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From Istanbul to Oxford

From Istanbul to Oxford… to KeepCup? Eloise Hall traces the route coffee took from Turkish to global culture in the Ashmolean.

The display ‘From Istanbul to Oxford’ at the Ashmolean does exactly that: it succinctly takes you through the journey of coffee (or ‘coffa’, as it was originally known) from its Turkish origins to its arrival in Oxford in 1637, followed by the 1650 creation of the first British coffee house in one of the rooms of the Angel Inn, recognisable today as ‘The Grand Café’. The transitions and adaptations from the Ottoman Empire are revealed using an interesting and varied selection of artefacts, including examples of an illegal currency of coffee tokens used in Oxford in the 17th Century – an idea not dissimilar to today’s Costa card! The exhibition highlights coffee’s sociable origins embedded within a culture of meeting to talk and read. Although sadly underplayed, the most insightful element of the display is the recognition of the culture clash, as public opinion was split into those who embraced the addition to Western society and the conservatives who actively opposed it – a rhetoric indisputably centred around its ‘Turkishness’, and one that is still relevant to today’s society. However, the integration of coffee into British culture (by the 18th century there were between 500 to 600 coffee houses in London) is shown as the display concludes with a William Hunt still life painting featuring a coffee pot – giving some hope that Britain is an inherently evolving and accepting culture. The display is open until 15th March 2020 in Gallery 29 of the Ashmolean with free admission.

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