And now for the five favorite museums

“Horse and Rider falling” by Titian (c. 1485/90 – 1576), black chalk on gray paper. A postcard from a special exhibit at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

First choice for the favorite museum we visited during our recent two months in England isn’t a museum; it’s the Bodleian Library. But when the Bodleian rolls out some of what it has been collecting since Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) donated his fortune and a good portion of 2,500 books for a library for Oxford students, it plenty makes like a museum.

Since Bodley’s donation in 1598, the library has collected more than 13 million books, manuscripts, paintings, letters and just about anything you would or would not expect in a library. This year, it put together an exhibit called “Marks of Genius,” an amazing display of the ability of human beings to create, to think, to write, to make music and to be . . . geniuses. A copy of the Magna Carta, Queen Elizabeth’s calligraphy, Asian painting, Shakespeare’s folios etc. etc. My only disappointment was that the library gift shop did not drop the price of the accompanying coffee-table book down from 40 pounds after the exhibit ended.

“Marks of Genius” made clear a general truth about museums and their like: How well you like a museum may depend on a special exhibit being featured. That was true for us at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the second museum on our list of favorites. The place has floors full of history, art, musical instruments, mummies, Roman statuary, but it also has regular special exhibits. We went to two of them, one on the miniature painter Adam Buck and another one entitled “Titian to Canaletto: Drawing in Venice.” While I could not impress an art historian with my knowledge of drawing in Venice after seeing this exhibit, I came away with a better understanding of the role drawing plays in the creation of art. I especially liked that one part of the exhibit had a display of the materials — ink, paper, charcoal, etc. — used by the artists. That helped me understand the drawings and why they looked like they did.

The Ashmolean Museum showed us how a museum should be visited: again and again in small chunks. To do that you have to be around for a while and nearby, which we were for the Ashmolean. We visited three or four times, spacing out our trips over the eight weeks we were in Oxford. We chose the special exhibits for two visits, spent another trip on artifacts from the early history of England and followed a suggested “10 highlights in an hour” for another excursion.

The 10 highlights? Powhatan’s Mantle (father of Pocahontas); Lawrence of Arabia’s robe; Mummy of Meresamun (about 830 -715 BC); Greek Octopus Jar (1450 – 1400 BC); Buddha from 200 AD; 1700’s Samurai Suit of Armor; Bodhisattva from 960 – 1127 AD; The Alfred Jewel, Anglo-Saxon (871 -899 AD); Uccello’s “The Hunt in the Forest (1397 – 1475) and Van Gogh’s “The Restaurant de la Sirene, Asnieres” (1853 – 1890).

Making those visits to the Ashmolean made me realize how little I have followed this practice where I live. I’ve been in Seattle since 1976 yet have never set foot inside the Burke Museum on the  University of Washington campus where I spent five years getting a graduate degree and another five years teaching. It wasn’t until I spent two seasons driving for Ride the Ducks of Seattle that I thought in all honesty I should visit some of the attractions I was touting to the people in the seats behind me. Since then I have made it to the Experience Music Project and done the Boeing factory tour, both of them with out-of-town visitors. I still need to make my first visit to MOHAI, the Museum of History and Industry. Looks like I need more visitors for me to take advantage of what is close by.

Next on the list of museum favorites would be two museums that share another distinction that can make a museum special: They are on the site of some historical event. Bletchley Park was where the Allies worked to break the German code during World War II. The huts where the work was done are still there along with a museum that I barely got a glimpse of. Would love to go back.

Same with the Churchill Museum in the War Rooms where he ran the show during the war. The rooms still have most of the articles that were there during the war supplemented by displays using modern technology to tell the story of the great English leader and the history in which he played a commanding role.

Goya drew this near the end of his life and wrote on it
Goya drew this near the end of his life and wrote on it “Still Learning.” If I ever got a tattoo . . .

Then we come to the National Gallery in London, made special for us by the exhibit “Goya: The Portraits.” My knowledge of Francisco Goya was limited to his painting of the events of 2nd of May, 1808, his grotesque drawings, prints of which were once displayed at Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square, and to the  movie “The Naked Maja” starring Ava Gardner, a source of titillation in my youth (hey, that was pretty risque for 1958).

Detail from Goya's painting the "2nd of May," from the book "Goya: Painter of Terror and Splendour."
Detail from Goya’s painting the “2nd of May,” from the book “Goya: Painter of Terror and Splendour.”

Turns out Goya made his day-to-day living as a portrait painter, which was no easy task in Spain during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Kings came and went, and Goya worked as the court painter for more than one of them. He had to be a political chameleon to stay employed and alive. That only went so far, and Goya spent his last years with his liberal attitudes intact as a refugee in France.

While working as a court painter he might flatter his subjects, once painting the queen of Spain with full cheeks even though by the time she sat for him she had lost all her teeth. The audio guide that went along with the exhibit noted that when Goya painted her she had given birth “to no less than 13 children.” She may have pulled out all her hair, too.

In contrast to the portraits he did for paying royalty, when Goya painted his friends, family and himself, flattery played no role in what ended up on the canvas. He painted them literally warts and all.

Last on the list of museum favorites is another one made special by an exhibit while we were visiting. The Christ Church Picture Gallery was showing a selection of art from the 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings left to the college 250 years ago by Gen. John Guise. These included work by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. It was another lesson in art history and appreciation, another experience in how much you learn by traveling.

“The good thief (?) on the cross,” black chalk with some pen and brown ink on paper by Michelangelo (1475 – 1564). Postcard from the Christ Church Picture Gallery exhibit of the General John Guise collection.

Of carnie ginks and geniuses

The St. Giles Fair closed the streets in the central part of Oxford today, and we went expecting medieval knights, an open air market and arts and crafts.

Carnival ride on St. Giles
Carnival ride on St. Giles

Instead, the midways of every county and state fair or village carnival from the United States had been moved in to compete with the spires of Oxford. We walked through but never stopped for cotton candy, a chance to win a stuffed animal or for a ride on one of the puke generators we used to love so well.

We made our way through the noise and crowd to the Vodaphone store to find out what happened to the extra pounds I had loaded onto my phone for calls back to the States. One call and all but 90 pence were gone. Got a different plan that gives us 50 minutes of international calling for a month. Mother Marian, we will not neglect thee (reading too much Shakespeare?).

Then it was on to the Weston Library for the “Marks of Genius” exhibit. In climate-controlled glass cases the library (part of the Bodleian Library) has spread out remarkable examples of remarkable genius. Let’s start with parchment shards of poems written by Sappho about 700 years before Christ. Of the nine volumes of poems she wrote, only one survives intact.

Go look at the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C., and think how old that seems for a document to survive. Then think about the Magna Carta, first written in 1215. There’s no trace of an original, but the Weston’s is one of 17 copied by hand on parchment. So it may not be all of 800 years old — give or take a decade or two.

There are ancient texts from China, the Arab world, Edmond Halley (predicted the cyclical return of the comet named after him), the original manuscript of “The Wind in the Willows” and the original book jacket for “The Hobbit,” designed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.  Wonderful colored original prints by Audubon, drawings by William Blake and Copernicus. A travel journal kept by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley (talk about a couple of messed up lives!). Original calligraphy lessons by Queen Elizabeth I. There are original or early volumes of “The Divine Comedy” by Dante, musical scores by Handel and Mendhelssohn, the Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s novels and the “Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope (my favorite Pope quote: “The higher you climb, the more you show your ass” — for this I went to grad school).

Interesting that they included early printing — handbills, posters, etc. — as examples of genius. But then this is a library, after all, that collects printed material — 13 million volumes to date. So why not? It’s been the medium of genius — and much else — for almost 600 years.

What stuck with me the most might have been a letter written by Isaiah Berlin about the visit of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to Oxford to receive an honorary award. Shostakovich, in and out of favor by Stalin, arrived with two Soviet “diplomats” who accompanied him everywhere, making dinner and cocktails difficult and more seriously leaving evident signs of strains on the composer’s face. The effect of this repression on genius made a vast impression on Berlin, whose letter conveyed the feeling to me. That’s genius.

Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.
Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.

Touring Oxford, relishing Shakespeare

Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.
Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.

By Kathy

Day 3 of our adventure in England was packed with discoveries, revelations and inspiration. We walked a mile from our flat to the center of town to join a tour highlighting important sites, including one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges.

Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.
Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.

Our personable guide, Katie, introduced us to the centuries-old university and how it works: each college independent yet allied; nearly all quite small (just 22,000 students in the entire system), housed primarily in decorous stone buildings surrounded by well-worn walls (yet open to the public at certain times). The schools, with their manicured courtyards, ornate edifices and streams of students, dominate the look and feel of the central city.

We visited Jesus College, co-founded by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century for the people of Wales. Students live, study and play together on the campus, where they meet with their professors once a week for “tutorials” in which they review projects assigned throughout the eight-week terms.

The dining hall at Jesus College.
The dining hall at Jesus College.

Students go off the grounds to auxiliary campuses around the city for lectures, research and more. The “collegiate” feel of the place came across most vividly in the dining hall with its soaring leaded-glass windows, carved oak panels and enormous communal table. I expected to see Harry Potter at any moment.

Speaking of which, we had a chance to walk through the old Divinity School now surrounded by the incredible Bodleian Library (which houses more than 13 million volumes and counting). The school, made entirely of carved stone, is a wonder of architecture and beauty. A ballroom scene in one of the HP movies was filmed here.

The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.
The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.

We celebrated all that we’d seen by stuffing ourselves at the cozy White Horse pub (one of the city’s oldest); fish & chips and a pint of Guinness for me, “toad in the hole” for John. The pub appears in the Inspector Morse TV series, which we hope to find time to watch (our apartment has the complete set of DVDs).

Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.
Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.

After a rest back at the flat, we returned to the central city and the newest part of the Bodleian (the Weston Library) for what may have been the most extraordinary “college lecture” I’d ever heard. John has already written about Professor Wells (emeritus, Univ. of Birmingham), but I thought I’d share a few impressions, too. We are still discussing all that he said, looking up film clips of Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, finding Sonnet 29 to read again, and so on. Such is the “imprinting” power of a fine teacher/writer.

As an editor most of my working life, I trafficked in the power of words. Wells spoke with passion and insight about Shakespeare’s skill and why he still matters more than four centuries later.

Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.
Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.

Quoting from memory Hamlet, Lear and more, he made us feel the lyricism of the words, moving from complex syntaxes to simple declaratives, soft and loud, thoughtful and emotional; sometimes simply silent. More than the meaning, we felt the majesty.

Beyond the skill at crafting words, Wells explained, Shakespeare possessed the ability to convey a set of values that live across the ages: the importance of intelligence and wit, of moral courage and plain kindness; an appreciation of individual idiosyncracies (“what a piece of work is man”) and of the transformative power of imagination.

Certainly, Professor Wells possesses transformative powers of his own. Ah, to have been his student!

The terms -- after the Latin word terminus -- surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.
The terms — after the Latin word terminus — surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.