British Museum blog

A Rothschild Renaissance: reimagining the Waddesdon Bequest

Dora Thornton, Curator of the Waddesdon Bequest and Renaissance Europe, British Museum

For the last three years, I have been working on the redisplay of the Waddesdon Bequest, the superb collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures which Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839–1898), MP and member of the famous banking family, left to the British Museum on his death. Named after Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand’s fairy-tale château in Buckinghamshire where he housed the collection, the Bequest is a rare survival, but it’s also an outstanding donation motivated by a strong sense of public purpose. Ferdinand was one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century, but saw himself as an agent in the process by which private collections moved inexorably into the public domain. ‘Collectors may deplore the fact’, he wrote, ‘but it should be a source of gratification to the public that most fine works of art drift slowly but surely into museums and public galleries. In private hands they can afford delight only to a small number of persons.’

Thinking of his words and the intention behind them, we have moved the collection, one of the most important in the British Museum, to one of the grandest rooms on the ground floor. This historic space, previously known as the Middle Room, was part of a suite of neo-classical rooms designed by Robert Smirke in the 1820s, which included the King’s Library (refurbished in 2003 as the Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery) and the Manuscripts Saloon (which since 2014 has been called Room 2: Collecting the world).

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum  WB.114

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum WB.114

Both rooms introduce visitors to the riches and breadth of the British Museum’s collection, which will now be perfectly complemented by the remarkable quality, wonder and variety of the Waddesdon Bequest. The new gallery has been designed by renowned architects Stanton Williams, whose design unifies the extraordinarily varied objects by creating a layout in keeping with the proportions and grids of Smirke’s original interior. It expresses the quality and character of a family collection in which objects have been selected not only for their aesthetic appeal, but with a strong sense of their historical importance.

Formed on the fast-growing art markets of Paris, Vienna and London, the Bequest represents a snapshot in the self-fashioning of a new European dynasty of the 19th century. As a collection, the Bequest is a kind of museum in itself: a treasury of intricate, precious objects ranging from virtuoso goldsmiths’ work to cups carved from amber and rock crystal; ‘curiosities’ formed from exotic shells, nuts, ostrich eggs and a ‘griffin claw’; microcarvings in boxwood; and masterpieces of Renaissance glass, ceramic and enamel. It was modelled on the type of art collections formed by princes and nobles in the courts of Renaissance Europe, known as ‘Kunstkammern’. The Rothschilds used such collections – those in Dresden, Munich, Kassel, Prague and Vienna – as blueprints for their own.

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century. H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century.  H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

The new display contains some of the most impressive works in the British Museum’s European collection. Outstanding objects include the Holy Thorn Reliquary, a work of art shown in its own case, which has been described by Director Neil MacGregor as ‘a single-object museum’, the superbly intricate boxwood prayer nuts, and the fantastic vases that once belonged to the famous English collector Horace Walpole.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. One of the most important Christian relics, this precious object of gold, enamel and gems is formed around a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. This precious jewel of gold, enamel and gems is formed around one of the most important of Christian relics, a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Pair of maiolica vases illustrating the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

Pair of maiolica vases that once belonged to Horace Walpole. The vases illustrate the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

My work on the new gallery – and on the book which informs it – is structured around a series of research questions: what was the status and significance of each piece at the time it was made, and why does it look the way it does? How was it handled, used and displayed by its original owners? What kind of afterlife did it have in moving from one collection or culture to another, and what was to be its role in Baron Ferdinand’s New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor? How might one interpret this collection for the 21st century?

The gallery is a contemporary visual expression of a collaborative exploration of these questions. Much of my research has been practical, and has grown organically from the experience of handling the pieces repeatedly. The aim of the gallery, its digital programme and accompanying book, A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, is to encourage close looking, and to both reconnect the Bequest with Waddesdon Manor and relocate it within the history of the British Museum – so the collection can be fully appreciated in its proper intellectual and historical context. As Baron Ferdinand understood, this collection was formerly the private province of princes. With the help of The Rothschild Foundation, we have aimed to create a bespoke gallery of quality which will be free to the public and permanent: a treasury for everyone to enjoy.

The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery (Room 2a), funded by The Rothschild Foundation, is now open. You can find out more about the gallery and the Bequest here.

You can also find out about some of the highlight objects in more detail on Tumblr.

This blog post contains excerpts from an article that appears in the British Museum Magazine, and also from the accompanying book A Rothschild Renaissance: The Waddesdon Bequest, available from the British Museum shop online. The Magazine, published three times a year, provides fascinating insights into the work of the Museum and is available as one of the many benefits of Membership. In addition to the Magazine, Members receive free entry to all exhibitions, exclusive events and special Museum offers and discounts. Get closer to the collection by becoming a Member today.

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Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Several weeks ago I broke a green glass tumbler when emptying the dishwasher. The vessel wasn’t rare or expensive; in fact, it was a free gift that I’d received when buying a meal at a fast food restaurant. But that restaurant happened to be on a stretch of the autobahn in Bavaria, Germany, to where I’d driven from London to attend a friend’s wedding. To me, the glass embodied cherished memories of a very special holiday; putting it into the recycling bin with ordinary rubbish made me pretty sad!

This idea, that the objects we own, use and wear become infused with meaning through our interactions with them, is one of the things I find most fascinating about archaeology. Some of my favourite objects in the British Museum’s collections are those which show clear evidence of human use: patches of wear, repairs, or modifications to their original form. I see these as the fingerprints of real people in the past: their choices, their very hands brought about these changes. This brings those people back to life in my imagination.

A group of objects under my curatorial care illustrate this particularly well: hand-bells from early medieval Ireland. Made around the AD 500s–900s, hand-bells were used to call monks to prayer in Irish (and north and west British) monasteries. Clues indicate that their significance exceeded this simple function. The earliest bells were made from wrought iron sheets that were folded and riveted into shape, then brazed with copper alloy (as recent discoveries in Clonfad, County Westmeath confirm).

Experiments have shown that this process was incredibly labour-intensive, requiring plenty of time, raw materials and technological skill: in other words, the type of effort afforded to very special artefacts. Contemporary carvings show figures with croziers – the symbolic hooked staffs of holy office – also carrying hand-bells, suggesting that the latter too were symbols of high standing in the Irish church.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Bell (1889,0902.22)

Hand-bell of Saint Conall Cael with later brass mount (1889,0902.22)

The special nature of some hand-bells became, quite literally, enshrined. Tradition has linked a number of bells, including several in the British Museum’s collections, with early Irish saints. Some became relics and were embellished with ornate mounts or glittering shrines centuries after the bells themselves were made. Two such bells are now displayed in Room 41, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, which reopened last month after a major refurbishment. One, associated with Saint Cuileáin of Glankeen, County Tipperary (subject of a recent post), was fitted with a lavish ‘crest’ writhing with interlaced designs and human faces. The other, said to have belonged to Saint Conall Cael of Inishkeel, County Donegal, was later fitted with a brass plate engraved with Irish and Viking ornament.

Shrine made for Saint Conall Cael's bell in the AD 1400s (1889,0902.23)

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

In the 1400s a gem-encrusted shrine (displayed in Room 40) was made to house it. These were not just objects of veneration: they were also thought capable of miraculous actions, such as healing the sick or bringing success in battle. As late as the 1600s Saint Cuileáin’s bell was being used as a lie-detector in the local community, its life-history already a millennium long and counting.

Each object displayed in Room 41 is infused with history, of course; but the hand-bells of Saints Cuileáin and Conall Cael wear it on their sleeves more than most. Objects like these set my imagination off and running, and perhaps I’m not the only one. Since I joined the Museum, I’ve found that hand-bells are second only to the Sutton Hoo ship burial in terms of the number of public enquiries that I receive. The colourful histories, sacred associations and local connections acquired over their long lives must be partly responsible for their popularity. Now newly installed in Room 41, the bells have just begun the next chapter of their extraordinary biographies.

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 is now open in Room 41. Admission is free.
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Going berserk: the Lewis chessmen in New York


James Robinson, curator, British Museum

Thirty four of the Lewis chessmen have travelled to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York. This is the largest number ever to have left the British Isles since their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831.

The Cloisters is a truly exceptional museum devoted entirely to medieval art and architecture and the chessmen look perfectly at home. They occupy five cases in the Romanesque Hall, a space that resembles a great medieval hall where a lord – or King – might once have played with chesspieces just like these.

The Lewis chessmen fire our imagination because they are miniature people carved with great skill and intricacy from walrus tusks. They are generally considered to be mournful, grumpy or comic because of their squat forms, protuberant eyes and down-turned mouths but they are also works of great beauty. This is especially evident from the seated figures of the kings, queens and some of the bishops, all of whom occupy elaborately decorated thrones.

SBerserker pieces in the British Museum collection

Berserker pieces in the British Museum collection

One of the most significant pieces on loan to the Cloisters is the Berserker. This unusual character may not be recognisable to most players of chess but at the time the Lewis chessmen were made in the twelfth century, the Berserker took the place of the modern day rook. He stands armed with a sword and exposes his huge teeth with which he bites into his shield. It is this gesture that identifies him as a Berserker – a fierce warrior drawn from Norse mythology that bites his shield in a self-induced frenzy prior to battle.

The Berserker has been imaginatively used in the merchandise on sale at the Cloisters where T-shirts emblazoned with the Berserker’s features broadcast “Berserk for Chess’ – I’ll be wearing mine in London!

The Cloisters exhibition, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, opens on 15 November and runs until 22 April 2012 during which time New Yorkers will undoubtedly develop Lewis chessmen frenzy.

Find out more about the Lewis chessmen on the British Museum website

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Treasures of Heaven

James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Next month, over 120 sacred relics (the physical remains or belongings of saints) will begin arriving at the British Museum from across Europe and the USA for the forthcoming exhibition Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe. As curator of the exhibition, I will be one of the first to see these amazing objects coming out of their travelling cases – and I can’t wait.

But why am I so excited about seeing a bunch of old bones? In the medieval period the relics of saints were enshrined in the most precious and valuable materials. These containers, known as reliquaries, were made by the finest craftsman of the age. Gleaming gemstones and luminous enamels were placed in sublime combinations with precious metals to speak to the viewer of the reliquaries sacred contents. It is these containers that will be showcased in the exhibition.

Medieval Christians believed that the physical remains of saints provided a tangible link to the divine. Saints sat beside God in heaven and could be petitioned to ask God for help. If I were suffering from plague in the Middle Ages I would want to pray to and venerate the relics of St Blaise, an expert in healing the plague. St Blaise might then ask God to help me and I might be miraculously healed. Some Christians hold similar beliefs today. In 2009 over 90,000 pilgrims came to Westminster Cathedral in London to venerate the travelling relics of French nun St Thérese of Lisieux.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion
of St Ursula. South Netherlandish, c. 1520–1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In researching this exhibition we have discovered some extraordinary medieval legends. One is the story of the English princess Ursula who before her marriage went on pilgrimage to venerate relics in the Holy Land. She never got there and was captured and martyred along with her 11,000 virgin travelling companions by pagans in Cologne. This captivating reliquary made from delicately painted wood would once have contained the skull of one her companions.

We still have a lot of work to do before the exhibition opens but I couldn’t resist giving a sneak peak at these unusual stories and astounding objects.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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