National Treasure

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You won’t find it on any of the maps, but there’s a room full of treasure in the Ashmolean. Ask to see the Print Room at the information desk and they whisk you off to a staff-only wing of the museum, lined with paintings and curios off-limits to other visitors.
After ringing a bell to be let in and descending a flight of stairs, you enter a huge room lined with hundreds of drawers, each filled with watercolours, etchings and drawings by artists from the 15th century to today. There’s a leaflet listing just some of the many names collected here: Degas, Dürer, Piper, Poussin… even – and I still wonder if it can be this good – ‘Leonardo’.

I had asked to see something by Turner, and watched in awe as the curator set out box after box of his Italian travel sketches on a baize-topped table. She opened up the first one, revealing a neat pile of mounted watercolours, and with a grumpily obliging expression handed me a catalogue with descriptions of each. The best bit, though, was when she asked if I wanted to ‘handle the drawings’. I put on a pair of white gloves, slid out a flat surface from the desk for a prop, and suddenly I was leafing through beautiful paintings and ink-sketches of Venice.

I was the only visitor there, and it felt like if I’d wanted to I could have stayed all morning, gazing at these unframed jewels a few inches from my eyes. It’s not often you can count the brushstrokes that make up a boat against the horizon, or trace the finest of ink lines around the contours of a figure. Do go and see for yourself – anyone can and it’s completely free. Lastly, if you’re stuck for what to ask for, Turner’s ‘Grand Canal 1940’ is an amazing start.

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