In 1990, I made my first trip abroad: a few days in Amsterdam, a few in London, with a side-trip to Oxford to see the Ashmolean Museum. That side-trip became the highlight of my time in Europe.
The Museum itself, like so many others, is a beautiful and imposing building: an Ionic-columned entrance leading to the massive interior that houses an astonishing collection of art. And it was inside that the several things happened which will endear the Ashmolean to me forever.
I’m a playwright. The primary purpose of my visit was to do research for a play about Lizzie Siddal, the Pre-Raphaelite model (she was the icon for Millais’ Ophelia) and painter, and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose small but extraordinary oeuvre fascinated me.
The Museum has an extensive collection of drawings (including a large handful of Siddal’s) it maintains in “books”: large folios in which numerous artists’ smaller works are carefully matted (protected only by the thin sheet of tissue-like parchment that separates each from the next), but allow a viewer to turn the “pages.” Amazingly, the Library permits the folios to be studied, without supervision, at tables.
I’d made an appointment and asked for the volume containing Siddal’s. I was thrilled and more than a little awed when the librarian handed it to me (with a set of white gloves): I held in my hands drawings by Siddal and other Pre-Raphaelites, each well over a hundred years old. Each sui generis. Each priceless.
I spent several hours poring over the folio, trying to capture — as writers will — the moments, the circumstances, the feelings behind the creation of the drawings: Sometimes in looking at a drawing or painting, I’m fortunate to have a sense of being able to see through the artist’s eyes as though I were standing over her shoulder, seeing the subject as she sees it and watching the work evolve from concept to inchoate to finished form. This was, indeed, the case here, especially since I knew it might well be the only opportunity I’d ever have to view — much less hold — these particular pieces. Frankly, I cried — lover’s tears — carefully, so as not to allow them to fall to the page.
When I returned the folio, the Librarian thanked me and asked “Are there others you’d like to see?” That possibility hadn’t occurred to me: I’d come to see Lizzie’s work. Seeing any other artist’s drawings, especially in a virtually private viewing, would be pure gravy.
But, as I’m a huge van Gogh aficionado, I asked if there were any of Vincent’s. “Oh, of course,” she replied and, in a matter of moments, she handed me the folio which contained a half dozen of his earliest drawings, none of which I had ever seen. I pored over them as well with the same intensity, and the same sense of privilege, returned the volume and, my time now limited, left the Library to see the Raphael exhibition: a roomful of huge drawings, each ten or more feet high. It was my first meaningful exposure to Raphael’s work, and it was breathtaking, the sort of experience that has not only stayed with me but has changed the way I look at the world in general and the world of art in particular.
I left with deep regret, knowing I’d not return for years, if ever, but knowing too the experience was imprinted. It is fair to say that I fell in love with the Ashmolean for the impact its collections had. Whether I return or not, that love will stay with me in the same way that my love for Art, Theatre and a handful of people stays with me, as enduring testimony to those Things That Really Matter.
About the Author: Evan Guilford-Blake’s poetry, prose and plays have appeared in numerous print and online journals, as well as several anthologies, winning 17 contests. Penguin has issued his novel “Noir(ish),” and twenty-three of his plays have been published, winning 41 competitions. He and his wife (and inspiration) Roxanna, a healthcare writer and jewelry designer, live in the southeastern US.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.