Sir John Evans and the Ashmolean

Priscilla Waugh on a collector of antiquities who helped fill the display cabinets in one of the world’s most famous museums

Watercolour by David Langford

Heaven and Earth, centre and circumference, were created all together in the same instant …. and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 BC at nine o’clock in the morning. During the next six days, the Holy Trinity created man and all creatures now inhabiting the earth, as well as the fossilised remains of many now dead species.”

So decreed Dr John I.ightfoot in 1642 — and few took issue with him until surprisingly recently. Just five months before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, the respected antiquary, palaeontologist and numismatist John Evans addressed the Society of Antiquaries.

‘This much appears to be established beyond doubt, that in a period of antiquity remote beyond any of which we have hitherto found traces, this portion of the globe was peopled by men”, he declared and the Christian world resounded with shock, horror or mild disbelief. Especially in Oxford, a bastion of the established church.

John Evans, (b. 1823) married Harriet Dickinson, heiress to the Dickinson paper industry and eventually became head of the enterprise.

Not only did he run the paper manufactory, he also kept abreast (or ahead) of his own subjects, publishing numerous learned articles and the definitive textbooks on coins of the Ancient Britons and on ancient stone and bronze implements of Great Britain and Ireland.

At various times President of the Society of Antiquaries, of the Numismatic Society the Geological Society, the Anthropological Institute, the Society of Chemical Industries, the British Association; Treasurer of the Royal Society and a trustee of the British Museum. He was created KCB in 1892.

No slouch, then, you might conclude. He was also the father of five gifted and hard-working children, the eldest of whom was Sir Arthur Evans, a similarly enthusiastic archaeologist and collector of antiquities.

It was Arthur Evans who reconstructed the palace of the legendary King Minos at Knossos on Crete and was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum between 1884 and 1908.

His son’s enthusiasm for both art and antiquities was unsurprising. Sir John Evans had amassed for himself and the country an extraordinary collection of ancient pottery, Roman glass, coins, flint tools and stone axes.

Luckily, the family home was large enough to accommodate them and Evans’s second wife, Fanny (Harriet had died after the birth of their last child) was supportive and understanding. But what happens to such a collection after one’s death?

The question must occur to any elderly person with such an important hoard. With a son like Arthur the answer is obvious. You give the entire caboodle to him.

I really rather wish you would not give them to me,” said Arthur ruefully, being too absorbed in the Minoans to care a lot right now about stone axes. But, Just as his father had been more than generous in the funding of the Knossos project, he was also largely to thank for Youlbury the extraordinary mansion Arthur was building on Boars Hill.

So more shelves were reluctantly added to Arthur’s storerooms. Substantial ones, presumably, as en route to Youlbury the stone axes ended upon the road, having caused the bottom to fall out of the lorry.

The Ashmolean was the obvious eventual repository for his father’s collection, which was soon to be augmented by archaeological finds made by John Myres in Cyprus and Flinders Petrie in Egypt. Plus, of course, antiquities from Arthur’s own excavations.

But the Evans’ interests were wide-ranging: recognising no barriers between different periods or disciplines, they being equally excited by archaeology, anthropology and the arts.

This reluctance to pigeonhole their discoveries was sometimes infuriating to purists, but it is due to such (some might say amateurish) enthusiasm that today’s Ashmolean is one of the world’s greatest museums. And why its collections proudly range from fine 20th-century paintings back through centuries of art and archaeology from both east and west to the cradle of civilisation itself.

The Oxford Limited Edition August, 2005