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.

In the art gallery and out, undisputed masterpieces

Off-and-on good weather in Oxford this week, which has meant off-and-on touring. But more colleges were visited, a meal was had at a famous pub and a great art exhibit was seen.

Inside the Eagle and Child pub.
Inside the Eagle and Child pub.

Let’s start at the Eagle and Child pub, which J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other members of the “Inklings” referred to as the Bird and Baby when they met there starting in the 1930s.

Residence building at St. John's College.
Residence building at St. John’s College.

Walking past the busker playing the baritone and then across the street, we find St. John’s College, founded in 1555. In the size of the student populations, the colleges here are in great contrast to the big U.S. universities, and many colleges as well. St. John’s, for example, has less than 400 undergraduates, 250 grad students, 100 fellows and 25 lecturers, according to its web site. Former prime minister Tony Blair went to St. John’s as did novelists and poets A.E. Housman and Robert Graves, the web site reports.

Tom Quad at Christ Church College. Selfie sticks are everywhere, and two tourists are using one here.
Tom Quad at Christ Church College. Selfie sticks are everywhere, and two tourists are using one here.

Down the street from the Eagle and Child is Christ Church College, one of the largest colleges at Oxford University with 430 undergrads and 215 graduate students. It was founded in 1524 by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as Cardinal College. But when Wolsey fell out of favor with Henry VIII (that happened a lot with Henry), it was refounded by the king as Christ Church.

It has the largest quad, a grand dining hall and an ornate chapel with a soaring stone ceiling.

The dining hall at Christ Church College.
The dining hall at Christ Church College.

Visitors were being shooed out of the chapel today so that the Women’s Institute could commemorate their 100 years in existence. One of the women setting up for the event told us the organization got its start in Canada. Its web site says it came to the United Kingdom in 1915 “to revitalize rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.” It’s the largest volunteer women’s organization in Britain, works on education for women and campaigns on issues important to them and their communities.

The chapel at Christ Church College.
The chapel at Christ Church College.
The purple arrangement at the altar.
The purple arrangement at the altar.

My favorite chat was with a woman setting up the flowers for the event. She was not happy with the arrangement at the altar. “Purple is a receding color,” she said as she tried to bring out that color in her arrangement by playing the purple flowers against the white ones. “But it’s what they want,” she said. Looked quite lovely.

On to the dining hall, which was re-created in a studio for one of the Harry Potter movies.

The “firedogs” in the Christ Church dining halls.

Another famous story may have roots in the dining hall. The andirons in the fireplaces have a familiar look to anyone who remembers the telescoped shape “Alice in Wonderland” took after eating the cake marked “Eat me.” Charles Dodgson, who taught mathematics at Christ Church College, is better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of the story. The Alice in the story comes from the daughter of a dean when Dodgson was there in the 1860s.

The portrait of Alice Liddell is in the left window. The White Rabbit is in the lower left corner.
The portrait of Alice Liddell is in the left window. Alice in Wonderland is in the lower left corner.

A portrait of the real Alice is in one of the stained glass windows above the tables in the dining room. With the portrait of Alice Liddell are images of the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen.

Edith Liddell as St. Catherine in in the center panel.
Edith Liddell as St. Catherine in the center panel.

Alice is not the only Liddell daughter to be immortalized in stained glass at Christ Church College. Her sister, Edith, appears as the face of St. Catherine of Alexandria in one of the windows in the chapel.

The current exhibit at the Christ Church Picture Gallery comes from Gen. John Guise, who bequeathed his collection to Christ Church in 1767. The collection includes more than 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings, some from Michelangelo (1475-1564), Titian (1480-1576), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520) and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528).

The drawings were especially well displayed in cases with effective lighting, explanations with insightful information on what to look for in the drawings and even a railing to lean on while you read the words and related them to the works.

Entitled “Undisputed Masterpieces,” the exhibit marks 250 years since Guise’s death. A nice way to be remembered.