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.