Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From Crafty to Crude at the Ashmolean

On a beautiful sunny Sunday I told again at Folk by the Oak at Hatfield House. It was my third time there and as usual it was very busy with large audience of young and old alike, which is just the way it should be. You can find out a bit more about an earlier visit to the festival as well as a link to their website by going to:

Folk by the Oak 2012

On the Saturday however I hadn't been able to take advantage of the fine weather as I was telling in various galleries at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. Its not the first time I have told there, as both I and Stewart Alexander telling as Past-Imagined have run medieval storytelling events for families, put on a seventeenth century performance for adults and also run some storytelling workshops for education officers working in the heritage sector. But this is the first time I've been back there since the refurbishment and I really liked the blend of old and new architecture, which also had the added benefit of making the whole museum that much more easy to navigate. As usual I was far too busy telling to spend much time wandering and watching and so as with the British Museum I've focused on a couple of things that caught my eye in the England Gallery where I spent most of my time telling:

The first was this 14th century 'diptych' carved from Ivory, which only measures about 8 inches by 4, yet includes stunning detail from the life of Christ. If you click on the image to enlarge it you can see that each figure even has tiny toes. Yet again then an object of high status yes, but on that clearly demonstrates that the medieval period was not just a load of illiterate fools grubbing about in the mud!

The same craftsmanship can also be seen on this 16th century Cittern, which includes these stunning and erotic images of a satyr and satyres on the neck of the instrument as well as the carving of Adam and Eve below.

But for all this refined craftsmanship which clearly cost their respective owners a lot of coin, even the Ashmolean has some objects that are far more crude in its collection, and in more ways than one:

Feast your eyes then on Jack of Hilton - A crudely made 'hollow-cast copper alloy figure who dates from the late 13th or 14th century. A rare example of an aeolipile, or 'hearth blower'; a vessel was filled with water and warmed on the hearth to fan the flames with a jet of air released through the steam–pressure created within. I like many thought that the hot air must shoot out of his privy member as it was often referred to long ago, but closer inspection shows that it hung too low to hold enough water to produce a constant jet of steam. In actual fact it blows from the figures mouth. There is then a joke here, with the craftsman mocking our own crude expectations of his crudely made vessel. A joke that was cast some 700 odd years ago, but still has the power to make us laugh to this day!

Thanks to Adam for yet again putting on a great event at Hatfield and Jude Barrett - Education and Access Officer at the Ashmolean.


  1. Do you have any other information on the diptych? I know you already provided quite a bit, but I was hoping for a little more detail, and the Ashmolean doesn't seem to have this on their website. I live in the U.S., so a trip to see it in person is not in the stars. Thank you.

  2. Hi
    I'm afraid I don't, but I bet google could help you out.