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History of the Oxford cast collection

The Ashmolean Museum's collection of plaster casts is one of the oldest and best preserved in Britain. Its history begins almost two hundred years ago, when plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman statues could be found in several parts of the University. They served to decorate rooms, especially libraries, and to proclaim the Glory of Greece and the prestige of Oxonians who had made the Grand Tour to the Mediterranean.

Cast Gallery interior
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    Interior of the Cast Gallery. Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley
Aerial view of Oxford

Casts in the Bodleian Library

Photo of Bodleian entrance

Some early plaster models were displayed in a long room on the upper floor of the University's Bodleian Library. Known as the Picture Gallery after its collection of paintings, it became the first in Britain which was open to the public.

Bodleian picture gallery

The watercolour of the Picture Gallery was painted in the second half of the 19th century. A plaster model of the Parthenon, made in Paris in 1823, can be seen in the glass case in the centre of the room.


Casts in the Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera photo

In the nearby Radcliffe Library, named after its benefactor, Dr John Radcliffe, larger plaster casts were displayed. The library is now known as the Radcliffe Camera.

Radcliffe interior etching
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    Radcliffe Interior.
    Etching: Bodleian Library G.A.Oxon.4o.795, vol.3, opp.pg.10

In this view of the interior, dated about 1835, plaster casts of Artemis of Versailles stand on the far left, the Laocoon Group to the left of centre, and the Apollo Belvedere just to the right. The Borghese Warrior is a little further round, and the Diskobolos is disappearing off to the right. Some of these casts are now in the Ashmolean Museum's Cast Gallery.


The Queen's College Boar

Etching of Queen's Library
Photo of Queen's Library
Photo of cast of Wild Boar
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    Plaster cast of Wild Boar. Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley

The Queen's College, on High Street, was given a large plaster cast of a wild boar, in 1774. For some time this cast stood in the college library. Today it is in the Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum. An article in the Oxford University and City Guide of 1820 may explain why this particular cast was given to the college.

The marble statue from which the cast was taken was found in Italy in the 16th century, and exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. The statue was highly regarded and often copied because it was thought to be a 4th century BC Greek original. It is now known that it is not an original, but a copy of an earlier work.


University galleries

Drawing of Ashmolean facade
  • Facade of Ashmolean Museum.
    Drawing: A. L. Arschavir R.I.B.A
    Copyright © 1998 Ashmolean Museum

In 1845 the present museum opened on Beaumont Street, providing an opportunity to bring these casts together. Initially known as the University Galleries it was later given the name of Ashmolean Museum.


Charles Cockerell

Temple of Apollo photo
Cockerell drwg.

The architect Charles Robert Cockerell had studied ancient architecture in Greece. His knowledge of Greek art and architecture in general, and of the late 5th century BC Temple of Apollo at Bassae in particular, profoundly influenced his design for the University Galleries.

Photo of Ashmolean Portico
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    Portico of the Ashmolean Museum.
    Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley

Apollo himself presides over Cockerell's building whose colonnaded portico and pediment closely resemble those of ancient Greek temples.



The Ashmolean's Grand Staircase

Grand Staircase photo
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    Ashmolean Museum Grand Staircase.
    Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley
Blue Frieze photo
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    Plaster Cast of the Bassae Frieze.
    Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley

Marble frieze (about 400 BC) from The Temple of Apollo at Bassae, now in the British Museum.
Photographs: John Boardman

Cockerell decorated the walls of the museum's Great Staircase with plaster casts of the Bassae frieze. Blocks of the original frieze had been brought from Greece to the British Museum in 1815.


Apollo and the Muses

Photo of watercolour Apollo and his Muses
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    The semicircular area once opposite the museum's entrance.
    Watercolour: Bodleian Library, MS.Top.Oxon.b.89, fol.12r

Within the main entrance of the museum Cockerell designed an elegant semicircular area where plaster casts of Apollo and his Muses were displayed. These casts had been made in Rome from ancient marble statues found at Tivoli in 1774. Neither the semicircle nor the plaster casts exist today.


The West Wing

Etching of West Wing

On the walls of the building's West Wing, Cockerell placed plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze. They can just be seen in this etching of about 1850, and, more clearly, in the photograph below. The casts shown in this etching are Sir Francis Chantrey's original 19th century plaster models. Cast from the finished clay works in his studio, they were used as pointing models for carving the final sculptures in marble.

Photo of West Gallery today
  • West Wing of the museum today.
    Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley

The West Wing was redeveloped in 1997 to house the Museum Shop and a new entrance with access to the restaurant below. This photograph shows the frieze at the southern end of the West Wing as it appeared at this time. In 2011 the West Wing was incorporated into the new galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia


Ashmolean Long Gallery

The Long Gallery (about 1890)
The Long Gallery today
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    The Long Gallery in 1999.
    Photograph: Beazley Archive, Ian Hiley

Plaster casts from classical sculpture stood in the Long Gallery leading from the Great Staircase towards the West Wing. They can be seen in this photograph of about 1890 when the number of plaster casts from Greek and Roman sculpture was greatly increased. At the end of the 19th century the collection was exhibited in another part of the museum and the Arundel Collection of marble sculpture, dating from the early 17th century, was exhibited in the Long Gallery, known today as the Randolph Gallery.


Opening of the present Cast Gallery

Photo of Interior of the 
Cast Gallery
Photo of Bust of Bernard Ashmole

The present Cast Gallery opened in 1961. Its display was designed by Bernard Ashmole, who was then the University's Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. The University expects to build a new gallery for the cast collection in due course.

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