Treasured Possessions

I try to avoid exiting through the gift shop at museums and galleries, because I have this awful urge to buy everything in sight (well, almost everything: I’m rather past pencils and fridge magnets), and my house is cluttered enough already – though I would argue that more than 50% of that is NOT MY FAULT. I usually end up with postcards that I can’t bear to send (or occasionally a tea towel which I can’t bear to sully with use).

Unsullied kangaroo, a present from Oz

Unsullied kangaroo, a present from Oz

However, at the new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, temptation was close to irresistible. (I did not go to the last one, Silent Partners, on artists’ dummies and mannequins, because I have a bit of a thing about the weird, intense gaze of old dolls, and the banners around town were enough to freak me out.) Also, this is the second day of the show, and demonstrates that I am sticking to another Resolution: don’t wait until the last possible moment to see something. (Rubens, here I come…)

Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment is about Stuff, and I wanted to take away a lot of it: ‘Ralph Lord Hopton’s Little Kitchin of Silver Plate’, an elaborate work-box and some of the embroidered textiles, particularly the half-finished purse with the mould round which it was made – I could finish it for them!!! (I did not however want the porcelain figurines, which always seem to me th’expense of craftsmanship in a waste of grotesqueness, but that’s just my crude taste…) The preamble says that the exhibition’s purpose is to ‘move beyond conventional appraisals of artistic and monetary worth to appreciate how objects were crafted’, and it is organised both chronologically and by genre, but basically it’s a glorious excuse for displaying lots of lovely Stuff, accompanied by occasional fascinating Facts.

For example, did you know that there was an Italian making glass at the Crutched Friars (near Aldgate) in London in the 1570s? Read about Jacopo Verzelini of Venice (or probably Murano) here, and marvel at the conjunctions of his skill and the talent of the French glass engraver Anthony de Lysle. Also from Italy was a collection of apothecaries’ jars: the quality of the pottery and decoration of these beautiful objects was supposed to guarantee the quality, freshness and efficacy of their contents. One of those on display was for white lead: presumably the cosmetic which ruined the complexion of so many women and brought some to an early grave. (A famous user, Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603: was her beauty regime implicated?)

John Howard (1726–90), the philanthropist and penal reformer, died in Russia: his death mask was sent home from Cherson (now in the Ukraine), and is on display in a section on the Stuff associated with death and mourning. There are also mourning rings prepared (usually with incredible delicacy, and involving the deceased’s hair) for the dead of all ages, from a six-month old child to a woman in her sixties. (N.B., two of the labels in this case are the wrong way round.)

There is a lot about those exotic beverages, tea, coffee and chocolate, and about the elaborate and ceremonial paraphernalia in silver and ceramic used to prepare and serve them: a pineapple-shaped tea-pot is particularly bizarre. And it appears that tea and snuff were taken together, by men and women, and that precise gesture with which snuff was offered could be of great significance. In a picture of the ‘Misses Lethieullier [Huguenots?] and Captain Walker’ (the latter the suitor of one of them) sitting down to tea and snuff, the enamoured pair exchange glances over the tea cups and snuff box, while the other sister looks out of the picture, a cat at her feet … No comment is necessary.

The biggest irritation of this enchanting exhibition for me was in fact tiny: J.S. Bach is not a good chronological fit as the sound-track to a film of a young man being tugged and laced into sixteenth-century doublet and hose. The most surprising item was a large portrait by Hans Eworth, visible as soon as you enter the Adeane Gallery, and apparently the twin (down to the sitter’s red hair and cheek-bones) of Eworth’s Mary I in the National Portrait Gallery. But this sitter is  labelled as an unknown woman – though on the Museum website, it is stated that ‘an identification with the recently crowned Queen is more than reasonable’. It would be really interesting to know more about this…

And I did exit through the gift shop, eschewing jewellery, catalogues, booklets on all the various types of Stuff, notelets, etc. My (restrained) purchases:

The daughters of Sir Matthew Decker, poster girls for the exhibition. (c) Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises Ltd.)

The daughters of Sir Matthew Decker, poster girls for the exhibition. Image (c) Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises Ltd.

Sampler worked by Elizabeth Wade, 1824. (c) Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises Ltd.

Sampler worked by Elizabeth Wade, 1824. Image (c) Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises Ltd.

These will now sit in my box of postcards, unless an occasion and recipient arise worthy of them.


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