Back to England - IV

A Balustrade by John Singer Sargent in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England (LEO Design)


Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was an English naturalist, politician and "collector of curiosities."  Although he had aristocratic ancestors, his family had fallen into "a less exalted position" by the time he was born.  Through good marriages (and his support of the monarchy during the English Civil War), he re-established the Ashmolean fortune.  After Charles II was restored to the throne, a series of important appointments helped fund his incessant collecting of art and antiquities.  He was especially interested in the sciences—which were advancing greatly during the Age of Enlightenment.

In 1677, at the age of 60 and having no children, Ashmole donated his vast collection to the University of Oxford which built a museum to house the endowment.  The Ashmolean Museum was the first public museum in Britain.  It is still free to the public to this day.  The present building was built between 1841 and 1845.  The collection has grown considerably and is a wonderful way to spend a few hours seeing excellent works.

Shown above, John Singer Sargent's masterful oil painting, A Balustrade, capturing the steps leading-up to the Church of Saints Domenico and Sisto in Rome.  While Sargent made his living painting portraits (mostly of the wealthy), he loved traveling and painting for himself: architecture, landscapes, artist-friends and nude men.   Sargent exhibits the same painterly confidence and spontaneity with this stone balustrade as he would painting a satin skirt draped over a socialite's crossed legs.


The Sluggard Bronze Sculpture by Frederick, Lord Leighton in the Ashmolean, Oxford, England (LEO Design)


Frederick, Lord Leighton—another confirmed bachelor of impeccable taste—sculpted The Sluggard in 1885.  The Ashmolean's bronze version was cast in 1890.  Leighton, an accomplished painter, as well, lived and worked in Kensington (and Leighton House is well worth a visit today).  He was often surrounded by handsome, young men, including his model, Giuseppe Valona.  It is believed that Leighton was inspired to sculpt The Sluggard after seeing Giuseppe stretching during a break between sittings.


The Holy Family Leaving Egypt Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Ashmolean, Oxford, England (LEO Design)


Despite Michelangelo Buonarroti's ranking as The Greatest Artist Ever (in my humble opinion), his works are exceedingly rare.  So, to run-into a Michelangelo in a small, regional museum (or any museum, for that matter) is a treat, indeed.  This sketch of the Holy Family (including Jesus's cousin, St. John the Baptist) is attributed to Michelangelo (1475-1564).  Experts place the date of creation as after 1520.  Scholars speculate that the image captures the Holy family leaving Egypt (upon learning of Herod's death).  The material and the execution are the same as other Michelangelo work of that period.  I believe the scholars and I am thrilled to be able to see it—a couple of feet in front of me.


Cloudscape Detail from John Constable's "Willy Lott's House from the Stour" in the Ashmolean, Oxford, England (LEO Design)


Shown above, a detail of clouds from the landscape, Willy Lott's House from the Stour (1816-1818) by John Constable (1776-1837).  I associate beautiful cloudscapes with Constable.  And the artist, who lived in Suffolk, painted this neighboring cottage several times.  Although Constable revolutionized British landscape painting—and greatly influenced the French Barbizon school of painting—he never achieved financial success during his lifetime.  Today, of course, Constable paintings fetch a fortune at auction.  

This painting has an interesting story.  It was once owned by Jonathan Peel, the younger brother of British Prime Minister Robert Peel.  In 1848, it was acquired by a New York millionaire—becoming the first Constable to enter an American collection.  It returned to England in 1956.  In 2014, the Arts Council of England agreed to accept the painting (for the Ashmolean Museum) in lieu of back taxes owed of just over £1,000,000.  Now this important painting is viewed by thousands of museum goers a year.


Auguste Rodin's The Age of Bronze in the Ashmolean, Oxford, England (LEO Design)


When this work by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), later named The Age of Bronze, was first exhibited in Brussels in 1877, it caused a scandal.  It wasn't because of the sensuous pose or the male nudity.  Viewers were convinced that Rodin had used a body cast on his model—the young Belgian soldier, Auguste Key—to create such a life-like rendering.  Of course, Rodin had not cheated in such a way.  He repeatedly had to defend his talent and the authenticity his work.


Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well!  Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (

We also can be found in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, at The Antique Center of Strabane (

Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only).  917-446-4248