The poor Actress’s Christmas Dinner – Martineau

ashmolean entrance
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Jonah, our intrepid and occasionally illustrious blogsworth, is a restless old soul, always anxious for new experiences, especially ones that might yield fresh material for the blog. So a couple of Sundays ago, with a weather-eye on the weather, he hopped onto a train in Paddington which in due course carried him back to his old alma mater amid the dreaming spires of Oxford. There was a chill nip in the air, but Jonah remained undeterred, and for most of the day the rain held off.

First port of call in that learned city, was the old Ashmolean Museum in Beaumont Street, opposite the Randolph Hotel and adjacent to the notorious Taylorian Institute [where Jonah had in his salad days skipped many a Modern Languages lectures, enough said]. Meanwhile, the Ashmolean, home to the University’s extensive collections of art and archaeology, was founded in 1683 and was the world’s first university museum. Its first building was erected in 1678–1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole donated to the University in 1677.


The poor Actress’s Christmas Dinner, by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1860)

On this occasion, Jonah’s focus was on the museum’s collection of 19th century paintings and for today’s post he has chosen to feature something seasonal: The poor Actress’s Christmas Dinner, by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1826–1869), which dates from around 1860.  The artist initially trained as a lawyer but later entered the Royal Academy where he was awarded a silver medal. He studied under the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt and once shared a studio with him. The painting in question, although unfinished, provides poignant example of mid-Victorian pathos. The stylised, melancholy portrait of the actress is beautifully executed, although she appears to be marooned in the emptiness of the canvas. It is pointless to speculate why Martineau abandoned this particular study, but it does indicate something of the manner in which the artist intended to build up his composition, working from the centre outwards.

After a major redevelopment, the Ashmolean Museum reopened in 2009. In November 2011, new galleries focusing on Egypt and Nubia were also unveiled. The Ashmolean’s collections are extraordinarily diverse, representing most of the world’s great civilisations, with objects dating from 8000 BC to the present day. Among its many riches the Ashmolean houses the world’s greatest collection of Raphael drawings, the most important collection of Egyptian pre-Dynastic sculpture and ceramics outside Cairo, the only great Minoan collection in Britain, outstanding Anglo-Saxon treasures, and the foremost collection of modern Chinese painting in the Western world. If you are ever in Oxford, a visit to the Ashmolean is a must. For a full programme of events and exhibitions see

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