Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) and his collection

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford gained its name and its first collections from Elias Ashmole, whose own collections were derived in part from those of John Tradescant. He finds a place on these pages, concerned with 19th Century British art, partly because the Ashmolean is now an important repository of Pre-Raphaelite art and there are other benefactors described here and there on this site (see Background pages), and also because of the link to the Tradescants, who feature in the Museum of Garden History.

Ashmole was born in Lichfield in Staffordshire, and trained in law, becoming a solicitor and then barrister. During the Civil War, he had to leave London and went to Oxford, there studying greatly, including alchemy and astrology. On his second marriage in 1649 he was able to return to London, setting up a household of learning and intellectuality. His first major publication was a work on alchemy, Theatrum Chymicum Britannicum (1652), which brought together previously unpublished manuscripts of English chemists, with engravings by the eminent Mr Vaughan.

Ashmole later moved to Lambeth, in South London, lodging with the collector and gardener John Tradescant, who had put together a great museum of plants, minerals, coins and curiosities collected through expeditions to foreign and exotic lands. When Tradescant died, he left his museum to Ashmole.

Ashmole's house in Lambeth, home to the Tradescant Museum

By then, Ashmole had veered away from chemistry towards antiquity, publishing History of the Order of the Garter, which established his reputation as an antiquary in England and abroad. In 1661 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1677 he gave his museum to Oxford University, on condition that they put up a building to hold it. The building was started in 1679, and completed 3 years later, becoming the first public museum in the country. On his death in 1692, Ashmole made a further bequest to Oxford.

It is these collections, essentially the original Tradescant museum plus Ashmole's own collected items and books, that comprise the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum.

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