Saturday, 26 January 2013

On This Day In London History 26th January 1679

"FIRE! Help."

No, not that fire. Nor that* fire.

But bad enough all the same. And no one can help. And had it not been for this fire – on January 26, 1679 – the first public museum in modern Europe would have had an even more impressive collection.

Because amongst other things "the great fire in the Middle Temple" (as it came to be known) destroyed Elias Ashmole's chambers at the Temple – and most of what it housed: thousands of coins; numerous books, engravings, prints, series of seals, etc.

And, yes, you'll have guessed from the name of the man whose chambers they were. The Ashmolean at Oxford – world class museum that it is – would have been considerably greater if the Middle Temple part of Elias Ashmole's cabinet of curiosities hadn't gone up in flames.

Ashmole's a fascinating character. He was from Lichfield. What is it about Lichfield? Ashmole, Dr. Johnson, David Garrick... Need I say more? He was "into" magic, alchemy, and astrology. Indeed, he was the Royal Astrologer for Charles II. Not surprisingly he was a through and through royalist. He was obsessed with the Elizabethan occultist John Dee. He was "into" heraldry. It was more than a passing interest – as Windsor herald he was a big shot in that world. He was a renowned authority on the Order of the Garter. Hand in glove with the heraldry, he was an antiquarian. He catalogued the Tradescant family's collection of rarities. Said catalogue was the first of its kind. He was a mason – the record of his admission to his lodge is the earliest extant reference of its kind in this country. He was the City of London's "Comptroller of the Excise". He married astutely. His second wife was a rich widow. In Ashmole's words, he was "enabled to live to my selfe & Studies without being forced to take paines for a livelyhood in the world".

In modern terms Ashmole would be one of those extremely well connected characters who sits on about 30 or 40 different Boards of Directorships.

The Tredescant "connection" is the one that stands out though. The Tredescants were to Tudor & Stuart gardens what Wren was to London churches. But they weren't "just" gardeners for the high and mighty. They were also naturalists and collectors. And it was their cabinet of curiosities, amassed and kept safe in The Ark, their house in Lambeth, that was, under Ashmole's stewardship, to form the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum. Indeed, like John Tredescant the Elder, Elias Ashmole is buried at St. Mary's in Lambeth, hard by Lambeth Palace.

So. You're thinking the Ashmolean, you're thinking Oxford – you have to make the connection, have to think London as well. Because London was the great progenitor of that quintessential "piece of Oxford and Oxford history."

*The 1861 Great Fire of Southwark

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