A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.
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THE OLD ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM
The building of the Ashmolean Museum became necessary when the University accepted the offer, made by Elias Ashmole in Oct. or Nov. 1677, (fn. 1) to present to it his collection of natural curiosities, most of which had been bequeathed to him by the son of the first collector, John Tradescant. But, in addition to housing these rarities, the building was intended to provide facilities for the teaching of experimental science. A site was found immediately to the west of the Sheldonian Theatre on land which, at least in part, was first rented but was later bought from its owners, the City cf Oxford. (fn. 2) Work on the foundations began either in Apr. or May 1678. (fn. 3)
A controversy was raised some years ago, and doubt must still remain, both as to the designer of the building and as to its appearance when it was first opened to the public in May 1683. Unfortunately, the surviving accounts relating to its erection (fn. 4) are not of a kind to throw much light on the details or phases of its progress, for though they may be complete in the sense of giving all the payments made for workmanship and materials they contain little detail beyond the names of the chief master workmen and the amounts they received. Sometimes they give even less information, as for instance in the very general entry in 1678–9: 'Item, spent in building Musaeum Ashmoleanum, £467 10. 3.' In part this is the result of the method, more and more used in the course of the 17th century, of dividing a building operation into parts, or 'bargains', each undertaken by a specialized contractor. The bills of the contractors for the Museum, had they survived, or their day-books, if they kept any, would clear up several points now obscure; but in the absence of particulars of account it is not possible to study the building of the Ashmolean Museum in detail.
The architect, according to Elmes, (fn. 5) was Sir Christopher Wren; and Dr. R. T. Gunther, on the ground that the design is too good to have been the work of anybody else, that Wren was sometimes in Oxford while the building was in progress, and that he would in any event have been called in to advise with regard to a building so near to his own work, the Sheldonian Theatre, took the same view. (fn. 6) Sir Reginald Blomfield, on the other hand, having scrutinized the building, could find no proof that Wren designed it and pointed out that there is not a scrap of documentary evidence to connect him with it. (fn. 7) The Vice-Chancellor's Accounts record that 'Mr. Davis, bailiff to the University', received £30 in 1679–80, £20 in each of the following two years, and £10 in 1682–3, for overseeing the work, but do not suggest that he was the architect. He should, probably, be regarded as the 17th-century counterpart of Mr. Richard Bernes, who supervised the building of Magdalen College Chapel but certainly did not design it. On the whole it seems probable that the Ashmolean Museum was designed by Thomas Wood, the chief mason employed upon it. Apart from his connexion with the Museum little information about him can be gleaned from the ViceChancellor's Accounts beyond that he was a stonecutter, who laid marble in St. Mary's in 1675–6, carved the arms of Oriel College in Adam Brome's Chapel in 1676–7, made the monument of Mr. Junius in 1679–80, and was paid for work about the conduit at Carfax in 1686–7. (fn. 8) There is, however, proof that he did a good deal of work in connexion with the Bishop of Oxford's Palace, at Cuddesdon, erected a stone chimney-piece in Squire Lenthall's house at Haseley, and worked a quantity of cornice at Newington. The contract for the Palace was taken by Richard Frogley, of Holywell, carpenter, who in turn agreed with Wood to do the stonework. As Frogley employed Wood for stonework, so Wood employed Frogley, on various buildings, to perform the woodwork. (fn. 9) These activities do not necessarily imply architectural ability, and it has been argued, from the silence of Anthony Wood concerning a contemporary namesake in Oxford and from the fact that a supervisor was employed, that Thomas Wood was not the designer of the Ashmolean Museum, (fn. 10) but the argument e silentio is not convincing; the employment of a supervisor as well as a local architect would not have been new or strange; and, in any event, a contemporary print of the Museum bears in a corner the words 'T. Wood Archit.' (fn. 11)
Thomas Wood was clearly a fairly substantial contractor, for his bills in connexion with the Museum came to more than £1,920, that is to more than 40 per cent. of the total cost of the building. The only other mason named in the accounts was Thomas Robinson, (fn. 12) whose bill was only just over £31. He, like Wood, was a local master workman and so were other building tradesmen employed on the Museum, namely Richard Frogley, carpenter, (fn. 13) William Young, (fn. 14) smith, Bernard Rawlins, glazier, (fn. 15) John Dew, plasterer, (fn. 16) John Wild, joiner, (fn. 17) Richard Hawkins, painter, (fn. 18) and Thomas Mynne, (fn. 19) carpenter.
Much of the stonework was completed before Oct. 1680, by which time Thomas Wood had been paid rather more than half of his total receipts. Some glazier's work and plastering were done in the following year and the wainscoting partly in 1681–2 and partly in 1682–3. The painting was not finished, or at any rate was not fully paid for, until 1684–5; plumbing was paid for in 1685–6, paving in 1687–8, and some mason's work in 1692–3; but a curator, Dr. Robert Plot, had been appointed in March 1683 and the building was opened to the public after the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York and the Princess Anne in May of the same year. It then consisted of ten rooms, of which the three largest were public, and was arranged in three floors. The uppermost was the Museum proper; below it was the Natural History School, in which Dr. Plot lectured three times a week on chemistry, and below that again a basement in which were the Laboratory, chemical library, and storerooms. (fn. 20) Except on one side, the outward appearance of the Ashmolean Museum in 1683 was very much what it is to-day. Sir Reginald Blomfield is clear that the magnificent east doorway, facing the Sheldonian Theatre, was not by the same hand as the rest of the building and that it marked the beginning of a remodelling, which was never completed, of that front. (fn. 21) On the other hand, the Burghers engraving, published in or soon after 1685–6, shows the east end as it is at present and the Vice-Chancellor's Accounts do not record any considerable expenditure on the building between 1683–4 and 1686, so that any re-modelling which occurred must, presumably, have been done before the building was finished in 1683. On the north face of the building there was originally an entrance approached by a flight of steps; but these were removed, the doorway was made into a window, and a balcony was added in front of it at some date subsequent to 1733. (fn. 22)
In the 19th century the Museum's collections were dispersed to other University institutions. (fn. 23) Since 1924 the upper room of the Old Ashmolean Building has been used as a museum of objects connected with the history of science. The nucleus was Dr. Lewis Evans's magnificent collection, consisting principally of mathematical instruments and portable sundials. The colleges, most of which had acquired historic 'philosophical apparatus' of one kind or another, have since deposited much of this in the Museum: these loans, with numerous purchases and benefactions, have together built up a remarkable and, indeed, unique collection of historic scientific apparatus.
In 1935 the Lewis Evans collection became the Museum of the History of Science, and a further stage was reached in 1939 when it was decided to hand over to it the whole of the Old Ashmolean Building.