Art enthusiast An Van Camp beams widely as she makes her way through a gallery bejewelled with treasures by some of the greatest artists of all time.

The exquisite drawings by the giants of Flemish art grace the walls of the Museum Plantin-Moretus in the elegant heart of the Belgian city of Antwerp, where they were created.

In contrast to their dynamic hometown – with its docks, diamonds and striking gothic architecture – the sketches are small, slight and subtle.

Drawn by such revered big-hitters as Rubens, Bruegel, Van Dyck and Jordaens, the image are detailed and delicate – some so sensitive they can only be exposed to light for short periods at a time. They are a world apart from the awe-inspiring altarpieces, epic scenes and striking portraits associated with Flemish art.

Yet they are more precious than Antwerp’s famed gemstones, testament to the city’s legacy as one of the world’s greatest artistic hubs. And, to the delight of Ms Van Camp, Curator of Northern European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, many of them are now going on show in Oxford for a truly unique exhibition.

Following the journey of Antwerp native An, scores of priceless drawings have now left Belgium’s second city to take up residence at the Ashmolean.

Unlike the cheery curator, however, the pictures are only temporary guests, having been loaned by the Museum Plantin-Moretus for the Ashmolean’s ambitious new show: Bruegel to Rubens – Great Flemish Drawings.

The exhibition will unite work by the Flemish masters from Antwerp with those held in collections here in Oxford, treating visitors to an unparalleled opportunity to see about 120 of the most outstanding drawings from the 16th and 17th centuries on show together for the first time.

Oxford Mail: De Vos - Young Girl.  Phoebus Foundation, AntwerpDe Vos - Young Girl.  Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

More than 30 of them will be on display for the first time, including some which have only recently been discovered or acquired.

“I know a lot of curators say this, but this really will be a once-in-a-lifetime show,” says An, pointing out the pictures to be packed up for their journey across the Channel and on to Oxfordshire.

“Many of the pictures in this show will never have been seen together. And because of their fragility and light-sensitivity, some have been in the dark for years and can’t be shown again for a long time – so it is unlikely to happen again.”

Oxford Mail: Antwerp. Picture by Tim HughesAn Van Camp at Antwerp Cathedral. Picture by Tim Hughes

The show is limited to drawings, some of them studies for world-famous famous paintings, including majestic biblical scenes still on show in Antwerp’s jaw-dropping gothic cathedral and the artistic treasure houses of its Sint-Pauluskerk and Keizerskapel churches – all of which are graced with world-class pictures and sculpture.

For An, it is the culmination of a long held ambition to present pieces from her former hometown with those in Oxford.

She says: “I am from Antwerp, and when I came to the Ashmolean I was amazed by the collection held here.

“The Ashmolean is known for its Italian drawings, such as those by Raphael and Michelangelo, but not many people realise we have also got a significant collection of Flemish art. Many not usually on show.

“It has always been my ambition to stage an exhibition of Flemish drawings here, together with those from Antwerp.”

Oxford Mail: Antwerp. Grote Markt. Picture by Tim Hughes

Antwerp. Grote Markt. Picture by Tim Hughes

An’s ‘Antwerpen’ connections and her friendship with her Belgian counterpart at the Museum Plantin Moretus, Virginie D’haene, was the key to making that dream a reality.

Having curated a groundbreaking show of drawings in Antwerp, Virginie approached An suggesting a similar exhibition in Oxford.

The show boasted so-called ‘topstukken’ – masterpieces designated by the Flemish government for their exceptional quality and value, and the museum was keen to share their beauty and importance with a wider audience.

“Virginie knew Oxford had a very good Flemish drawing collection,” says An.

“So she approached me with the idea of bringing over the whole exhibition as it was in Antwerp. But I wanted to get our own drawings out of their dark boxes and bring them to light – literally.

“It’s a perfect collaboration.”

Oxford Mail: Rubens - Abbot and Death.  Museum Plantin-Moretus, AntwerpRubens - Abbot and Death.  Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

Time was of the essence. Due to the fragility of the drawings, it was essential that they should not be exposed to natural light for too long. So after a three-month show in Belgium, they agreed to stage a further three-month exhibition in Oxford – before packing them away in the dark again for many years to come.

With so many beautiful pictures to choose from, how did An make her selection?

“It wasn’t easy,” she smiles.

“We made a selection of the best of the best and then narrowed it down – but it was like being asked to choose your favourite children!”

After much deliberation, she picked the best examples to tell the story of Flemish art.

The show, which runs from this Saturday to June 23, boasts 69 drawings from Antwerp together with about 50 from the Ashmolean’s collection and a few pictures and books from Christ Church and the Bodleian Libraries.

“I am very excited,” she enthuses.

Oxford Mail: Vincidor - Bust.  Christ Church, OxfordStudy for tapestry by Vincidor, from Christ Church, Oxford

“It is the best of Antwerp with the best of those here in Oxford.

“All the big names are represented: Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Anthony Van Dyck, but also Hans Bol, Jacques Jordaens and Maerten de Vos – who is not a household name but is really important.”

That they have been entrusted to the Ashmolean is a measure of the level of respect for the museum as an institution on the world stage.

An, who previously curated a show of pictures by Rembrandt as a young artist, says the forthcoming exhibition is the highlight of her career.

“I can retire now!” she jokes.

She expressed her gratitude to the Plantin Moretus – a gem of a museum housed in a former print works and the first dedicated museum to make the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Oxford Mail: Antwerp. Picture by Tim HughesKlara Alen of the Rubens House in Antwerp, shows a drawing at Rubens' Castle. Picture by Tim Hughes

“I grew up in the Plantin Moretus and – other than the Ashmolean – it is my favourite museum in the world,” she says.

“Thanks to this generous loan, visitors will have an opportunity to get close to these delicate and rarely displayed works by famous Flemish masters, as well as those by lesser-known artists who deserve a wider audience.”

She goes on: “I have always wanted to bring these drawings closer to the public.

“I want people to understand how they were created, as sketches, studies and designs.

“They are studio material and are such intimate artworks. These drawings were very personal endeavours of the artists and this show allows us to look over their shoulders as if they were at work in their studios or out in the field.” They also tell the story of Antwerp at the height of its creative and commercial strength and influence.

“These drawings were produced during a period of great change and prosperity in the region then known as the Southern Netherlands,” she explains.

Oxford Mail:  Fijt - Dog.  Museum Plantin-Moretus, AntwerpDog by  Joannes Fijt, from Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

“This area was a hub of artistic production driven by high demand from the established rural aristocracy, newly monied urban patricians, and many religious orders and professional guilds. All were eager to commission sacred and secular paintings, sculpture and decorative artworks which required preparation in drawing.

“The works on display range from quick scribbles to elaborate studies: from sensitive portraits to compositional studies for paintings; colourful designs for triumphal arches and monumental tapestries; and elaborate sheets made to celebrate friendships.

“These will be shown together with a selection of related works for which the drawings were designs, and with artworks which inspired them.

“Overarching themes running across the exhibition include the personal connections and networks forged between these artists, often resulting in collaborations.

“Many of them travelled extensively, settled abroad and became court artists across Europe, emphasising the broader international achievements of South Netherlandish artists.

“And now, thanks to the generosity of those in Antwerp, we are able to share this – the greatest collection of drawings by Flemish artists in the world.

“This is a great opportunity which really can only happen once in a lifetime.”

  • Bruegel to Rubens – Great Flemish Drawings, is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from this Saturday, March 23 to June 23. Book at
  • For more details on visiting Antwerp, Brabant and the Flanders region of Belgium, go to