Textiles Gallery - The Ashmolean Museum


Textiles Gallery - The Ashmolean Museum



Silk embroidery on

linen, Egypt,

13th-14th century AD

Painted shroud for a

boy named

Nespawtytawy, Egypt,

1st-2nd century AD


This is about to change with the



secrets is its large collection of textiles. Looking

at what is currently on display – five tapestries, an

embroidered wall-hanging, a late medieval cloth of

gold, and some small pieces in the Antiquities and

Western Art galleries – who would guess that the

overall number of textiles comes to over 4,000 pieces?

Museum’s proposed redevelopment,

within which a major new textile gallery

is planned. For the first time this will

provide space to display our important

collections. With approximately 3,500

pieces, the Department of Eastern Art

has the largest holdings. Just over 2,200

of these textiles came to the Museum in

the 1940s as a donation from Professor

P.E. Newberry, in his time a prominent

Egyptologist. He and his wife also had a

keen interest in textile history, and

while living in Egypt they assembled a

unique study collection of more than

1,200 Indian medieval trade textiles and

over 1,000 early Islamic embroideries.

The Newberry collection is by far the

largest of its kind in any public museum


Department also has visually

stunning garments from 19th-century

Central Asia, collected by the English

explorer Robert Shaw in 1868/69

during an expedition to Kashgar and

Yarkand, at a time when the region was

independent from China. It is one of

the few 19th-century Central Asian

collections with a certain provenance

and date, and it is exceptionally well

documented. Additional material comes

from all parts of Asia and the Islamic

world, from Ottoman Greece to Japan.

India, China, and Islam are well

represented with well over 600 items,

many of them large garments or


The Antiquities Department holds

some 800 pieces, including fragments

retrieved from archaeological sites, and

Embroidered silk cap,

Egypt, 15th century AD

items such as embroidered gloves,

footwear, and clothing of historic or

ethnographic interest, reflecting the

Museum’s origins in a ‘Cabinet of

Curiosities’. The majority of the

textiles, however, again come from

Egypt, where conditions of climate have

made their survival possible; they

illustrate over 4,000 years of textile


From earliest times Egypt was famous as

a flax-producing country, and samples of

woven linen in the collection go back to

2800 BC. The large quantity of

mummy wrappings include ‘bandages’

inscribed with spells that would enable

the deceased to pass successfully into

the afterlife, as well as painted shrouds.

The collection is particularly rich in

Late Roman and Byzantine (Coptic)

textiles: there are tunics and hangings

with tapestry-woven decoration,

embroidered cloths, and pieces of

sturdy furnishing fabrics in compound

weaves. The latest of these textiles were

made after the Arab conquest, and the

proposed gallery will allow them to be

seen side by side with the Islamic

embroideries in the Newberry


The Western Art Department

is home to a smaller yet exceptionally

fine collection of textiles. Outstanding

is the embroidery collection bequeathed

by John Francis Mallett in 1947, which

includes 17th-century English

embroidered pictures, samplers, and

other textiles. Costume, including a

doge’s hat, gloves, and waistcoats, as well

as three pieces of Opus Anglicanum,

complete the collection.

Indian cotton textile,

traded to Egypt,

13th century AD

The Temptation of

Adam and Eve

(detail), Embroidery,

England, mid-17th


The ultimate fragility of textiles

sometimes lets us forget that initially

they are far more durable than ceramics

and glass, and are of course more

portable than either. Fabrics have

historically been among the most

important manufactured goods to move

between cultures. Chinese silks had a

profound effect on the arts of Persia

and Byzantium, and finely printed and

dyed Indian cotton textiles were in

demand in East and West alike, so much

so that they became the most widely

accepted currency of exchange in the

medieval and early-modern maritime

spice trade.

The proposed new gallery explores

these cross-cultural connections; the

Ashmolean’s collections are especially

suited for this interpretation. The

display will focus on the purpose of

textiles as dress, furnishings, and

ceremonial displays. They have been

and remain markers of social identity

and status. In medieval times they were

one of the major industries, generating

substantial wealth: a skilled weaver in

15th-century Florence was often paid

more than a painter. The gallery will

also facilitate the use of the

collections for teaching and

research, as well as for the

education of school

groups, with the

processes involved in

the textiles’ manufacture

explored alongside their

aesthetic and cultural meanings.

Gold and silver

embroidered coat

with ikat lining,

Kashgar, pre-1869.

Shaw Collection

Rag doll from the

burial of a child in

the Roman cemetery

at Hawara, Egypt,

4th century AD

With these collections of both visual

splendour and historical importance,

the Ashmolean’s redevelopment

presents the perfect opportunity to

reveal the history of textiles from across

the world to a wider public.

Please contact Edith Prak, Development

Director, on 01865 288196 or email

edith.prak@ashmus.ox.ac.uk for further




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