Picture Galleries outside London: The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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Matthew Arnold's lines in The Scholar-Gipsy about 'this strange disease of modem life,/With its sick hurry' have now come sadly home to the city and the season he so greatly venerated. St Aldate's, the Cornmarket and the High Street choke in the rush of transport. The 'base and brickish' suburbs Gerard Manley Hopkins complained of have mostly been cleared away. It is traffic which now 'sours/That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded/Best in'. Only in the precinct around the Radcliffe Camera can one now walk and breathe freely in a central Oxford summer.

Outside this fortuitous island, one looks for a refuge from the modern pollution which not long ago eroded the faces of the ancient caesars around Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, so ominous in Max Beerbohm's 'Oxford love story', Zuleika Dobson. Such a refuge, and immensely more, may be found within the seemly Hellenism of Cockerell's Ashmolean Museum: at least until the unconscionably early hour of four in the afternoon, when an actual portcullis comes down with a brutal clang, to the polite astonishment of many visitors, on so much beauty. Cockerell's placid building confronts the troubled Ruskinian Gothic of the Randolph Hotel across the road. The Randolph also has its paintings, less august but possibly more inventive and dexterous than most of the contemporaneous works in the Ashmolean, since the ballroom is decorated with Osbert Lancaster's scenes from the life of Zuleika Dobson.

Like so much else in the past of Oxford, the history of the Ashmolean Museum is intricate and puzzling. Elias Ashmole's cabinet of curiosities (in the words of Joseph Addison, 'the trifling rarities of the virtuoso') has long been dispersed among several Oxford museums and institutes. The paintings by European masters, with which alone we are now concerned, include works lavishly but embarrassingly bestowed on the Bodleian Library, which had little room to display them. From 1850 onwards benefactors such as T.H. Fox-Strangways, later Fourth Earl of Ilchester, donated the forty paintings which are the core of the Ashmolean collection, as well as presenting thirty-nine more to the Christ Church Picture Gallery. The Ashmolean gallery has been in its present ambience since 1908, augmented by private gifts, such as the incomparable collection of Northern European still-life paintings presented by the husband of Daisy Linda Ward in memory of his wife, herself an accomplished painter in that exacting genre, and by pictures such as Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire, awarded by the National Art-Collections Fund.

The two best-known pictures in the gallery, a pair of bustling rectangles, face each other across the Renaissance Room. In the stir and rouse of Paolo Uccello's Stag Hunt gaudy mannikins, mostly in open-mouthed profile, curvet after their twisting hounds into a dark, watery forest, arched by its foremost trees into three vistas of green shadow. Because of Uccello's exactness in the art of perspective, decried though it was by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, the terrain seems to recede into a boundless distance.

Vasari also mentions in the spate of his gossip that Piero di Cosimo was afraid of lightning, the cause of the blaze in his Forest Fire. In spite of that, Piero recognised fire as a civilising force in the history of primitive mankind. Beasts fly from it but men use it. The Forest Fire is one of his ten dispersed panels which record the progress of early humanity. He may have picked up a crude notion of evolution from such classical sources as the Fifth Book of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura; hence, perhaps, the human faces of the stag and the brindled sow in The Forest Fire. According to Vasari, he delighted in wild creatures. Here he invented two of his own. Vasari's testimony is borne out by the large birds, some of them recognisable as herons, woodpeckers, pheasants and wood-pigeons, which hurl across many of Piero's skies. Man, half-bestial at first, as in The Battle between Lapiths and Centaurs in the London National Gallery, struggles from the light of physical fire into that of intellectual fire bestowed by Prometheus in the final panel of the series, now in the Strasbourg Musee des Beaux-Arts. …