Print This Page (simplified layout)

Loans from the Collection to National Museums

Spring, 1998

IN the last issue of Sphæra it was reported that the Museum has been designated as one of the small group of non-national museums with outstanding collections. This official judgement of the Museums and Galleries Commission is reflected by the views of the national museums themselves. Their appreciation of the significance of the Museum’s collections is, however, expressed in a more direct way, through requests for the loan of objects: three national museums have borrowed items for special exhibitions in recent months.

The National Gallery requested five instruments for ‘Holbein’s Ambassadors’, the fifth exhibition in its Making and Meaning series. Presented in the Sainsbury Wing, the exhibition was centred on Holbein’s magnificent double portrait, the freshness of its colours vividly revealed by recent restoration. The exhibition, which ran from the 5th November 1997 to the 1st February, explored many of the remarkable features of the painting, including the group of mathematical instruments artfully arranged on the table at the centre of the composition.

To illustrate the instrumental theme the Museum lent a German cylinder dial, a French equinoctial dial, a pair of dividers and an English quadrant. The fifth loan instrument was perhaps the most appropriate: a small polyhedral sundial attributable to Nicolaus Kratzer and bearing Cardinal Wolsey’s coat of arms. Kratzer had a strong connection with Holbein. They collaborated at the court of Henry VIII and in Holbein’s own famous portrait of Kratzer he shows the astronomer as an instrument maker, surrounded by many of the same instruments as appear in The Ambassadors.

The content and symbolism of The Ambassadors has been a subject for intense discussion and speculation since its acquisition by the National Gallery a century ago. Nor is the subject yet exhausted. In addition to the findings presented in the National Gallery’s own catalogue of the exhibition, the Museum is to host a fresh reassessment of the painting and its instruments, by J. D. North, as one of the series of Delta lectures (further details are given on the back page).

The second major national loan from Oxford was to the British Museum. Although the British Museum’s collections have always included historical scientific instruments, few are displayed in its permanent galleries. ‘Humphrey Cole: Mint, Measurement and Maps in Elizabethan England’ (3rd March to 6th May) was the British Museum’s first exhibition to focus on a scientific instrument maker.

Humphrey Cole has a pre-eminent place in English instrument-making as the first native maker of the English trade. The Museum of the History of Science has five of Cole’s surviving output of twenty-six instruments and all were included among the twenty-three assembled for the British Museum exhibition. Each is signed and dated: a compendium of 1568, a folding rule of 1575, a horizontal sundial of 1579, a plane table alidade of 1582, and an altazimuth theodolite of 1586.

The British Museum exhibition did not focus only on Cole as an instrument maker. Money also featured, since Cole was employed in the capacity of a ‘die-sinker’ at the Mint in the Tower of London and therefore had a hand in the production of the coin of the realm.

Cole also acted as an engraver, and cut at least one copper-plate – a map of Palestine for the 1572 edition of the Bishop’s Bible. Richard Jugge, the publisher of this bible, had more than one association with Cole. The Museum’s 1568 compendium was made for Jugge and carries his badge: a tree with a nightingale singing its song ‘Jugge, Jugge, Jugge, Jugge’. Appropriately enough for a publisher, this compendium is in the form of a book.

The third national loan was to the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff, for an exhibition called ‘Through the Viewfinder: the Photographs of Lewis Carroll’. This exhibition, which runs until the 21st June, is one of many events arranged to coincide with the centenary of the death of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll.

Dodgson used the wet collodion process in his photography and the Museum has lent his photographic outfit, which is in its collections. The box for the outfit, which contains a selection of chemical glassware and a mahogany dark-slide, has on its lid the initials ‘C. L. D.’ and also carries a printed instruction sheet from ‘Hockin & Co., Operative Chemists, &c., 38, Duke Street, Manchester Square, London, W. Manufacturers of Pure Chemicals, and all Apparatus employed in Photographic and Experimental Chemistry’.

These loans bring the Museum’s collections to a large and diverse public. Certainly, Broad Street cannot match the very high-profile exposure offered by the National Gallery, where the Ambassadors exhibition and the Museum’s instruments were seen by 180,000 visitors in just three months. With parts of the Museum building already closed to the public in preparation for the refurbishment of the permanent galleries, loans are one extremely useful way of keeping the collections accessible.