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Treasured inheritance: six hundred years of Oxford college silver make a splendid and instructive exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.

This engaging exhibition demonstrates the old truism that a good story, and striking, rarely-seen objects do not require elaborate or costly presentation. In sparkling new cases, set within a rich dragon's blood-red setting, the historic objects sing. In a harmony of of tones, old gilding, leather bindings and parchment alternate with the cool gleam of silver.

More than 130 pieces of college plate are on show, made for ceremony, for worship, for eating and drinking and to mark sporting achievement. They range in date from the 1340s Founders' horn at Queen's to Peter Musson's double head of the river trophy for Pembroke, of 2004. Almost every college is represented, overcoming initial unease about security and discomfiting perceptions about unfashionable 'treasure'.

The museum designer Graeme Campbell has given each object its full dignity, with the subtlety and precision of a sculpture show. No white rectangles intrude, since all the labels are presented in large print and at a comfortable height on nearby wails. Supporting documents, drawn from college archives, include benefactors' book (illuminated with 'portraits' of the donors' gifts of cruets, tankards and casters), a fourteenth-century inventory from New College and bursars' books from Lincoln and Corpus. The documents are presented close enough to be read, which is unusual and in marked contrast to the frustrating manuscript section of the 'Gothic' exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bills from Oxford goldsmiths, dug out of college muniment rooms, show that most were acting simply as retailers for London firms. One exception is the family business Payne's, which has nurtured the Arts and Crafts tradition in Oxford for well over a century and in 1951 arranged for a young RCA graduate, Eric Clement to receive the commission for a modernist 'Eights Week' bowl for Merton. Portraits of the college servants who cared for, scoured and sometimes stole the plate bring humanity to the presentation, and graphic panels explain the context

Oxford attracts criticism for its attachment to irrelevant traditions and inward-looking pleasures. In fact, the generosity and loyalty of college graduates and fellows are among its continuing strengths, rarely made explicit but expressed here through gifts to chapels, halls president's lodgings and common rooms. Dean Fell's set of altar plate beautified worship at Christ Church after the austerity of the Commonwealth. In 1867 Worcester acquired from Barkentin and Krall large silver-bound Testaments, one incorporating a seventeenth-century plaque, in a distinctive marriage of antiquarianism and devotion. Liturgical plate, although a small part of the display, is a reminder of the central role of the chapel in collegiate life, even today.

Approaching the two first-floor exhibition rooms, through the Ashmolean's gallery of important historic silver, the distinctive character of college plate is instantly obvious. These pieces, which until the 1850 commission of reform were largely the result of gifts from gentlemen-commoners o fellows achieving a living, are both more massive and (mostly) plainer than contemporary English domestic plate. Examples are a ten-gallon 1720s punch bowl from Jesus and a tall and elegant argyll, a neoclassical vase concealing a hot-water jacket, presented by the Earl of Chesterfield to Queen's. Ornamented across their swelling curves simply with Latin inscriptions, and perhaps the college arms, the ox-eye cups and tankards are practical pieces, for everyday drinking in hall, quite unlike the richly chased late-Stuart and rococo domestic silver of the museum's Carter and Farrer collections.

The exhibition reinforces the inaccuracy of the old claim that the colleges sacrificed their plate to the demands of Charles I in the Civil War. In fact a rapid turnover, and unsentimental remodelling of obsolete items into something more useful or fashionable, just as in private houses, or sales to raise funds to invest in a new project, were always the pattern. Christ Church, for instance, melted 500[pounds sterling] worth of plate to raise money to beautify its medieval hall in 1750. Also careless loss and theft could reach a striking level, as early-seventeenth-century inventories of lost spoons at St. John's and late-eighteenth-century lists of missing ox-eye cups at Corpus reveal.

The genesis of this show was a two-year Leverhulme grant to the Ashmolean, realising a project devised by curator Timothy Wilson in the early 1990s, to explore the archives of the colleges and recreate the distinctive context of their little-known plate. Helen Clifford, a design historian and silver specialist with archive experience, chosen as researcher on the project, is well-equipped to draw out the sociology of college silver and weave together these separate strands. Her lively account of the ways in which the pantry, cellar, president's lodgings, hall and senior common room each accumulated, used, lost and recycled their plate should become a model for future exhibition publications. Lucid, relatively brief, well-illustrated and inexpensive, this book, designed by Rhian Lonergan-White, continues the admirable Ashmolean run of handsome, useful and enjoyable publications. The exhibition offers an excellent example of the museum fulfilling a unique role, in both sharing an explaining the university's history.

Penetrating this normally private world, often dismissed in stereotypes of privilege, this show brings out the colleges' role as guardians of a distinctive social history. Antiquarians and connoisseurs have appreciated Oxford's historic silver since the first publications in the 1820s, but largely as examples of rare forms, unusual makers' marks or because of the later career of the donor. At last, the history of patronage and the significance of distinctive cultures of eating and drinking are attracting serious academic attention as researchers recognise the potential of the rich paper-trail created by the ownership and management of plate.

Visitors should not miss the exhibition's third section, in the temporary exhibitions room on the ground floor, reached in an idiosyncratic route through the archaeology displays. This shows striking late-twentieth-century and contemporary plate, demonstrating how the old tradition of giving drinking vessels has been transformed into a new enthusiasm for distinctive table ware, such as the Millennium bowl commissioned for St Catherine's from Jenny Edge, or the series of altar vessels created by Rod Kelly for New College.

Philippa Glanville, retired Academic Director of Waddesdon Manor, and former Chief Curator of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes on silver and London history.
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Title Annotation:Exhibitions
Author:Glanville, Philippa
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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