BSR Members visit the Ashmolean Museum’s Western Art Print Room

Membership of the BSR has been an invaluable asset to me over the past few years. As a pied-à-terre in Rome, and as a research resource in its own right, the Lutyens’ building prominent on Via Gramsci has been the ideal base for my research. Morning walks through the Borghese gardens to various palazzi, churches and galleries, afternoons spent in the BSR library, and evenings engaged in chatting with guests and staff over supper, have also been part of the draw. However, UK activities have rarely been a focus for me. This changed in dramatic style recently when as a BSR member, I was invited to the Prints and Drawings Room of the Ashmolean Museum to meet members of the Italian Drawings Project.

Conveniently, the Ashmolean was part of my planned primary research for this year. For the past few months I have been earnestly engaged in converting my PhD thesis into Henry Hoare the Collector, the ‘book of the thesis’ – so to speak. The focus of my PhD research was the reception of ancient Roman myth, art and literature in the eighteenth-century English landscape garden. A key influence on this movement was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century landscape painting, and specially the work of Claude, Poussin and Dughet. As an example of this influence, the Pantheon in Henry Hoare’s landscape garden at Stourhead, one of the best-known examples of the genre, features a trio of statues which seemingly represent the Choice of Hercules. Poussin’s version of this theme can still be found in the house at Stourhead. One time near-neighbour of Henry’s, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, also owned a painting of this theme by Paolo de’ Matteis. This painting now hangs in the Ashmolean. A section of the book in preparation deals with eighteenth-century interest in this theme, and hence my planned visit to Oxford.

On the day, after having glutted myself on the de’Matteis canvas, I met with the BSR group organised by Natasha Burbridge, and I was delighted to find old BSR friends Harriet O’Neill and Alice Marsh forming part of the group. We were led by Angelamaria Aceto through the museum and into the hallowed space of the Western Drawing Room. Here we were greeted by Angelamaria’s colleague, Ian Hicks, and directed to a line of seats by the window, set teasingly in front of three upright easels. I opted to perch on the window-ledge and Angelamaria began revealing the first of a succession of visual treats.


BSR Members view a selection of drawings. Photo: Alice Marsh.

Our two hours included viewing drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo, selected to illustrate a variety of themes and techniques. The latter included working in black and red chalk, as well as the metalpoint technique, of which we learnt that Raphael was a keen exponent. The themes explored included consideration of the purpose of drawings, i.e. those intended as preparation for other pieces (‘functional’), experimental pieces, auxiliary drawings, as well as presentation drawings. To illustrate this last category, we were invited to contemplate Raphael’s preparatory study (see below) for the Vatican Transfiguration altarpiece.


WA1846.209, Studies of the heads of two apostles and of their hands, Raphael. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.  

The third and final element of our all too short visit was a selection of drawings presented by Ian illustrating the connections between the work of Parmigianino and Correggio, and evidence of the former’s influence on the latter. A highlight for me was the chance to view a Parmigianino’s cartoon on grey-blue paper of The Nativity.

Never has two hours passed quite so quickly, and presumably to protect us from the onset of Stendhal’s syndrome, at just after 1pm our hosts thanked us for attending and we filed out into the main museum.

We were effusive with our thanks on the day, but I am nevertheless pleased to have this further opportunity to thank the BSR and the Prints and Drawings Room staff for their kindness in organising such a memorable visit. I hope very much that the Ashmolean Italian Drawings Project will go from strength-to-strength. Natasha has mentioned organising other, similar trips for BSR members.

Text by Professor John Harrison (BSR Member)

My thanks to Angelamaria Aceto for her comments on an earlier draft of this blog.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the BSR, please contact Natasha Burbridge at