Collection Spotlight: The Ashmolean Museum

Bridgeman images is honoured to represent the Ashmolean Museum - The University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, founded in 1683. 

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is situated on Beaumont Street, Oxford. The Ashmolean is Britain's first public museum and the world’s second university museum. The present neoclassical building dates from 1841 - 1845 and was designed as the ‘University Galleries’ by Charles Cockerell. The museum is ‘home to half a million years of human history and creativity!’. The collection began as a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ developed by John Tradescant, installed in his house at Lambeth. English antiquary, Elias Ashmole acquired the collection in the late 1650s and gifted it to the University of Oxford. The collection covers a vast range of archaeological specimens and fine art. This article will focus in particular on the Ashmoleans ‘India and Southeast Asia collection’ & ‘China collection’. The India and Southeast Asian collection contains a distinguished group of objects from the Indian subcontinent (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and is considered to be one of the most comprehensive of its kind in Britain. The museum also houses some of the finest collections of Chinese art in Europe. Artefacts in the China collection include a range of ceramics, paintings and prints.  


St. John the Baptist, 16th century (oil on canvas), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) (studio of) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Bridgeman Images


India and Southeast Asia Collection 

Sir William Hedges of the East India Company presented a fine stone sculpture of Vishnu to the newly founded Ashmolean in 1686, of which he had obtained in Bengal. This was the first example of an Indian sculpture to enter any Western museum collection. By the 19th century, a wide range of all kinds of Indian artefacts began to be acquired. Regular purchases and generous donor donations have continued to strengthen the Ashmoleans Indian collections.


India: Scene from the Baburnama. Bāqī Chaghānyānī pays homage to Babur, near the river Oxus Āmo / Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images


The collection showcases a range of artworks from the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2000BC) through to the twentieth century. The Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculptures in stone, terracotta and bronze are particularly strong assets to the collection. The painting and decorative arts of the Mughal and British Periods (c.1550-1900) are also displayed as well as the Newberry collection of 1,200 early Gujarati printed cotton fragments - discovered in Egypt. Himalayan art from Nepal and Tibet, Southeast Asian art - Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia; are all included in this extraordinary collection. 


The disrobing of Draupadi, 1760-65 (gouache with gold on paper), Nainsukh (c.1710-78) (attr. to) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Lent by Howard Hodgkin / Bridgeman Images


Many Hindu, Buddhist and Jain images were once installed in household shrines or temples as ‘objects of daily devotion and meditation’. Today throughout India, the Himalayan region & Southeast Asia, images are still a central focus of worship. 


Relief panel depicting the Dream of Queen Maya, Gandhara Region (schist), Pakistani School / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Bridgeman Images


The form of the temple developed in Southeast Asia from AD 600 -’into a symbolic microcosm of the universe’. Carved imagery of gods, animals, men and plants were placed on towers and outer walls. The regional sculpture at the time developed greatly throughout the entire subcontinent. Hindhu, Buddhist and Jain sculpture appears similar in style as many professional sculptors worked for patrons of the three different faiths. 


Carved Daikini, part of a bone apron used in Tantric ceremonies, Tibetan, 18th century (human bone), Tibetan School, (18th century) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Bridgeman Images


Imperial seal with a dragon guarding a pearl of wisdom (ivory), Chinese School (14th century) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Bridgeman Images



The China Collection 

The Ashmolean collection has always avidly collected Chinese ceramics. These ceramics consist of earthenware, high-fired ware and porcelain from China's most famous kilns. Decorative colourful designs are embedded on ceramic surfaces - floral and repetitive in style. 


Large vase, Ming dynasty, 1367-1644 (china with enamel glaze), Chinese School, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Bridgeman Images


The Ashmolean museum began to acquire Chinese paintings and prints in the late 1950s, focusing on modern works in the literati tradition. The chinese collection includes works from the nineteenth century and more recently works by young Chinese artists who worked towards the end of the twentieth century. 


Landscape painting, 1961 (ink on paper), Chen Zhen (1955-2000) / Ashmolean Museum,
University of Oxford, UK / © Ashmolean Museum / Bridgeman Images


Contemporary Chinese Art in the Spotlight 

The Ashmolean museum hosted a special exhibition showcasing contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing's work in 2013 - Xu Bing, Landscape Landscript. The exhibition explored people's assumptions of language, culture and the natural world at a basic level. The fundamental nature of human perception is explored through intricate creativity!


Busy Waters of the Countryside, 1981 (woodcut print), Xu Bing (b.1955) / Private Collection
/ © Paul Freeman / Bridgeman Images


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