Pluming the Helmet (about 1840) by James Clarke Hook

This rather romanticised oil painting by James Clarke Hook is typical of the earlier part of the artist’s career. Following his 1839 debut as an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, Hook spent a decade focusing on portraits and historical subjects such as Pluming the Helmet.

Hook won a travelling prize in 1846 and spent three years exploring Italy with his wife. There he was influenced by the rich colours of Venetian painters such as Titian, and these brighter colours and higher finish began to appear in his own work.

The fantastic drapery and folds of the woman’s skirt, the delicate fountain of her hair, and the clarity of her skin echo the classical agendas of the Venetian masters of the Renaissance. The flowers in her hair act as a symbol of her purity and devotion. The helmet in the scene is likely to be an Armet, or knight’s helm, and adds a chivalric element to the painting.

In the years leading up to his death in 1907, Hook was influenced by his travels in the Devonshire countryside, and his most of his later works feature coastal scenes and images of rural life.

The painting was gifted to Worcester City Museum Collection by the Worcestershire Fine Arts Association. Although the exact date of the gift is unknown, it has likely been in the collection since 1896, and is the only example of Hook’s work belonging to Worcester.


Mysterious Gull

The large albatross on display at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum has arguably become one of the museum’s most iconic and well-loved specimens of the collection. Since its arrival in 1902, generations of visitors to Worcester have admired this wonderful piece of taxidermy.

This Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), better known as ‘Albert’ to museum staff and regular visitors, has a wingspan of eight and a half feet and was presented to the Worcester City museum collection in 1902 by Mr Percy Pryce Brown.

After years of research it was discovered that Mr Brown was a refrigerator engineer aboard the RMS Waimate, launched in 1901. The ship owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company made journeys between England and New Zealand as a cargo and passenger vessel, with refrigerator space for 90,000 carcasses.

Although lamb was the more usual cargo on the vessel, the Waimate arrived in England on the 24th February 1902 with the unusual shipment of a large preserved albatross.

The great mystery surrounding Albert has always been how he ended up in Worcester. Further research surrounding Percy Brown’s origins have unearthed that this Herefordshire-born man was related to the Brock family who worked at the Royal Worcester Porcelain factory, which would explain its donation to Worcester City museum in 1902. The museum curator and taxidermist Mr W. Edwards preserved the bird and a custom showcase was made by local carpenter W. W. Hunt of South Quay, and Albert remains on display over 100 years later.

Garston Phillips
Collections Ambassador

The evolution and decline of plate armour

When charging into battle a soldier wants to know they have the best protection possible to deflect the blows from opposing armies. Here’s a short timeline of how armour progressed up to the time of the Civil War, some of which are represented in the collections of Worcester City Museums.

The mid-13th to 14th Century saw the some of the earliest plate protection created specifically for the arm and shoulder. The aliette was a piece of neck protection, attached to plate armour at either shoulder, intended to deflect sword blows. It’s often included in heraldic imagery and can also be seen pictured in medieval church brass portraits.

The aliette evolved into the spaulder, a section of plate that covered the shoulder, made up of a series of metal bands. Located above the plate that protected the lower arm (the vambrace), and, the upper arm (the rerebrace), the spaulder was worn over chain mail. But by the end of the fourteenth century, arm sections such as these we were being combined into single pieces of armour.

By the 15th century, the pauldron – like this one pictured – a further variation on the spaulder, had become larger and more articulated, protecting parts of the chest, shoulder blades and the underarm.

The 17th century saw the cuirassier (armoured soldiers on horses) still wearing armour not unlike that of the medieval period, but its cumbersome nature, lack of flexibility and cost, alongside the development of increasingly powerful firearms, led to it becoming a less frequent sight on the battlefield.

British Butterflies

One of the most beautiful parts of the Natural History collection at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum is the rare assemblage of Lepidopterans – butterflies and moths. These fragile wonders are housed in an environmentally controlled area in the Museum basement. Arranged neatly in rows within purpose built drawers, the butterflies are housed within an original mahogany collections cabinet.

During the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, butterfly collection was a popular hobby, particularly amongst the wealthy. Specimens were frequently traded between enthusiastic Lepidopterists, and natural history suppliers made good money providing butterflies and other insects to obsessed collectors. Catalogues provided examples of specimens available for purchase, with prices included.

Worcester’s own collection was enhanced in the 1970s when the museum became the custodian of cabinets from the Malvern Field Club. Most of the specimens within the collection also include paper labels which provide a provenance and date, as well as other priceless information. The collection is consequently invaluable to modern research groups such as the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and local clubs.

The drawer pictured represents the entirety of British species of butterfly at the time of collection – many of the species here are now extinct or extremely rare. The largest butterfly seen here is a Monarch, or Milkweed, a genuine rarity from North America. This specimen was discovered in Malvern in 1968. The Black-Veined White is seen here at the top of the third column from the left. It became extinct in the British Isles around 1925, having previously been common throughout the South, with a particular stronghold in Gloucestershire.

Due to its fragile nature and the risk of light damage, the butterfly collection is not usually on public view but can occasionally be seen as part of a talk or workshop.

Costume drama

This dinner dress dating from 1888-9 is a fine example of late Victorian style.

Consisting of a bodice and skirt made from beautiful damask, the detail and decoration demonstrate the high levels of skill that would have been required to produce such a garment.

As is the case today, fashions changed year-to-year, and the style of the dress is what enables us to date it. This particular dress has a round neckline, with hook fastenings down the front. It forms two parts, with hooks holding the heavy skirt to the bodice. The bodice was decorated with floral satin and pearl embroidery and the waist was accessorised with a draped ribbon, coming together into a rosette at the small of the back. A beautiful dress to wear for a formal evening meal.

It was donated to the County Museum collection in 1967 by a lady from Malvern, but sadly there is no record of who might have owned and worn it.

Ranging from stunning 18th century dresses to spectacularly sparkly 1920s flapper style outfits, Worcestershire County Museum Collection includes a particularly fine costume collection. Although, like this dress, many of this collection is very fragile, there are opportunities to see costume on display, and within museum talks and workshops.

Claire Cheshire

My Mother by Celia Paul

Celia Paul, My Mother, 1991, Soft Ground Etching

Reproduced courtesy of Celia Paul and Victoria Miro gallery

Volunteer researcher, Deborah Keaveney, has been exploring the fine art collection at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. Her most recent project researching has involved finding out more about an etching in the collection by Celia Paul.

Celia Paul is an important contemporary British portrait artist, who began her career as a student at The Slade School of Art in central London, where the portrait painter Gwen John also studied, and whose works have been a great influence on her painting style.

This soft ground etching titled My Mother, of which the 5/25 impression is held in the Worcester City Collection, was printed in 1991 when the artist’s mother was 64 years old.

I contacted Celia Paul’s gallery, Victoria Miro, and the artist was kind enough to tell us about the piece in her own words:

“My mother was my main subject for 30 years: 1977-2007.

I did oil paintings of her mainly, but I did a great number of etchings of her too. The small scale of my prints means that I often use them like a sketchbook: a way of quickly catching the subject, sometimes in minutes. My early prints were mainly hard-grounds but I soon found soft-grounds suited my more delicate touch.”

The artist works in an austere style that isolates the subject within a limited colour scheme and often atmospheric or architectural context in which the figure seems to emerge from a haze of light or shifting shadows.  In this portrait of her mother, she does not try to flatter but through carefully observed features reveals the complexity of the human form, suggesting the visible weight and contours of an ageing body in an intimate and unselfconscious pose. This approach to portraiture is grounded in the European classical tradition of anatomical drawing, which the artist acknowledges but also claims is a category that she is trying to move beyond in her present work. There is also an Eastern feel to her intense but limited colour schemes of ochre, white and black that place attenuated figures in a shimmering but harsh atmosphere. Celia Paul was born in Trivandrum, India in 1959 where her parents worked as missionaries until 1965, when her mother was 38 and she was 5 years old. Her parents were both born in London and her maternal grandfather worked as railwayman and porter at Euston station.

The figure of her mother is seen in this print sitting in a relaxed and almost slumped position as if absorbed in an internal reverie of inner peace and reflection. This is accentuated by using a chiaroscuro effect of etched sepia lines built up into areas of strong light and shade.  In this way the artist appears to mould and articulate the figure, creating a real sense of the physical presence and character of her mother as a loving and sensitive person.  She is seated facing the onlooker but with her head half turned to the right, as if looking away from a light that is too outwardly penetrating and intrusive to her calm and undisturbed thoughts.

Having worked on these portraits of her mother in a range of media for thirty years, the etching held by this collection is a fine example of the artist’s work and the sensitivity of her etched figure drawing. Paul continues to work on other familiar female subjects and characters, including self-portraits and paintings of her sisters and close friends.

Her work is represented in London by the Victoria Miro Gallery.


Malagan Figure

Worcester City Museum Collection has some interesting and mysterious objects within its World Cultures Collection, including this one. It is a Malagan mortuary figure from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

These carved wooden figures would have been constructed for the purpose of commemorating the death of a male individual and would have featured in elaborate ceremonies and feasts. The term Malagan refers to these rituals and rites, sometimes performed after the funeral of the deceased.

The figures represent a pictorial CV of the person’s achievements throughout the individual’s life. The human and animal depictions portray supernatural beings associated to individual clans, each one representing a certain life force which sustains those clans. After the figures have been displayed for a period of time, they have served their purpose and are then destroyed by either being burnt or allowed to rot.

During the explorations of the 19th century, people often collected them as souvenirs.

Buried Treasures

A rare coin hoard of medieval Long Cross silver pennies found by metal detectorists in Dodderhill was recently acquisitioned into the Worcestershire County Museum collection.

Hoards of the Long Cross period are relatively rare – only 37 are known from the whole of England and Wales and this is the second such hoard in the care of Museums Worcestershire, the first being from Belbroughton. This hoard is thought to date back to the 1270s.

The hoard includes two relative rarities: a complete 3ab1 penny of Hereford and a European-brabantinus. There are fewer than 5 Hereford 3ab1 pennies and only 9 Brabants recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, out of around 43,000 medieval coins. The Portable Antiquities Scheme records discoveries by metal detectorists and other members of the public.

This hoard amounts to 5s 2.5d, which would have been equivalent to over 40 days’ wages in the 13th century, so could either have been a considerable purse loss, or the accumulated savings of a peasant.

The coin hoard will be kept in the county thanks to generous donations from Felicity Marshall and from Worcestershire Archaeological Society.

Minerals of the English Midlands

Specimens from the Worcester City Museum Collection are figured in a new book – Minerals of the English Midlands by Roy Starkey. Museums Worcestershire asks all collections researchers to share an outline of their research on this website, in our spirit of open research.

The mineral wealth of the English Midlands has been exploited for centuries – lead, copper, zinc, and to a lesser extent silver, have all been worked. Deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone powered the Industrial Revolution, providing the raw materials for such visionaries as Sir Richard Arkwright, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, William Murdoch and Josiah Wedgwood.

Halite, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire. WOSMG 1987-128.G1559 100 x 65 x 30 mm

In Worcestershire, the extraction of salt from brine has been of considerable historical importance at Droitwich and Stoke Prior, and the book features a fascinating account of the local salt industry with many archive images.

A lecture, delivered by Dr Charles Hastings, to the Worcestershire Natural History Society, and later published in The Analyst, provides an account of the history of discovery and early geological understanding of the Worcestershire salt deposits, and working of brine.

Hastings, a local medical practitioner and keen amateur naturalist, was the founder of the British Medical Association. He also established the Museum of the Worcester Natural History Society in 1833, the fore-runner of the present City Museum. Of particular interest is Hastings’ assertion that rock salt was mined at Stoke Prior, and this led the author, Roy Starkey, to examine the collections in Worcester Museum. Three convincing specimens recorded as being from the Worcestershire halite deposits were identified in the collection.

Halite, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire. WOSMG 1987-128.G1554b 50 x 50 x 25 mm

The Midlands has produced a wide range of interesting mineral specimens. Examples of these are to be found in local and regional museum collections, and especially at the Natural History Museum in London. However, such was the importance of Britain in the development of mineralogy as a science that specimens from the English Midlands are to be seen in collections all over the world. Minerals such as phosgenite, matlockite and mottramite are recognised as having been first described from the English Midlands. The hard rock quarrying industry of Leicestershire means that fresh exposures are constantly being created, and new mineralogical discoveries continue to be made today.

Halite, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire. WOSMG 1987-128.G1554a 60 x 40 x 18 mm

Roy Starkey can be contacted here, where you can also purchase a copy of his book.