26.2.10

An old friend restored




The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
In 1987, I hitchhiked to Oxford with my then boyfriend, a nineteen year old penniless, orphaned urchin, with no-one supporting me, determined - somehow - to become a *famous artist*. Does that sound dramatic? Well, that's how it was. Having left an unhappy foster home aged just 16, I had tried in vain to somehow earn my living through my artworks, with little training , absolutely no idea of how this was to be done, and having scant cultural background.
Suffering from what I now know was deep depression, the result of a chaotic childhood, traumatised by losing one parent after another, I was in a downward spiral, common to youngsters who are dumped by the care system and left to sink or swim. It was a hopeless situation, but at least I finally had the wit to realise that. So I was heading to Oxford for an interview to get onto an A level art course, at the more humble College of Further Education.
We were dropped off at the Abingdon Road roundabout and immediately a summer shower drenched us. We walked up to St Aldates. The sun came out. It was my first glimpse of Cotswold stone, and the wet buildings glowed golden yellow. Almost on cue, the bells of Oxford began to peal, as if welcoming me - it was a million miles away from the damp, slummy bedsit we had left behind us and I could actually sense the course of my life changing. I fell irretrievably in love with this ancient, beautiful city and it, in turn, civilised me.

I got my cherished place at the college and began the long, slow process of repairing my fractured life. I also began studying art history, and after so many years of neglect, my starved soul guzzled up knowledge and culture. I discovered the Ashmolean - like so many of our museums, it was and is, still free admittance to everyone. I nourished myself on paintings, largely ignoring the artifacts sections, which interest me now. With my battered Penguin copy of Vasari's Lives of the Artists in my pocket, I drew bronzes and copied artworks to my heart's content. I haunted the Renaissance room, which looks almost the same today as it did then.


I haven't been there for years - it is a fair trek to town if you do not own a car, so outings are rare. But this week we made the effort, to see the new gallery extension, opened last November. I was a little fearful of how they had treated the old girl, and raced up to the Renaissance room to say hello to my old friends.



After this comfort trip, we found our way almost by accident, to the new development, which cost £61 million...and worth every penny. It is stunning - it actually brought tears to my eyes. We wandered about gawping at the luxurious and clever use of space - a cross between a glass ants nest and the drawing 'Relativity' by Escher. The place was buzzing - a strange change from the previous fusty atmosphere, but a welcome one; it really felt like a 'people's museum'.




I fell in love all over again, and realised how much I had missed actually seeing real artworks of quality. There were dozens of enthusiastic, helpful staff buzzing about (a radical change from the grumpy jobsworths who used to sit foursquare in a corner, dozing off) and I enthused to one young lady about the new extension, explaining how I used to come and draw here, thinking I would be the next Michelangelo. She asked me if I did go on to become an artist, and I said yes, I'm a children's illustrator; not exactly what I had in mind then, but I did achieve some of my dreams.

There is a separate Ashmolean review, with many more pictures of the new gallery over on my Cotswold Peeps blog.

29 comments:

Menopausal musing said...

Oh Gretel, what a lovely post.... The Ashmolean is indeed magical. I had my first ever visit a few months before it shut down for a year in order to revamp. I had a member of staff approach me and ask me of my interests, to which he produced a list from his head of things which might be worth me looking at. He gave me such an education and then waited for me to come back down the stairs several hours later. A lovely discussion ensued. He was to lose his job during the rebuild and I really hope he got it back. It is a truly amazing museum and I hope to get back again having read this post of yours.

janet said...

I love hearing more of your 'story' Gretel. Knowing your past and seeing how far you have come and especially your deep appreciation for all the wonder around you makes me smile ;-) Isn't it nice to have that special place to come back to whenever you like? We all need that in our lives. Thanks for letting us experience this with you.
your friend,
Janet

janet said...

Ok...is that a Rabbit or a Hare?????

ANGLESEY ALLSORTS said...

What a nice positive story - you should be proud of yourself, you have achieved so much.
Vicky x

Natasha said...

Gretel you've brought tears to my eyes!
xxx

Claire said...

Gretel how wonderful that you have achieved some of your dreams, found a passion and followed it. The musuem looks amazing, 61 millions, wow!!
So nice to be 'moved' by things, to feel that passion.

Lovely post.

PaperTiger said...

Bootiful.

Julia Kelly said...

I was talking to a not artist friend about art and we agreed- Art is nothing and it is everything. It is nothing in comparison to survial-finding food, shelter, dealing with warfare- but then it is everything to a culture and has been protected through the ages-placed in grand museums. Personally art saved me too as a kid with a learning disablity and other tramas.

GardenofDaisies said...

So glad that you had your passion for art to hold you up and keep you from drowning as the swirling mess of the world around you seemed to be falling apart. I can't even begin to imagine growing up in the foster care program. Very glad to see that your work today benefits children.
BTW, my sister is an art museum docent, and she had to fight tooth and nail to get the system to change so that people could see art through their own eyes, rather than have a bunch of history and dates shoved down their throats. These days, instead of informing visiting school children just what it is that is in front of them, as the poor kids fall asleep from boredom, the docents ask "What do you see?" and start a conversation with the children.

Christy said...

Living in the States where very little is that old, and having attended High School in England at a Tudor mansion. I was a day pupil. I have always thought that atmosphere is vital for learning. It adds another dimension.

My son who's 15 and I have talked about this. His Middle School was built in the fifties with lots of windows, a courtyard and a tower with little rooms. Wonderful woodwork and auditorium. His High School is one of those windowless seventies buildings.

I have not visited Oxford, shame on me, as I come from the Cambridge area. Obviously I need to do so.

Such a moving post.

Christy

Eliane said...

Thank you for these lovely photographs of one of my favourite museums. I was studying in Oxford in the mid-eighties and as part of my degree in history I got to be a member of the Ashmolean library. Can't remember anything I read. What I do remember is the pleasure in wandering through the galleries towards the library. And after the main galleries had shut, when you left there was a secret back staircase which brought you out amidst Greek and Roman statues. Will have to visit when we next make it back to the UK.

jfidz said...

A wonderful post Gretel - I'm glad the museum still retains it's heart and soul.
You are an inspiration - do you visit schools or care homes to talk to young people? I'm sure you'd be welcomed with open arms if you felt up to giving the children the benefit of your experiences.

BumbleVee said...

Way to go Gretel! I love cheering on those who have managed to overcome crappy backgrounds (been there, done that too)... reach for the stars and come out shining and golden, just like your Cotswold stone....

Love the chubby bunny at the gallery...

I think your artwork is pretty darn amazing .... I love the pastel-y, soft colours ...

John Nez said...

I think museums make like that make me want to move in and never leave. We have a nice museum with a lovely antique coffee shop in Seattle. I'd like to live there...

:0)

Twiglet said...

I love the photos you have chosen to share with us - that elephant has a familiar look. You also made me think how I took my happy home for granted and how lucky I am, even at 58, to have a wonderful sister to share our family memories with. What mountains you have had to climb Gretel - but the view from the top must be wonderful if it reflects all your achievements. Go girl!!

Jessie said...

I'm so happy that they didn't let you down and you loved it all the more for it's new building work. We loved it there when we went to visit and shall definitely go back and have a proper stay there next time.xx

Yarrow said...

Lovely post, Gretel, so glad that going back wasn't a disapointment :)

Libby Buttons said...

HuLLo Sweet G
Such a heartwarming post for me. Childhood depression *sigh*, yes, me too. Art somehow remedies so many ailments and can be the missing piece in getting ones life back in order. Wonderful post. So very sorry to hear of your parents being gone and of your early childhood in foster homes. This would make you somewhat of a "needle in a haystack" or success story over here in America.
smiLes
DarLy
aka LiBBy BuTTons

Jackie said...

Who could have known you had such a difficult childhood when your blog speaks of contentment and peace?
I am full of admiration for what you have achieved.
I spent many happy hours of my childhood in a Museum in my local town and although it isn't anything like the Ashmolean I can appreciate the feelings you had there. I remember the case of butterflies with the strange and beautiful 'Orange tip' which we never saw so far North.

(By the way..I don't know why there are linke to my blog at the end of your posts..its nothing I've done)

Caroline B said...

Glad your follow up visit was not a disappointment - it looks like an amazing place. I shall have to go and stay with my big brother in Oxford & have myself a look. That (Japanese?) monkey with the crab is
so wonderful - his expression is just perfect.

ADonald466 said...

Oh Gretel - a very moving post! Your photos are super - I love the ones of the stairs. So - that's another place on my list of places to visit!! Love, Anne

ewix said...

Gretel!
Thank you, thank you!
The Renaissance room looks exactly as it did in 1968
when I was a art student in the Ashmolean.
Gosh, I was so happy/sad/late adolescent there
looking at Ucello's Hunt by Night and chatting to the stout ladies who were rather fierce until I tamed them a bit
They would call me "my duck".
I also loved the Euston Rd. paintings and a Degans Dancer figurine. So I did go on to become an art historian too.......
You had a much rougher ride than I did but this museum is magic upon magic.
So sorry I have been absent bit

acornmoon said...

I love the way you describe the sun on Cotswold stone, the sun shining and the bells peeling and how the architecture and environment civilized you. Your words are very moving and inspirational. Dreams sometimes do come true.

I know you would love the V and A, take plenty of tissues!

Suze said...

I'm glad you found Oxford, Gretel...and then the world of the internet, because otherwise, we would never of had the chance to find such a beautiful person.

mockingbirdsatmidnight said...

This was such a lovely post, full of hope and beauty. The Ashmolean seems like such a magical place. No wonder it helped cure you!

Gemma Mortlock said...

that was such a lovely post! you are such a strong woman, you should be so proud of what and who you are and the strength you've shown. You are truly an inspiration!
Big Hugs for monday
xxxx
Gem
xxx

Chrissie said...

Eloquent and moving and uplifting and courageous - thank you for telling us about your journey.

d. moll, l.ac. said...

It is nice to have old friends waiting patiently for you to come 'round again. Love the rabbit (of course) and the toad.

Ariadone said...

What an excellent post. I am so happy to have found you, through Maine memories. I will walk around your blog for more.
Groet
Godeliva van Ariadone