All the fun of the fair

A model of a carousel with many galloping white horses

One of the most popular objects with visitors in the County Museum is this wonderful carousel. By pushing a 20p piece into the slot, visitors can make the horses gallop and transport themselves back into fairground nostalgia with the smell of candyfloss and the sound of laughter in the air.

This magnificent contraption was made by Baden George Hassell Bennett (1900-1982) – it is a scale model of a Wilsons Carousel, a company based in his hometown of Redditch. Bennett made a wide variety of objects over his lifetime. At the age of two he contracted polio which left him unable to walk, but he used his practical skills to put together a hand-powered wheelchair/bicycle for getting around.

This carousel was a true labour of love which he worked on for over 60 years. There are 36 horses each with many individual components and the mechanics are electrically driven so the engineering is quite complex. It was donated to the museum by Bennett’s niece and restored by volunteer Gordon Bennett (no relation) in 2005.

The Original and Genuine – A brief history of Worcestershire Sauce

A dark coloured jug in a museum display

The ingredients of a great story often include a mystery and a rise from obscurity to greatness. There are few better examples in Worcestershire than the incredible tale of two local chemists who created a product so successful that it can now be found across the globe.

Around the world many people use Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce but don’t necessarily know where Worcestershire is, or how to pronounce it! This versatile sauce can be included in a variety of recipes including a Bloody Mary, cheese on toast, meat and soups – the list of suggestions is endless. It is one of few successful exports that is still operating in the city of its birth, a testament to its unique flavour.

This lignite jug, on permanent loan to Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, was used to make early batches of the sauce. Specially carved from brown coal, it was purchased by John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins for use in their original chemist shop. The pair had joined forces by 1823, manufacturing medicines but also stocking other items such as perfume, soap, veterinary supplies and foodstuffs such as gravy browning (as was common for chemists at the time).

Legend has it that the original recipe was not their own. Its mysterious origin story starts in 1835 when a “nobleman of the county” reportedly visited their Broad Street shop and commissioned them to replicate a recipe he had thoroughly enjoyed on his travels – a sauce infused with strong spices, onions and fish. The chemists followed out his instructions and delivered the order, retaining a small quantity for themselves, but the sauce tasted quite unpleasant and so it was placed in storage and forgotten about. Time passed and when the batch was tested again, they discovered it had fermented and was now delicious!

Lea & Perrins began making the sauce in larger quantities, sending out free samples to build demand. It became a great success and eventually overtook their chemist business until they were exclusively sauce manufacturers. They outgrew their little chemist shop and warehouses in 1896, moving their operation to a purpose-built factory on Midland Road, Worcester.

Their success inspired dozens of similar brands to copy the medicine bottle shape as well as the distinctive orange label. For a while, was entirely possible to buy a competing brand by mistake. The only unique feature Lea & Perrins was allowed to trademark was the white signature across the label and the words “The ORIGINAL and GENUINE”. Despite the imitators, Lea & Perrins’ business sense and unique recipe means it is now a globally recognized product which stood the test of time.

The identity of the “gentleman of the county” was never revealed by the chemists, although it is assumed to be politician Baron Marcus Sandys. Lea & Perrins have stated that “various legends have appeared from time to time concerning the origins of our brand, but never the correct one as far as we know.” Perhaps they honoured a gentleman’s privacy, perhaps we have guessed incorrectly, or perhaps it was a brilliant piece of marketing from the start. We will probably never know for sure but, as with many mysteries of history, it all adds to the charm.

Birds of a Feather, Dance Together

A sculpture of two metal birds, beaks pointing upwards.

This metal sculpture Dancing Ibis was created in around 1985 by Polish-born sculptor Walenty Pytel and is now in the Worcester City collection. 

Pytel was born in 1941 and studied at Hereford Art College for five years where he gained a National Diploma of Design. Following an accident which saw him hospitalised, he would while away the hours and amuse hospital staff by creating bird paper sculptures to decorate his bed – these influenced more permanent pieces of work later!

Pytel still works from his own studios in Herefordshire and is now renowned as Europe’s leading metal sculptor of birds and beasts. He says his creations are “drawn from nature and transform metal into works of living art”.

These birds were revered by the ancient Egyptians so much they are still named the African Sacred Ibis. Ibis were considered the perfect offering for the god Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, reason, learning and writing – after being sacrificed, the bird was usually embalmed and the mummified remains placed in pottery jars to be kept in large underground galleries. Thousands of these burials have been discovered at Sakkara near the ancient capital of Memphis in Egypt. Ibis have also been important symbols in various historical periods such as ancient Roman religion and Japanese culture. Pytel shows two of them with their necks bent symmetrically and their heads raised in dance.

The African Sacred Ibis can be found near waterways and marshes across Africa but is less common in Egypt now than it was in past centuries. The birds predominantly feed on insects or small aquatic animals such as frogs or fish but can take the eggs or young of other birds. There have also been several rare sightings of stray Ibis in the UK in recent years, although it is unclear whether these have flown to us or escaped from UK-based collections.

In whose shoes?

Three pairs of shoes, green silk, cream silk and brown leatherFrom the humble beginnings of wrapping one’s feet in materials that lay at hand like bark and leaves, developing into Roman leather sandals and early medieval ankle shoes (see these in Worcester City’s collection), in more recent centuries footwear has become a stylistic choice and even a way to assert status. In times gone by, the longer the shoe, the more important the person, and shoe design has seen trends in rising heel heights and increasingly elaborate decorations.

There is a wonderful range of shoes within the museum collections, these pictured being from the Worcestershire County collection. Numbering several hundred pairs dating from the opulent early 1700s right up to the groovy 1970s, it is a fabulous resource for investigating changes in fashion and the societies which surrounded them. The picture here shows the breadth of the collection: a blue satin embroidered pair from c.1770, mid-Victorian white satin boots and a pair of brown leather lace-ups made around 1900 – 1910.

Landscapes of Comfort

Wide landscape painting of hillsFaced with the closure of the galleries and physical separation in spring 2020, I and the Art Gallery team formed a social media group through which we shared weekly creative responses to artworks from the postponed exhibition Skyscape and found joy and comfort in the Worcestershire skylines and skyscapes we all know and share.

Landscapes such as the familiar view of British Camp captured here by HH Lines and a favourite in Worcester City’s collection, found new meaning. As in other works by the artist, Lines captures romantic and reminiscent scenes of harmonious co-existence between people and their environment. The artist often focusses on traces of times past, or functional structures such as mills, which harnessed the natural power of their surroundings. Perhaps he had a fascination with the aesthetic impact of the human-built landscape and felt that we had lost our way somewhat.

The team’s work was recently featured in the journal of the Landscape Research Group (a sub-group of the British Art Network, a network led by Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art) in an issue featuring creative responses to the theme of ‘Landscape in Lockdown’.

Hurray for the humble glove

Five very fuzzy glovesGloves have been a hot topic in 2020 and 2021 – from dipped latex, nitrile or vinyl to hardwearing PPE. They may not be considered quite the fashion accessories they were in the 1800s but we have certainly seen new appreciation for them as a functional object. The origins of gloves is their function, and it is this that fuels the market for gloves today.

Sport is a huge investor in gloves and improvements in their design. Football, golf and skiing all require protective performance barriers that are hardwearing, pliant and breathable. They are also items that the amateur and professional are prepared to pay a higher price for if it improves their game.

Gloves are used extensively by our medical profession, construction industry and other key personnel like firefighters and the military. All have different requirements and need gloves in large quantities. Gardeners need gloves to protect their hands when pruning the roses and we curators wear gloves to protect museum objects from our own skin. It is for these many reasons that the humble glove has evolved but never disappeared, retaining its original purpose as a practical protection for the hands.

Worcester may have ceased making gloves, but when it did, it produced a world-renowned multitude of practical and fashionable pieces. These fur gauntlets from the City’s collection are made by both Fownes and Dents using a variety of materials including fur, leather, and wool. A warm woollen or fur outer was usually paired with a leather palm for durability, with a thin woollen inner lining for comfort and added insulation. As was usual for Dents and Fownes, they experimented with a large variety of designs including coloured wools, varieties of fur and a myriad of leather accessories, buckles, buttons and clasps.

Mr & Mrs Painters

A painting of blue, white and yellow irisesThese beautiful ‘Irises’ from Worcester City’s collection were painted by Charlotte Hodder in 1882.

Charlotte and her husband Albert were art master & mistress at the School of Art and Science, part of the old Victoria Institute, behind the Art Gallery & Museum.

There are several artworks by Charlotte and Albert in the City’s collections, in addition to objects and accolades associated with their careers, including a silver medal awarded to Charlotte.

Interestingly, the two were very different artists, with Charlotte clearly inspired by a more expressionist and modern en plein air approach and Albert more influenced by the old masters. One of Albert’s works was introduced in a previous article, you can see it here and compare the two styles.

Get Ahead in Advertising

Hanging shop signs in the museum storeAlthough retail branding may feel like a modern concept, the use of symbols to make a business easily identifiable without needing to read any language has existed for hundreds of years.

The three golden balls of the pawnbroker are one of the most well know examples. Dating back to 15th century Italy, they were designed to stand out in any busy street or market-place and they are still in use today. The barber’s pole is another familiar example of instantly recognisable advertising. The red and white striped pole is recognised throughout the world as signaling where to get a shave or haircut. Historically, the barbers’ steady hand and skills with a blade saw them share a guild with the surgeons until the middle of the 18th century – for centuries, a barber-surgeon may have been tasked with bloodletting, dentistry and even treating wounds or performing surgery.

A carboy may not be a familiar word today but referred to the large glass bottles found in the windows of apothecary shops. Often filled with coloured liquids, commonly blue, they sat in Victorian shop windows to denote an apothecary, druggist or chemist. Later, physical shop signs depicting the carboy became a prominent signifier of a chemist shop, just as a sign in the shape of a fish might denote a fishmonger and a pair of spectacles might denote an optician – simple and easily identifiable shapes.

Glass and wood signs became steel in the mid-1800s, often decorated in colourful vitreous enamel (these ones in the image are from the Worcestershire County collection). They were not only eye-catching but extremely hard-wearing and so became commonly seen on the side of shops, train stations and garages. The enamelling process was first used in the West Midlands and it is fitting that many of our areas’ most famous companies are immortalised in the enamel signs which have survived many decades to become prized collector pieces. Developments in print and the introduction of billboards saw the end of enamel signage but never replicated its iconic beauty.

Get your glad rags on, 1950s style

Silver patterned dress with a full skirt displayed on a formSometimes referred to as ‘the optimistic decade’, the 1950s was a period of enormous social change. Britain started to put itself back together after the devastating effects of World War Two; there were huge scientific leaps, an increasingly healthy economy, enormous improvements in health and social care, and people found they had free time and disposable income like never before.

For young people in particular, this was a truly exciting time. The term ‘teenager’ was coined to refer to a new market group. These single young people with cash from paid work soon had their own fashions, milk bars, and cafes. They came to dominate style in clothes and haircuts influenced by film, television and the new rock music that exploded partway through the decade.

This fabulous silver dress from Worcestershire’s collection epitomises the new decadence of the period. By 1952, clothes rationing had come to an end. Designers were creating collections with different materials that allowed different colours and patterns such as taffeta, nylon, rayon, wool and leather. Newly developed artificial fibres were popular because they were cheaper and easier to take care of.