Such a lovely day out yesterday in Oxford. We had lunch on the tippermost top of the Ashmolean museum, on a lovely roof terrace. It was one of those places that feels like a secret, though the fact that it was quite full proved it wasn’t. Great food and company, an intriguing back view of a statue and a lot of rooftops to gaze over. Fab.
Then we wafted downstairs to have a look at the Ashmolean’s Master Drawings exhibition. I saw the Leonardo at the National last year so was prepared to be underwhelmed, but amidst the (beautiful) Michelangelos, Raphaels and Turners, two really stunning little sketches caught my eye. The first was by Hans Holbein, and was of a lady at the English court. He’s done a ton of those, you might think, as he was the most famous painter at Henry VIII’s court and even sold the King his disappointing ‘Flanders mare’, Anne of Cleves, with his beguilingly serene portrait. But this one is entirely different – it shows a woman walking, in the heavy Tudor dress of the times, all pleats and folds and looking startlingly like a Yohji Yamamoto creation. You never see Tudor women moving around – portraiture was a static, serious business at the time. But there this Tudor lady is, bustling about her business, holding up her strange garments and showing – gosh – a bit of ankle and some little Mary-Jane shoes, flat, with a T-bar, just like the Start Rite numbers I used to get for my girls back in more biddable days. I’ve never seen Tudor shoes before, let alone a Tudor ankle. They could have had wheels in those days beneath their skirts, for all I knew. But no. They wore little flats. Blimey.
Just as I was recovering from this, I turned a corner to see a Gainsborough charcoal sketch. I love Gainsborough, and adore the examples of his work at my favourite place, the Dulwich Picture Gallery. But, at first glance, this was a rather lumpen offering. It was the back view of a woman, wearing a large and cumbersome hat, and swathed in great bales of fabric around her shoulders, hips and skirts. If Gok Wan had been there, he would have ripped the lot off her and got her into a bodycon number pronto. I was about to turn away, somewhat disappointed, when I caught a glimpse of something shocking – a perfect ankle and elegant high-heeled shoe emerging from a corner of the great, bunchy dress. This lady obviously had lovely legs, and a sight, even so brief, of her well-hidden charms gave quite a jolt.
I don’t know whether the collection was gathered by a foot fetishist, or whether it’s just been curated with a cheeky eye on footwear, but I did love getting these tiny glimpses of secrets from the past. Do go and have a look, if you’re in Oxford this summer.