36 x 28 cm
A Loving Couple: ‘Lust’

If you would like to see any of the objects which are not currently on display at the Museum, please contact Sarah at public.engagement@ashmus.ox.ac.uk about the possibility of arranging a viewing.

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Stumpwork, subversion and the 17th Century

written by Charlotte Kelly

Tour rooms 44 to 46 of the Ashmolean and you will find a wide array of 17th century European art. Look again though, and you may find something missing. Of the 60 or so pictures of the 17th century which have a definite attribution, every one was painted by a man. There are plenty of women depicted, but not a single work by a female artist. This is of course hardly unique to the Ashmolean, and a natural conclusion might be that women simply weren’t creating art in this period. Journey down to Room 5 in the basement however, and you will find a treasure trove of embroidery from the 17th century, the vast majority of it worked by female, largely anonymous, hands.

A number of the pieces, such as “Scenes from the Life of Abraham” and “Cushion: Couple Standing by a Fountain”, are examples of stumpwork, a style of raised embroidery which achieved popularity in 17th century in England. Stumpwork embroidery is commonly found mounted on boxes, mirror frames and other small household goods, and worked using a variety of silk and metal threads, small pieces of appliquéd fabric and beads. The most common scenes depicted are biblical stories, though secular scenes drawn from printed pictorial sources are also found (“The Four Continents”). Typical to stumpwork is a disregard for scale and perspective- an examination of the embroidery on the right door panel of “Scenes from the Life of Abraham” reveals a caterpillar half as large as the nearby figure of Hagar, and apparently floating in mid air towards Hagar’s cloak. This is no indication of a naivety of the embroiderer; rather, it simply arises from a desire to showcase a variety of techniques in a way which would be impossible if the animals were all kept to scale.

The makers of these pieces of embroidery were predominantly young wealthy women, for whom these elaborate embroidered scenes served as the crowning achievement of their juvenile studies in embroidery. Their names are largely lost, which makes “Scenes from the Life of Abraham” all the more exciting, because we have both the name of the embroiderer, and some information about its creation. The maker was one Miss Bluitt, later Mrs Payne, and the box was created while Miss Bluitt was at school in Hackney-a popular site for girls’ schools, on account of its supposedly healthier air- in the years immediately preceding the Plague.

It is easy to imagine that embroidery was yet another means by which young women were confined to the home, their energies directed into time-consuming works displaying their feminine virtue. Certainly to complete an elaborate stumpwork box would have been the work of months, if not years.  The work involved in making the detached buttonhole sections found on “Scenes from the Life of Abraham” alone would have been immense. Embroidery, requiring diligent sedentary work in the domestic sphere, was popularly linked in the pamphlets of 17th century with womanhood. It is no accident that Sarah, the dutiful wife of Abraham, is depicted in a number of stumpwork and canvas work works in the Ashmolean.

We can’t be sure how the young women embroidering these boxes felt about their creations. Some certainly found it frustrating; Lucy Hutchinson, daughter of the lieutenant of the Tower of London, wrote “and for my needle I absolutely hated it.” There are suggestions though that for at least some women, embroidery represented not a repression but rather a means of self-expression.

Rozika Parker, in her excellent and very readable book, “The Subversive Stitch”, points out that embroidery disproportionately shows biblical heroines, often in positions of power. The story of Esther, which is the subject of several pieces in the Ashmolean, shows a woman of bravery assuming a role in the masculine business of politics. The story of Sarah can also be understood not as wifely submission, but, as is given prominence on the left door of “Scenes from the Life of Abraham”, as demonstrating Sarah’s power in persuading Abraham to send away Hagar.



WA1947.191.315 Embroidered box, scenes from the Life of Abraham

Due to the fragility of textiles from the 17th century, pieces from the Ashmolean’s wide collection of stumpwork and canvas work are frequently rotated. Study whichever pieces are on display, and you will find objects which are testament both to a turbulent period in social history and to the creative expression of their makers. Women were creating works of art in the 17th century; it is simply that we all too often ignore embroidery as “women’s work.”

Object details:
Embroidered box, scenes from the Life of Abraham

Description: silk, linen and metal threads, hair, peacock feathers, pearls and wire mounted on a wooden carcass with silver fittings. The left section of Sarah’s dress is a later painted fabric imitating the original tent stitch embroidery; Appliqué, detached needlepoint, cut pile stitches, satin stitch and tent stitch.

Anonymous, English, possibly Miss Bluitt, later Mrs Payne

c. 1665

More info here

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Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works by Anna Zanetti

(c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works – George Jones (1852) by Anna Zanetti

As empty-looking as it may seem, I’ve always found this painting incredibly rich in meanings. It’s entitled Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his works, and was painted by George Jones in 1852. It reproduces the Gallery on Queen Anne Street (West End of London) where Turner kept his unsold works. The room has red walls, a wooden floor, and central skylight coming from the white ceiling. On the walls, a number of paintings are hung, opening onto the gallery like colourful windows. We can even recognise some of Turner’s actual works, such as Dido building Carthage (1815), at the centre of the back wall.

There are two main reasons why I find this picture fascinating. First of all, it acts as a visual document for Turner’s real gallery: together with another oil painting by Jones, this is the only visual record we have. Interestingly, Jones painted it after Turner’s death, from memory, because Turner didn’t want anyone to paint his gallery. In spite of the reliance on visual memory only, Jones managed to capture the atmosphere of the gallery successfully. A letter by Lady Trevelyan, one of Turner’s friends and fans, reads: ‘Among bits of old furniture thick with dust like a place that has been forsaken for years, were those brilliant pictures all glowing with sunshine and colour…’. Indeed, this looks very much like what Jones has painted.

Not only does this painting act as a historical record, but it also bears a metapictorial significance. The Greek preposition ‘meta’ means (among other things) ‘beyond’. With his work, Jones takes us beyond art and makes us reflect on how art is seen and experienced. The characters of the painting, just like us, are looking at paintings themselves. In this way Jones draws our attention to our role as viewers.

In his metapictorial play, Jones also invites us to re-think about Tuner’s works. When we admire them at Tate Britain, they look spectacular for sure, but also relatively realistic. They appear real depictions of real places, and we are tempted to congratulate the artist on his lifelike representations. The reality is that in many cases Turner would paint completely invented scenes – and Jones knew it. According to an anecdote, on the frame of The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl (1820), painted by Turner after his first trip to Italy, Jones wrote ‘Splendide Mendax’ (Gloriously False): he knew that the work was largely the artist’s invention rather than topographically exact. Turner never removed the inscription, acknowledging that the truth of his art lay not so much in prosaic reality as ‘in his ability to use invention as a means towards discovering deeper understandings of the world’ (Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner, 2000). Much like the Latin note on Turner’s work, Interior of Turner’s Gallery confronts us with the relationship between his art and reality. Having several of Turner’s works all in one picture draws our attention to his status as an artist and his visionary creativity, which often went beyond mere reality.

-Anna Zanetti


Object Details:

George Jones (1786 – 1869)

Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works

A241; oil on millboard; 14 x 23 cm

Presented by Mrs George Jones, the artist’s widow.; WA1881.348

More details here


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Blog Launch

Written by Freddy Rendall. Edited by Steve Lawson.

The place? The impressive roof-top restaurant on the top floor of the Ashmolean.

The time? 2 hours before an as-yet unmet deadline.

The reason? The launch of the Ashmolean Talking Objects blog, a new space to foster closer interaction between students at Oxford, Oxford Brookes, and the other Colleges and Universities based in Oxford, and the museum.


It has always amazed me how many of my friends have never visited the Ashmolean. Perhaps it is too close? Too easy? Too free? Behind the lines of tourists frantically snapping its old columns lie some of the most remarkable and interesting collections in the country. Masterful drawings, magnificent musical instruments, some wonderful artefacts; few of which are regularly used or even known about by the wider student body. This is where Talking Objects comes in: through handling sessions run with experts, to sessions with curators on specific objects, the blog empowers you to take any object, picture or artefact that interests you, and run with it (but not literally) – to write an informed, but also light-hearted piece inspired by the object; perhaps relating to much wider themes or ideas. It is a remarkable opportunity to engage with the museum collections regardless, of course.

As we all toasted the success of the new venture with some guilty ‘mid-afternoon booze’, it was clear that this was a project that had real potential. For the first time, it will be simple and easy for students from all disciplines to make use of museum expertise and resources, while the articles that are produced have the chance to gain a real readership. The first object handling session looks to be with the Contemporary China department, while the high number of replies from the initial call has been very encouraging.


Call for Submissions

Now, this blog needs you! Do you have a favourite object in the Ashmolean collections? Want to share your thoughts with the world? Here’s how:

We are looking for:

Written pieces of approximately 500 words.


Pieces of art  – be that photographs, poetry, a drawing or painting! Any response to an object accompanied by a short paragraph about why this is meaningful and what inspired the work.

  • You choose an object, or a couple of objects, from the museum and discuss their significance.
  • Your piece should be light-hearted and engaging, aimed at a student audience. It should not be an academic essay – learned for sure, but not boring!
  • You may like to set up a debate about museums and heritage – for example, should museums house objects not from their country of origin?
  • Images and basic information (provenance, measurements, museum history) can be provided if necessary.
  • We can also offer opportunities to handle objects and chat with a curator about your piece.

Blog URL: http://blogs.ashmolean.org%2

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First Student Creative Board Event

The Pharaoh’s Bucket List

In October 2015, the Student Creative Board ran its first workshop at the Halloween-themed DEADFriday event. Set in the ‘Egypt at its Origins’ gallery, the Pharaoh’s Bucket List game encouraged participants to dress up in Ancient Egyptian inspired clothing from the Board’s dressing up box and take a selfie with the object from the gallery that they would take to the afterlife. The selfies, posted on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #DEADFriday, popped up on the Student Board’s big screen. The photo challenge inspired some very creative responses, with participants saying that they would take everything from the colossal statue of Min to a model cat to the afterlife! A prize was awarded for the best selfie. The aim was to engage with a student audience, but people of all ages enjoyed taking part! The Student Board also had a great time dressing up and meeting the public.

If you’d like to be the first to hear about future Student Creative Board events, sign up to the mailing list by emailing: public.engagement@ashmus.ox.ac.uk

Click on the photos tab to see some of the images from LiveFriday


The Ashmolean during DEADFriday

Picture 1 of 2

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