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Things That Have Interested Me

Museum Collection

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
4 November 2006

The other day I bade farewell to the soon-to-be-destroyed Ashmolean - not the old, stone Ashmolean that fronts the street, but the tramshed-like structure behind it, which housed so many of the Oxford University museum's collections. The better cases had already been removed, the less good had been trashed and piled up for recycling. The roof, which had for so long been a problem, was open to the elements.

You could see very clearly how the modest structure, put up in the days of the great archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, was always too flimsy to be properly insulated, waterproofed and air-conditioned. Anyway, tearing it down will allow the museum to dig out a new basement, build further back and increase the gallery space by a third. It's a worrying enterprise to be involved with (I serve as a "Visitor" on the board), but I am sure it will be worth it.

What happens to a museum or gallery at a time of such great upheaval is that the Appeal starts to take precedence over everything. How can one contemplate new acquisitions when the Appeal is not yet completed, and the building work has not even begun? But then comes a countervailing pressure, as important objects become available and works that have been on loan to the museum for years are offered by their owners for sale. Do nothing, and you begin to find things flying off the shelves. You lose paintings from the walls. Gaps begin to appear in your collections. The museum never stands still.

So it was that, at a recent dinner for benefactors of the Ashmolean, the guests were encouraged to split up into small groups: some went to view the destroyed rear building, others to hear curators present the latest acquisition emergency, put on white gloves and examine objects recently secured. When I say benefactors, I do not necessarily mean people writing out cheques for telephone-number sums. The interesting thing about the objects that arrive at the Ashmolean, and the sums used to acquire them, is the range of figures involved, and the relative effectiveness of the smaller sums. Typically, in such a museum, what the curators are looking for is "seed money", money to prime the pump, so that when an application is made to one of the larger funding sources the museum can show that it has enough local support to meet around 10% of the cost.

Money attracts money. It was worked out recently that a pound of seed money attracted on average £15 from the larger funds. So a pledge of, say, £1,000 is worth a potential £15,000. A museum that cannot find any seed money is in a very weak position. Some of the canniest curators are good at welcoming and putting together quite small sums.

Among the presentations that evening, I went to Susan Walker's display of Roman or early Christian gold glass. This is a form of decorative art that survives, as far as I know, from only two sites: the catacombs in Rome and in Cologne. It is very beautiful and nobody is quite sure how it was made. A glass bowl was blown, and gold leaf was affixed to it. Then the design was drawn by removal of the gold leaf. The next stage is mysterious. Another glass must have been blown inside the existing bowl, in such a way that the two fused, leaving the gold leaf sandwiched between two layers of glass. The bowls seem to have been made to mark weddings or other special occasions. On the owner's death, the bowl was broken and the gold-glass medallions were saved and set into the plaster of the tombs. That is why these things are almost always found as fragments, and mostly derive from the catacombs.

Some of the portraits on these medallions are quite breathtaking, producing uncanny Roman likenesses with subtle gradations of gold. There is one of these in the V&A, in the same case as the Medieval Treasury (currently near the Cast Court). You have to crouch to see it properly, since it has a correct viewing angle, like a daguerreotype. The group in the Ashmolean is in a different graphic style, cruder and more common than the "brushed" style of the V&A portrait, but still very rare (there are only around 500 fragments of this sort of glass in all the museums of the world) and exerting this unique fascination. Here you have what is left, along with the catacomb paintings and some sarcophagi, of the earliest Christian art in Rome.

The period is the third or probably the fourth century - rather a long time after Christ himself, but well before the development of what we think of as Christian iconography. It is at least a century before the earliest surviving biblical manuscript, although there must have been illustrated manuscripts around at the time. The earliest Christian art in Rome would have been, in the days of the house-churches, essentially portable art - altars, vessels in precious metals, ritual objects, illuminated scrolls. But there is no guarantee that the craftsmen who made such objects were themselves Christians.

Certainly the iconography of the gold-glass tradition shows a mixture of pagan, Christian and Jewish themes. Jonah (a recurrent figure, associated with resurrection), sleeping nude in the shade of his large-leaved gourd vine, looks like the pagan Endymion. Hercules appears, as do several shepherds who may or may not be Christian. Along with these are numerous representations of Old Testament stories, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Daniel with the lions (the martyr's mentor), Moses striking the rock.

Christ appears as the miracle-worker, especially in the story of the raising of Lazarus (another resurrection), while the prime saints of the Roman church, Peter and Paul, are most frequently depicted together. The inscriptions spell Jesus as Zeses, Saint Xystus as Sustus and Saint Agnes as Acne. "Anima dulcis vivas" (may you live sweet soul) and "dignitas amicorum" (the worthiness of friends) are recurrent mottoes. There are more than 30 pieces in this Victorian collection, along with sarcophagi and related inscriptions on stone, which we intend to display together in our new galleries of Late Antiquity. But we need friends. Verb. Sap.

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