A Cabinet of Curiosities

There I was, in the lowest floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, looking for a back door escape, when I saw the freshest, most beautiful young face imaginable.

Skin as lucent as pearl, she had; and cheeks of the fairest rose. Dark grave eyes were framed by a modest hood, a cowl trimmed with restrained , expensive lace.

She seemed very young to be sitting there in an oil portrait, dressed as a respectable married woman of 1630.

Of course she is not young now. Her body has lain in an elaborate tomb in St Mary’s Church, Lambeth these 377 years. She had two children before she died: two who were born into an extraordinary family of travellers and collectors.

And thereby hangs a tale as eclectic as the cluttered chamber which forms its grist.

Imagine, if you will, a world without museums.

They began serving the purposes of accomplished, wealthy and travelled men. In the great age of exploration, men traversed a globe full of mystery, and everywhere they went, they found curiosities; the unexplained, the objects by which hang a tale.

So they made their own niches: and they called them Cabinets of Curiosities.

A cabinet could be a room back then.  A wealthy man would fill it with all manner of objects.

The earliest picture of such a cabinet is that belonging to Ferrante Imperato, who published a book on natural history in Naples in 1599(below). The picture shows a cornucopia of collectibles: books, stuffed animals and fish, corals, polished stones and drawers full of specimen boxes and covered jars.The ceiling is hung with a stuffed crocodile.

Few cabinets were as extensive and eclectic as that of John Tradescant the younger.

Gardeners to Kings and the nobility, John and his father before him had travelled far and wide, collecting plant specimens and curiosities alike and bringing them back to the Tradescant house on the river at Lambeth – called The Ark.

Before long, the public were invited to see the contents of the Museum Tradescantium.

The younger Tradescant made his money by gardening and with income form the museum. And at a very young age, only twenty years old, he married the beauty who gazes so gravely across the Ashmolean.

Seven years and two children later, this jewel would be dead.

And just three years after that Tradescant had taken to himself a second wife: Hester Pooks. One is not disposed to like her because how could she replace the ethereal presence in the portrait, and carry such a mundane name?

She became embroiled in matters which were to prove her downfall.

Enter, Elias Ashmole: royalist, astrologer and alchemist, politician and antiquary. The man who gave his name to the Ashmolean. Backing the royals was a surefire route to success come the Restoration, and he was awarded a number of money-spinning positions. A Freemason, the man was a mover and a shaker: make no mistake.

He aligned himself with John Tradescant, his eyes set firmly on the  unparalleled Ark. He made himself indispensable, proposing and then funding the first ever English museum catalogue: Musaeum Tradescantianum, published in 1656.

Four years earlier Tradescant’s only son had died, and there was no-one to whom to leave The Ark. Who better to leave it to, than the beneficent Ashmole? A deed of gift was drawn up leaving the whole collection to him on Tradescant’s death- with a lifetime’s interest for Hester.

But Tradescant-nee-Pooks was having none of that. Hester was John’s Executrix. She made him change his mind, creating two further wills – one bequeathing everything to the King, the other to Oxford or Cambridge.

Naturally, on his death, all hell broke loose. A bitter dispute erupted between Hester and Ashmole, but the Lord Chancellor found in Ashmole’s favour: Elias should “have and enjoy all and singular these Bookes, Coynes, Medalls, Stones, Pictures, Mechanicks, Antiquities and all and every other the Raryties and Curiosities of what sort or kind soever”.

But it stayed with Hester for her lifetime. So Elias Ashmole bought the house next door, and things deteriorated rapidly. She accused him of harrassment; he accused her of slander. She wanted him to take some of the collection onto his own property.

And then, on April 4 1678, she was found drowned in her own garden pond.

Elias bagged the collection, and went on to donate it to Oxford where it ended up in a museum with his name on it. And yet, truly, should we be visiting Tradescant’s cabinet of curiosities, the Museum Tradescantium, these days?

The first wife gazed down at me, willing me towards the strange story of one of the greatest cabinets of curiosities which ever existed. It is a story in which the drowning of the second wife buried once and for all the Tradescants’ name. We will forever know the 21st century home of their collection as The Ashmolean.

With thanks to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography for extensive use of their entry on John Tradescant the Younger.


57 thoughts on “A Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. fascinating, how those travellers thought it was their right to jst take things they found. and how ‘ownership’ of stuff follows people through history

  2. Really interesting Kate, and such a charming little portrait. The father and son duo introduced so many plants that we see in our gardens today, horse chestnuts, virginia creeper, and of course the ubiquitous Tradescantia that we all have had at some time trailing around our kitchens and conservatories.

    1. They were the very best plantsmen, weren’t they, Rosemary. I believe the road which used to form the border of their Lambeth Estate is called Tradescant Road. And isn’t St Mary’s Churchyard, where the Tradescants were buried, a museum of Garden History?

  3. Yes, please, I’d love to have a similar cabinet (though on a much smaller scale, I think).

    I’m learning again this morning . . . from both you AND Rosemary today. 🙂 Not being much of a gardener I’m not aware of botanical names, so I Googled Tradescantia (as you know, your posts frequently send me off to do that) and found two photos I recognized, here: http://www.healthyhouseplants.com/Plant_Encyclopedia/Wandering_Jew.php (sure enough, I recognized “Wandering Jew”) and here: http://www.smgrowers.com/products/plants/plantdisplay.asp?plant_id=1560 (also identified as “Wandering Jew,” but this is the plant I know as “Moses in the Bullrushes”). How interesting to learn the back story!

      1. Thanks for sharing the photo; and today I did take a peek at Rosemary’s beautiful photos. Wish I could remember which Frittilaria someone told me, years ago, to plant in the garden to ward off some pest or another (deer, maybe)…..that particular variety was quite tall and, I was told, VERY putrid, but lovely to see — I seem to remember the blossom opened upward, but I’m not certain of that.

    1. I love stuff like that: researching it is like using an archaeologist’s fine brush to sweep away the surrounding folklore and reveal the story. I’d heard of a dispute over Tradescant’s collection, and always wondered how the Ashmolean became the Ashmolean. This young lady led me to the tale.

  4. Another loverly piece of History. I enjoy looking at our history as it is fascinating. Most of it makes me pleased I live in this era. Although a slower pace of living would be nice.

    1. I think we drew the best time possible, Helen: women have rights, we are prosperous, with the choice to work if we want to; there are labour saving devices which mean we are not chained to washing day any more. Wonderful.

      Nice to look back though.

  5. What’s always amazing to me is the priceless value of some of these collections. Things that were mere cheap trinkets can take on a high price after hundreds or thousands of years. I often wonder whether we create much of anything that will really stand the test of time. (Cynical stress mixed with Sharpie fumes talking……….)

    Bravo for elevating people who deserve note to the forefront, Kate. Their stories are often more interesting than the ones we’re actually told.

    1. Thanks, Andra. I am not surprised you ask such questions about whether man can make an imprint on our globe, walking as you are in one of the most ancient and beautiful places in the world where time has worn away man’s influences. Loving your writing about the Trace. Think MTM has such an eye for the archaeology of a place.

      One day I shall walk it with Phil.

  6. How fascinating! I’m glad you had curiosity of your own so you could share this tale. I just loved the “moving next door” and the decision to be irritable neighbors! Human character doesn’t change a lot over time, does it! No thoughts about how Ms. Pooks ended up dead in her own pool? You ask yourself the best questios when you go museum hunting! Debra

    1. The neighbour thing was startling, wasn’t it, Debra? I have stuck to the facts on the whole garden pond thing…it is centuries too late to tell people what to think on that score: I have left that to all of you to make up your own minds.

      Rum, though, isn’t it?

    1. Wow, Hudson, that’s a fantastic article, thanks! The very thought of manuscripts like that waiting to be discovered is so alluring. Makes you want to get on the first plane out there…I remember my aunt returning from Spain with an original monastic piece of musical chant on beautiful old paper centuries old. From the moment I saw it my fingers tingled to possess it. A minor sort of madness. I never did. But I can imagine what it must have been to be one of those old explorers, looking to possess the wonders of the world.

    1. It was a strange business, Celi: I wonder why she took such a strange aversion to Ashmole having the collection after she died? And why did his eagerness to acquire the vast collection move into such bullying tactics? There is so much more to this story than meets the eye.

  7. Hi, fascinating story, I agree with Hudson Howl too about cardboard boxes, it would be so much more interesting

  8. A ripper of a tale and another hilarious line from you:
    ‘One is not disposed to like her because how could she replace the ethereal presence in the portrait, and carry such a mundane name?’

  9. Loved this post . . . one of my favorites from your cyber-curiosity shoppe.

    Have you heard of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia? It’s right up this same alley:

    The Mütter Museum is a medical museum located in the Center City area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It contains a collection of medical oddities, anatomical and pathological specimens, wax models, and antique medical equipment. The museum is part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The original purpose of the collection, donated by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter in 1858, was medical research and education.

    The Mütter Museum is best known for the Hyrtl Skull Collection and other anatomical specimens including a wax model of a woman with a horn growing out of her forehead along with several wax molds of untreated conditions of the head; the tallest skeleton currently on display in North America; a nine-foot-long human colon that contained over 40 pounds of fecal matter which originally came from a sideshow act called the human Balloon; and the body of the Soap Lady,[1] whose corpse turned itself into a soapy substance called adipocere better known as grave wax. Many wax models from the early 19th century are on display as are numerous preserved organs and body parts. The museum also hosts a collection of teratological specimens (preserved human fetal specimens) all of which were donated to science; a malignant tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s hard palate; the conjoined liver from the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker; a piece of tissue removed from the thorax of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; and a section of the brain of Charles J. Guiteau who assassinated U.S. President James A. Garfield.


    1. Cabinet of curiosities indeed, Nancy: reminds me of those Victorian shows designed to amaze and astound….I look forward, one day, to visiting the Mutter museum in person…just for research purposes, you understand, and sans kids….

  10. def. he did the dirty deed! – poor woman first sadled with a name like that and then a neighbour of same awfulness:( dire times indeed – very interesting tale and what a wonderful story it would all make – who dun it?

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