Katar Knife

Long decorated knife with metal handle, alongside a tape measure

Some of the collections museums look after are rather lethal. The Katar is a type of punching dagger from India. The weapon has a typical H-shaped horizontal grip where the blade rests just above the operators knuckles. Either side of the hand grip are two parallel metal extensions which were used to protect the combatant’s hand and wrist. The name ‘punch dagger’ comes from the action of how it was used. When used effectively could pierce armour. Katar daggers were also used in ceremonial contexts.

First developed by the Maratha Empire, a Hindu state which covered most of the north central India for 150 years, this unique weapon was in widespread use throughout India. This example dates to the 18th or 19th century and more work is currently underway to find out when this object entered the City Museum collection.

Some of the museum’s donations that derived from this part of the world came from donors who had connections with the East India Company which was a British joint stock company founded in the 1600. It was established to trade in Asia and towards its height had seized control over parts of the Indian subcontinent and colonised parts of Asia. The company eventually became the largest corporation in the world and had its own armed forces. Some of the donors to the City Museum collections such as Major Thomas Richard Billimore served in the army. Major Billimore presented to Worcestershire Natural History Society a large collection of animals such as: ‘Tigresses head, Beares head, Skull (with horns) of Sambre…’.

Pastoral Idyll, all from a Hat

A black, flat hat with a large brim and a ribbon that ties under the chin

Fashionable in the 18th century, bergère hats like this one in Worcestershire County’s collection can be seen in many of the great British and French paintings of the period.

Featuring a flat brim and shallow crown, they could be worn in a variety of ways: the brim folded back, turned up or down at the whim of the wearer.

They were constructed from straw and often covered in silk and decorated with ribbons and flowers. The wide brim would protect the owner from both the glare of the sun – and summer showers – when out walking or visiting.

The name comes from the French word for shepherdess, but they were also known as milkmaid hats. During the Georgian period, pastoral living was idealised and there was great interest in countryside pursuits – these romantic notions of rural life were reflected in the fashion of the time.

Straw was surprisingly expensive during this period. The most sought-after straw was Italian Leghorn straw from Tuscany. Plaiting the straw to achieve the desired intricacy for wealthy patrons required skilled work and was one of the better-paid cottage industries. The work was sometimes performed by children as young as four.

As with most fashions, however, cheaper versions of the hats were produced so the less well-off members of society could emulate the higher classes.

Sir John Barbirolli

Small bronze sculpture of a man wearing a bow tie and holding a baton

This small sculpture in the City’s collection is of Sir John Barbirolli (2 December 1899 – 29 July 1970), a British conductor and cellist who was a champion of Edward Elgar’s music. Barbirolli was instrumental in securing Elgar’s long-term fame with a series of recordings and world-wide performances of Elgar’s works in the decades after his death.

Shortly after starting a career as a cellist at the end of the First World War, Barbirolli played as a member of the orchestra in the premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. This premiere was widely considered under-rehearsed and something of a disaster for Elgar. Just over a year later Barbirolli took the soloist’s part at a performance in Bournemouth, one of several performers who had seen the potential in the work. Later in his career as a conductor, he would work with a young Jacqueline du Pre on her famous interpretation of the concerto.

Barbirolli’s first performance at the Three Choirs Festival was in 1920 where he played in the London Symphony Orchestra for Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, with Elgar conducting.

Barbirolli said about the experience:
“For a young man who loved Elgar’s music, it was wonderful to see the great man, radiantly happy amongst his friends in the Cathedral precincts; more wonderful still to play ‘The Dream’ under his direction … I remember that Elgar conducted from memory and although he could not be called a great conductor by the highest professional technical standards, it was extraordinary how he could make you feel exactly what he wanted if you were in sympathy with him.”

By the late 1920s, Barbirolli was making a name for himself as a conductor. In 1927, he was called in at very short notice to deputise conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Elgar’s Symphony No 2, having only 48 hours to master the very complex and emotionally weighty work. This initiated a relationship with the recording company HMV who would publish a series of seminal Elgar recordings conducted by Barbirolli.

Barbirolli is perhaps best known as the conductor and reviver of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester. Returning to England from New York during the Second World War, he refused several other conductorships and rebuilt the struggling orchestra, down to fewer than 30 musicians. He remained at the helm for 25 years and continued as a guest conductor with them until his death, with his final performance of Elgar’s music being Symphony No 1 just days before he died.

It was in this last period of Barbirolli’s life that this energetic bust was made by the sculptor Sam Tonkiss. Tonkiss had been a life-long journalist for a local Lancashire newspaper before deciding to take up sculpture on his 50th birthday. He became a very successful portrait sculptor, famous particularly for his portrayals of local cultural greats, including both Barbirolli and LS Lowry.

Rediscovered plans for Canal Barges in War time

technical drawing from several angles of a canal boat, page has some parts missing

While undertaking research about World War One, we found six torn and incredibly dirty pieces of card in the City museum store. After piecing them together, the full document was revealed as a plan for the conversion of a canal boat into a vessel for transporting sick and injured soldiers in war time.

One of the main purposes of Museums Worcestershire is to care for the City’s and County’s collections, but with objects ranging from Fine Art to ancient fossils, this can be very challenging and sometimes the condition of objects that come into our care are very poor. We were able to secure funding for the document to be cleaned and restored by the conservator at Worcestershire Archive Service at The Hive.

The plan attributes its authorship to ‘Campbell Highet’. This is thought to be Dr. Highet who was born in Ayrshire, South West Scotland in 1868. He studied Medicine at the University of Glasgow before moving to Reading, where he joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a Medical Officer on 29 October 1914 and was commissioned in the 13th Berkshire VAD. During the war, he assisted the intake of patients from ambulance trains and accompanied serious cases to the Reading War Hospital.

Decoration of the Reading Vardo

Highly decorated gypsy wagon with big wheels

Worcestershire County Museum is home to the largest collection of gypsy caravans, or vardos, in the country. Each vardo is an all-encompassing mobile work of art – a sculpture, elaborate painting and wonderful piece of design.

The Reading is the most highly decorated, embellished and colourful vardo in the Transport Gallery and is an impressive piece in the collection. You can read about its history in this previous post.

The main body of each vardo is decorated with rich, bright colours, often those that are found in nature: Rich Crimson, Bright Red, Leaf Green, Primrose Yellow and Oak Brown. The undercarriage of each vardo is usually painted pale yellow or pink, reminiscent of a living and breathing animal. Gold leaf or dark yellow paint may be used to highlight details.

Many wagon painters liked to mix their own pallets of paint by grinding natural pigments and mixing them with turps and linseed oil. The Reading Vardo has a vast amount of gold leaf to highlight ornate carvings – more than the other vardos in the collection due to its purpose of transporting travelling fairs and performers. The Reading is a ‘showstopper’.

Vardos often feature carvings of horses, horseshoes, bunches of grapes, vine leaves, flowers, small birds and animal heads, which are representative of the symbiotic relationship that allowed communities to earn a living and make a home. The motifs used are symbolic of life, fertility and growth. They represent the identity and soul of the travelling communities.

Vardo Project Curatorial Officer 

Henry VIII

old painting of a regal looking man, with a very damaged surface

Picturing Henry VIII, this painting was inspired by the original portrait of the king by Hans Holbein The Younger.

It is one of 26 artworks donated to the Museum of the Worcestershire Natural History Society in 1850 by Reverend George Downing Bowles.

Over time, this museum grew to become Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum as we know it today.

The painting looks to be based on the Holbein portrait that was formerly in the collection of the Earls of Warwick at Warwick Castle, first recorded there in 1815. The German art historian Gustav Waagen saw it in 1835, remarking: “There is in these features a brutal egotism, an obstinacy, and a harshness of feeling, such as I have never yet seen in any human countenance. In the eyes, too, there is the suspicious watchfulness of a wild beast, so that I became quite uncomfortable from looking at it a long time; for the picture, a masterpiece of Holbein, is as true in the smallest details as if the king himself stood before you.”
The Warwick picture offers a close comparison with this study from the Bowles collection in terms of both pose and costume. The actual date of painting for Worcester’s copy is hard to establish – although an eighteenth-century date would seem reasonable.

The small scale of this picture, and the proportions of the panel on which it is painted, suggest that it might have been intended as a decorative painted panel in an interior.

The painting currently has severe issues of delaminating paint and has to be stored horizontally until remedial conservation treatment can be undertaken. It has been stabilised with the addition of special paper to strengthen fragile areas. The panel would benefit from further conservation due to its great age, something its sister portrait of Mary Queen of Scots received recently, which you can read more about in this post.

Support from West Midlands Museum Development’s ‘Expert Eye’ programme has provided further insight into this painting and other works in the Bowles collection.

Sir Thomas Brock and Queen Victoria

a sepia-toned photograph of a statue surrounded by a crowd

This photograph in Worcester City’s collection shows the celebrations as Worcester’s statue of Queen Victoria (still standing outside the Shire Hall on Foregate Street) was unveiled. This was commissioned by Worcestershire’s Jubilee Committee and was installed in 1890.

It was the first statue of Victoria made by the sculptor Thomas Brock. He went on to create many more for public erection across the country and the Empire – you can find his Victorias in Belfast, Hove, Birmingham, Calcutta, Bangalore and many more cities across the globe. While a statue in Worcester celebrating Queen Victoria seems unexceptional, those elsewhere in the world had and still have now a different symbolism for some local people: Brock’s Victoria at the Houses of Parliament, Capetown, for example, was erected in the middle of the Boer wars against a background of Britain annexing the South African states.

Thomas Brock was one of Worcester’s most successful artists, his London business and international commissions coming following a start with an apprenticeship in Worcester’s porcelain factories, and study at Worcester’s School of Design.

His biggest endeavour was undoubtedly another celebration of Queen Victoria – the Victoria Memorial just outside London’s Buckingham Palace. The Victoria Memorial was a massive undertaking – it’s 25m tall (or 5.5 double decker buses). Queen Victoria herself is shown seated on her throne alongside a series of more-than-lifesize figures representing her virtues, either cast in bronze or each carved from single, enormous pieces of marble. George V was supposedly so moved by the likeness of his grandmother that at the 1911 unveiling he knighted Brock on the spot.

A ring for a person of status

three views of a gold ring

Here we have a gold ‘keeled’ type finger ring in Worcestershire’s County collection dating to the Roman period (around AD 200-300). ‘Keeled’ means the shoulders – the sloped part which leads up to the decoration – of the hoop are triangular in shape with incised lines.

The dark nicolo stone crowning the piece is, unfortunately, very worn. It is thought the design once depicted a standing bird with a long neck and head turned down to lie flat against its body. This design would have been engraved into the surface of the stone – a technique called ‘intaglio’. Such an ornament would have adorned the hand of someone with some status and significance in society.

The ring was found by a metal detectorist in the parish of Elmley Lovett in 2014 and was acquired by Worcestershire County Museum under the Treasure Act (1996). You can read about other Roman finds from Elmley Lovett in this previous post. It is not certain whether the object was lost accidentally or deliberately deposited, perhaps in an act of anger, heartbreak, or as a religious offering. The stories we could tell are endless, but at least we are able to appreciate its beauty now that it is a part of the museum’s collections.

A Tribute to Professor Rolf Olsen

A group of seated people and an enthusiastic speaker
Professor Rolf Olsen talking enthusiastically to Museum Members in an event in June 2022

Professor Olsen, the Chairman of Trustees of the newly formed Worcestershire Heritage, Art and Museums charity, recently passed away after a short illness.

Professor Olsen spearheaded the charity to support fundraising for the development of Worcester’s art collection. His aim was to increase the Art Gallery & Museum’s reputation as a regionally significant art gallery and enhance the cultural life of the city.

As a long-standing resident of Worcester, Professor Olsen’s enthusiasm for art and for the city he lived in was an inspiration and his work on behalf of the new charity has already had a positive impact.

Caroline Naisbitt, representing Worcestershire Heritage, Art and Museums charity trustees says: “The charity trustees are very saddened to learn of the death of our founder and Chairman Professor Rolf Olsen. His clarity of vision and dynamic energy has helped propel the charity to an excellent place in a very short space of time. He was a lovely, kind and generous person who always put others first – Rolf will be very sorely missed.

Museums Worcestershire and the Worcestershire Heritage, Art and Museums charity will be continuing to work on Professor Olsen’s ambitions for the development of Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, with the first phases of improvements expected in 2024.