The Commandery’s changing views

This attractive oil painting by the local artist Joan Sealey shows The Commandery’s historic architecture from the canal’s opposite bank, showing the canal-side gardens that regular visitors to the Commandery Café know well.

The painting was completed in around 1980 and shows how the landscape continues to change – modern-day visitors will notice some differences to the scene today.

Joan Sealey was born in 1920 in the Moseley area of Birmingham. In the 1930s she won a scholarship to train at the Birmingham School of Art and began her career as a commercial artist during the Second World War.

She was a versatile artist who worked in both oils and watercolour, and chose flower studies, still life, landscapes, and buildings as her main subjects. Sealey paused her artistic activity when she moved to Whittington near Worcester to raise her family, resuming in the 1970s when she became an active, leading member of the Worcester Society of Artists. She held her position there throughout the 1980s and her paintings were regularly exhibited with the Society at the Swan Theatre in Worcester. During this decade she also held successful one-woman exhibitions at the Swan Theatre, Malvern Winter Garden, and Libraries of Droitwich, Redditch and Pershore.

The Roaring Twenties: A Marvelous Decade?

 

The 1920s would become defined by revolutions in music and fashion.

A new generation of women shook off the restrictions of the previous years, celebrating their new-found freedom on the dance floors of the exciting night clubs, jazz venues and cocktail bars that sprang up across the country.

Technology had moved forward, allowing many more people access to music in their own homes, while Hollywood was producing a never-ending series of glamourous films and transforming their actors and actresses into superstars.

This 1920s music score from Worcester City’s collection is wonderfully evocative of the glamour and revelry of the period, which provided a stark contrast to the destruction and sadness of the preceding years of global war. Musicals, particularly comedic ones, were hugely popular and launched the careers of actresses like London-born Evelyn Laye.

Mayan Myths in the Museum

Blow-guns have been used in many parts of the world as a deadly tool for hunting and attacking, with this example of quiver and darts originating from South East Asia. The quiver is covered with punched patterns, a common decoration in objects of this type. The journey of this object from South East Asia to Worcester Museums has remained a mystery, as it came into the collection at a time that records of objects were not as rigorous as they are today.

The City museum’s World Cultures collection houses many objects that have myths and legends linked with them, and this is no exception. In Mayan mythology, a large bird-demon called Vucub-Caquix was said to live on the surface of the world. He was known to be a vain and glorified creature who proclaimed himself to be the sun and the moon, taking power over the world by force.

The heroes of this story, twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, hated the bird’s vanity and decided to kill him by hiding under his favourite tree with their blow guns. When he finally landed to roost a fight ensued and the bird managed to escape, injured, after taking Hunahpu’s arm. The twins enlisted an old couple from the village to masquerade as healers and convince Vucub-Caquix that they would need to replace his teeth and eyes with grains of corn, finally vanquishing the creature and freeing the world from the beast.

Charles II, the rightful heir to the throne?

The English Civil Wars were a series of armed conflicts that spanned between 1642 and 1651 when disagreements between King and Parliament about the governance of the country turned Britain’s fields, highways and settlements into bloody battlefields.

Charles I believed in the Divine Right of Kings, with Parliament as his advisers, but Parliament disapproved of the King’s “tyrannical” rule and believed that the commons should have their say, alongside the King. No compromise could be met, and bitter disagreement spoiled over into acts of violence from both sides. Eventually the county turned upon itself in our most violent civil war. Was the country for King, or for Parliament? In truth, it was torn between the two, where brother could face brother on the battlefield, based on their religious and political beliefs. Britain’s fought Britain’s and resulted in the greatest percentile loss of British life in recorded history.

In 1649, Parliament, unable to force the King to accept its terms, put him on trial for High Treason. He was found guilty, and publically executed in Whitehall in 1649. Parliament was then ruled by Parliament by default, but the Scots declared Charles’ son (then in exile), Charles II and the rightful heir to the throne. By August 1651, Charles, aged just 21, was marching down from Scotland with approximately 15,000 troops. Led by Oliver Cromwell, the Parliamentarian army shadowed and intercepted his route. Charles chose the then fortified Worcester as the place he would make his stand.

Cromwell decided to wait until the 3rd of September, the anniversary of Dunbar where he had previously defeated Charles, to engage. At the Battle of Worcester, Parliamentarians outnumbered the King’s troops two to one, and Charles (pictured here in an engraving in the City’s collection) was defeated.  It would be nine years before he would return.

Celebrating the Wisdom and Warfare of Worcester

Worcester people have walked past this figure of Minerva thousands of times, possibly without realising her significance. Minerva was worshiped in temples throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman legend says that her father, the King of the Gods Jupiter, feared his unborn child would one day overthrow him and so he turned her mother Metis into a fly and swallowed her as an attempt to prevent Minerva’s birth. Instead Metis lived on inside him, making weapons and armour ready for her daughter, who emerged victorious from Jupiter’s body and took her place as the goddess of the arts, wisdom, strategy and warfare.

It is therefore quite fitting that when the Worcester Natural History Society proposed the creation of the City Museum and Art Gallery in Foregate Street, they commissioned a statue of Minerva to represent their wish to share art, history and knowledge with the people of Worcester. Since the opening of the building in 1896, she has sat on the highest vantage point of the museum roof overlooking the city and the Malvern Hills. This wonderful view does come with some risks and means she needed to be fitted with a lightning rod just in case Jupiter decides to wreak his revenge as the god of thunder!

 

Wish Upon a Star

These beautiful Celestial library globes from Worcestershire Museum’s Tickenhill collection date from 1740 and come from the studio of renowned cartographer John Senex. Born in Ludlow, he worked as a publisher, mapmaker, and globe-maker in London during the first half of the 1700s. Senex is widely regarded as one of the finest globe-makers to have ever lived, and his pieces are highly desirable to collectors across the world.

Whilst one globe charts the geography of the earth, the second globe maps the sky. This celestial globe was based on the astronomer and meteorologist Edmond Halley’s observations, showing newly-discovered constellations that had not been illustrated on a globe before. The Georgian period saw an immense interest in the natural world and the sciences involved in studying it. Unlike many other scientific approaches, such as physics or chemistry, astronomy had already reached a level of sophistication by Senex’s time. A good education was an important social marker during this period, and these globes were a reminder of the owner’s wealth, prestige and knowledge.

Erard Harp (London, around 1817)

It is always very exciting when the opportunity to bring in external specialists to conserve and/or restore individual objects to their former glories presents itself. This is what happened when we began to plan our 2020 exhibition Georgians: the Pride and the Prejudice. The exhibition showcased some of the wonderful objects from this fascinating period of British history, and what could be more evocative of its age than an elegant, and rare, Erard harp from Worcester City’s collection.

A so-called ‘Grecian’ model, built in London, around 1817, this harp is quite an early example of Erard’s double-action harp, which is considered as the predecessor of the modern concert harp.

At some point in its history, some strings had been replaced with garden twine, some of the beading had come loose, and the back panel had come out of alignment. We were very lucky to be able to call in a local business, Diabolus in Musica, who specialise in making and restoring historical stringed instruments to address these problems and after a week in a nearby workshop, the harp was returned to the museum to take pride of place in the Art Gallery.

Paul Baker from Diabolus in Musica was able to tell us more about the history and construction of the harp. He noted that the harp has 8 pedals which is unusual as most pedal harps have 7 and provided more information on the model name:

“When Erard patented the rotating disc (called “fourchettes”- the French word for “fork”) mechanism in 1794, he added a ram’s head to the top of the pillar, so his single-action harps (one disc per string) were referred to as “Ram’s head” or Empire harps. When he added the second disc in the 1810 patent, he changed the decoration to the Grecian gesso motifs you can see on your harp. That seems to be the only significance of “Grecian”. Nothing to do with the construction, other than the new mechanism”

Sadly, the harp’s soundboard is in too poor a condition for the harp to be played. It would have to be replaced entirely in order for the strings to be pulled to sufficient tension to create the beautiful sound it would once have made. To hear how it might have sounded, the Dutch musician Marije Vijselaar plays a similar instrument on youtube.

At around the same time as the harp was undergoing restoration, we were coincidentally contacted by a researcher looking into Erard harps. He was able to track down some of the original owners of the harp through Erard ledgers held by the Royal College of Music, London.

The handwriting is hard to distinguish in places but the following is surmised: It was sold on 15 December 1817 to a ‘Miss Colebrooke’ (?) residing at ‘Branch Hill Lodge’ (?) in Hampstead. It was repaired for a ‘Lady Smith’ in Sutton on 28 May 1834 and then again on 23 January 1880 for a ‘Revd C(?)..apel Bure’ (?).

The research project is entitled ‘A Creative Triangle of Mechanics, Acoustics and Aesthetics: The Early Pedal Harp (1780-1830) as a Symbol of Innovative Transformation’, and is funded by the Research in Museums Programme of the Volkswagen Foundation.

 

With thanks to Paul Baker, Diabolus in Musica, Dr Panagiotis Poulopoulos, Deutsches Museum, Munich, Morley Harps and the Royal College of Music.

“He who seeks rest, finds board games” *

These original board games are part of the City of Worcester’s Social History collection and despite some of them being almost 100 years old, they could be considered to be relatively modern, as tabletop gaming can be traced back more than 7000 years. Dice have also existed for gaming and gambling since 5000BC and have never been bettered as the source of a random element in games.

One of the oldest recorded game boards was found in a Bronze Age settlement in Iran and dated from around 3000BC. It is likely that the oldest known board game of Backgammon originated in this region too, where it is still a popular past time today.

The Roman Empire contributed to the development of games in the same way they innovated in many other areas. Their involvement in warfare and tactics around 1300BC is reflected in their games as they often contained elements of strategy and conquest, but it wasn’t until 500AD that we finally see the origins of the game that we now know as Chess.

Chess became popular the world over and is still one of the most competitive and highly strategic board games played today. Indeed, the 12th century Lewis Chessmen are amongst some of the most iconic museum objects in the world. When scientists decided to see if computer intelligence could compete with human intelligence they chose Chess as their battleground and in 1997 IBM’s computer Deep Blue narrowly beat Grandmaster Garry Kasparov on its second attempt as the machines ‘learnt’ the incredible tactical intricacies of the game.

An original Ludo set is also featured in the collection. The game itself dates back to India around 500AD where it was known as Pachisi. In Britain, it is known by the name Ludo which is a Latin translation of the word “play”. In another clever play on words, the famous table football game Subbuteo derived its name from a bird of prey called Falco Subbuteo, more commonly known as the Hobby.

One of the most popular board games in history arrived in 1903 and was the first to base a game around a theme, rather than solely based around tactic or luck. This game sought to explain how renters would always be in the pockets of landlords, and that the greed of some might lead others to poverty and destitution. Lizzie Magie’s “Landlord’s Game” was eventually purchased by Parker Brothers and became one of the most well know and customised games of all time in the form of Monopoly. Most major cities and many TV shows and films all have their own version of the game, and yes… there is a Worcester Monopoly!

Games come in a colossal variety of themes today and have had a resurgence in popularity with many You Tube channels dedicated to the playing of board games.

* this blog title quote is ALMOST what Dylan Thomas said!

Parallels with Spanish Flu: collecting Worcestershire’s pandemic experience

Thankfully, pandemics are rare. The 2020 COVID-19 outbreak has seen everyone’s world turn upside down and the long-term effects on health, society, the economy and politics are as yet unknown. As unprecedented as this situation is in our lifetime, however, history is a great reference tool and we can nevertheless look back to moments that hold parallels with today.

An awful lot of research into the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 was undertaken in the last few years by Museums Worcestershire, as part of the Worcestershire World War 100 project. The Fashioning Peace exhibition at Hartlebury Castle, focussing on the end of World War One, touches on the Flu and its impact. These newspaper clippings from the Worcestershire Archive collections detail how public spaces were dealing with the problem, including the spraying of ‘antiseptic’ throughout a theatre. The shortages of certain grocery items in 2020 were also experienced by the masses in 1918 – but in their case it was Bovril and not toilet rolls or hand-sanitiser which were going short.

Beyond the snippet of insight these newspaper clippings give us, there are not many tangible remains of this terrible period, and few eyewitness accounts. There were no physical objects contemporary with the disease on display in Fashioning Peace either – just an old Bovril bottle and a washbasin to show the kind of thing that would have been used in the fight against germs. Little else exists in our collections to show the true extent of the damage it inflicted on a population already struggling to come to terms with four years of war.

In another hundred years time, we hope that the coronavirus pandemic is a distant historical problem, solved long ago, but that it still exists in museums and archives to be learnt from and reflected upon through detailed records and objects from the time.

For this reason, in 2020, Museums Worcestershire and Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service are capturing current and relevant information about the impact of the coronavirus illness on the people of Worcestershire to create a collection for future generations. We want to show how communities are coming together, businesses are adapting to survive, children are responding and front line workers are coping. This might include homemade face masks made on sewing machines for NHS or care workers, pots and wooden spoons used to bang during claps for carers, placards and pictures of rainbows made to support NHS workers or objects relating to parish projects looking after vulnerable people.