Join An Van Camp, the Assistant Keeper of Northern European Art, as she lifts the lid on some strange boxes in the Museum's stores. Some contain witches, others devils, others letters of the alphabet wrapped in pink ribbons. They all belonged to the same man – the eccentric Francis Douce.
Dürer drawing of two witches – Find out more
Portrait of Francis Douce – Find out more
If you want to take a closer look at artworks relating to this episode, you can view them at the links above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/museum-secrets
Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and An Van Camp
About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.
Lucie: When you walk into the Ashmolean, what you see in the galleries is just the tip of the iceberg of all the objects in the museum. Step behind the scenes, and can find all sorts of hidden wonders. And in the Ashmolean’s storeroom of works on paper, we find curator An Van Camp. She is looking at a large number of mysterious boxes. Over to An, to tell us what’s inside them.
An: The Ashmolean opened its doors in 1683, making it the first public museum in the UK. Since then, it has expanded to nearly a million objects as over the centuries, many supporters of the museum have donated their possessions to the collections. Some of these donors were quite eccentric. Not least among them was a man called Francis Douce. His gift to the museum was so large and so difficult to categorise that we are still haven’t finished cataloguing it.
Born in 1757, Francis Douce was a legal attorney with a taste for the arts. At the age of 22, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians, which already indicates that he was considered a serious scholar and collector. The word “antiquarian” is not common anymore, but it was used to describe someone who dedicated himself to the study and collecting of antiques, antiquities and/or books.
It is clear that Douce lived for his antiquarian passion and only worked as an attorney to fund his collecting habits. He was in a childless and rather unhappy marriage (probably because of his shopping sprees!). His father, also an attorney, thoroughly disapproved of the young Francis’ expensive interest in the arts, and when he died in 1799, left him much smaller inheritance than his brother, stating that “he would just waste it on buying books”.
Nevertheless, the money allowed Francis to give up his job as an attorney, and dedicate all his time to his research and collecting of books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, coins, medals, rarities and antiquities. He wasn’t as wealthy as other collectors of his time, so he couldn’t afford a top-class fine art collection. Instead, he got his hands on whatever he could afford, including popular and ephemeral culture, which makes his an incredibly interesting collections as not many similar ones have survived the test of time.
The result was an incredibly eclectic and varied collection, but within it Douce had some niche interests. He was especially fascinated by The Divine, the macabre and the grotesque. A lot of his books, drawings and prints are therefore about witchcraft, demonology, devilry, fools and jesters.
As Douce became more and more serious about his collecting, the money he had inherited from his father dwindled away. So, in 1807 at the surprising age of 50 (let’s call it a midlife crisis!), Douce joined the British Museum as Keeper of the Manuscripts, which gave him recognition as a serious scholar in the field responsible for the UK’s national collection of handwritten books, most of them Medieval.
However, having never held down a job in an institution like the British Museum, with all its inherent quirks, Douce was too old to cope with the internal politics. He was not, it would seem, a team player.
From his furious personal notes, it sounds like Douce and his colleagues kept on rubbing each other up the wrong way. Reading over his journals, now more than 200 years later, some of his complaints still sound very familiar, such as “the vastness of the business remaining to be done” or the “total impossibility of my individual efforts, …, to do any real, or at least much, good”. He’s also critical of the many committees and their (I quote) “fiddle faddle requisition of incessant reports, the greatest part of which can inform them of nothing, or, when they do, of what they are generally incapable of understanding or fairly judging of”.
The British Museum tried to reconcile with him, but Douce was having none of it, and stormed out of the job after just a few years, in 1811.
These notes give you a feeling for his famously grumpy character. His contemporaries reported that he was not an easy man to get on with and described him as “constitutionally irritable”. And he does look very severe in his portraits - in the one here in the Ashmolean, made around 1800 by his equally combustible friend, the artist James Barry, he is seen frowning at something in the middle distance.
As Douce grew older, he became aware of what should be done with his huge collection after his death. The natural choice would have been the British Museum, which, after all, was just around the corner from where he lived. But after their bust-up, he refused to consider them.
In July 1830, Douce paid a visit to the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, where he was enthusiastically shown around by the librarian, the fantastically-named Bulkeley Bandinel. Bandinel wooed Douce, wining and dining him, and pointing out that at the Bodleian, his name would be attached to his collection for all posterity. This appealed to Douce’s ego, and so it happened that after his death in 1834, he left his whole collection to the library. And it turned out to be huge. 19,000 printed books (some incredibly early and rare), 420 manuscript books, almost 50,000 prints, 1500 drawings, vast numbers of coins and medals, and his notebooks and correspondence.
He did leave a single sealed chest to the British Museum, with instructions not to open it until 66 years after he had died. And so, in 1900, the trustees of the museum came together to witness the opening of the mystery box, full of anticipation about the precious books and manuscripts they expected to find in it. One American newspaper at the time reported it as a hoax and described how the trustees only found scraps of paper, torn up book covers, and a note from Douce explaining that it would be a waste to leave anything more valuable to (as he put it) ’the persons of the average intelligence and taste of the trustees of the British Museum’. But there is no proof of this and the contents of the box were later transferred to the Bodleian as per Douce’s will. I guess one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Everything else had been sent to Oxford in 1834 after his death. It would have been quite an operation to transfer a collection of that size. Imagine the hundreds if not thousands of crates which had to be transported from London to Oxford, either by horse and wagon or via the River Thames. Once here, they were kept in their own space at the Bodleian Library called 'The Douce Room' (Bibliotheca Douceiana), just like Douce had been promised.
However, because of a lack of space, everything that wasn’t bound in a book was transferred to the Ashmolean Museum, where I am now responsible for part of this incredible treasure trove.
There are tens of thousands of prints and drawings, including a world-class collection of works by the German master Albrecht Durer, such as hundreds of prints and even a fabulous drawing of two witches flogging (which appealed to Douce’s fascination for the macabre).
Douce’s collection is always a delight to go through, because of the eccentric way Douce organised things. You might expect that a man who prided himself as a professional antiquarian might arrange his collection academically, by time, artist, or region, for example.
But no, Douce created boxes by themed categories, according to his idiosyncratic interests. Each box is stuffed with images which relate to a particular theme or subject. One contains only images of devils, another pictures of the Virgin Mary, another just prints of armour. Going through them is like a lucky dip. In one, you might find something pretty boring, like endless pictures of furniture, only to come across a coven of witches in the next one.
One of my favourite boxes contains stacks of images of the Dance of Death, or the Danse Macabre. It is usually represented as one or more skeletons personifying Death, who walk or dance with different kind of people: a king, a monk, a woman, a child. The Dance of Death illustrates the concept that we are all equal in the end. You may be a king or a beggar but in the end Death will come for all of us. This notion of equality but also the fragility of human life was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries with artists from Northern Europe. Lucky for Douce these were not desired by most collectors at the time and therefore still affordable!
And Douce didn’t have any distinctions about the quality of art which went into each box. In one, you might find invaluable old master prints from the 15th century which can rank among the masterpieces of other museums, alongside things that Douce had cut out from contemporary newspapers. If he saw a witch, it went into the witch box - it didn’t matter if it was a masterpiece or something from a magazine.
And he took his organising to extremes. I have even found evidence of Douce cutting up more valuable old master prints in order to make them fit into his categories. The most shocking example (at least for me as a museum curator who would never dream of cutting up art works!), is the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel’s famous print of the Temptation of Christ, where Douce cut out the demon enticing Christ in order to place it in his box labelled “Devilry”.
The boxes themselves are also fascinating. They are sturdy wooden chests, beautifully lined with colourful, hand-printed paper, with the pictures arranged lovingly inside. Another personal favourite Douce box of mine in fact is one of his smallest and it is stuffed with hundreds of tiny pieces of paper printed with large initial alphabet letters. He must have cut them out from books, for instance from the first letter of each chapter, which was often quite large and decorated. Douce made stacks of each letter of the alphabet and then carefully wrapped them in individual parcels. What always makes me smile is that each of these parcels have been delicately tied together with soft, pink ribbons.
As soon as you open this alphabet box, you see a very different side to this famously grumpy, volatile man. Behind closed doors he was a man who liked to sit down with tissue paper and ribbons and scissors to assemble his oddball collection. Douce was the sort of person who could plot revenge on the British Museum decades after his death, while spending an afternoon making little parcels out of the letter ‘a’. He sounds like a real character, and I wish I could have met him.
And Douce left us so many of his boxes that we still haven’t finished going through and I can’t wait to see what more we will find almost 200 years after his bequest.
I hope that my love for this unique collection will entice you to come to Oxford and look at the man’s legacy yourself. The Museum will reopen on 17 May, so why not pay a visit to the Western Art Print Room. There, you can sit down at a table and browse through the boxes yourself, and take a trip into the strange and wonderful brain of Francis Douce.
Lucie: I hope you enjoyed today’s story. If you want take a look at Douce portrait, or his picture of flagellating witches, you can find links in the podcast notes. We can’t wait to welcome you back into the building in the next couple of weeks. Do come in and visit some of our museum secrets in person. And in the meantime, tune in next Friday, with story about another macabre box.