By Alison Cooper, Curator of Decorative Art
One of the great things about the decant process is that we’re getting to know our collections much better. With over a million objects in our collections, it would take a long time for any curator to get to physically see every object. This is a rare chance to see a lot in a short space of time.
One of our never ending tasks is to track and audit our collection, making sure every item has a unique accession number and is on our database. The museum has been collecting for over 100 years but we’ve only had a computer database for about 20 years. As you can imagine, there’s still an awful lot of information to capture online!
This means that as we’re checking our collections, we can come across items that aren’t on the database and that we’re not necessarily familiar with. One of our most recent re-discoveries was a box of lace. It was donated to us in the 1950s and then loaned for display at Buckland Abbey. The collection was packed and carefully carefully when it was returned from Buckland in the 1980s but, as this was before the existence of our digital database, the information was only kept on paper.
Whilst re-packing this lace, it was clear to see that it was of extremely high quality. This prompted me to look in our historic exhibition files. I was able to find the associated information which revealed that the beautiful lace has a wonderful and important history.
The lace was made in Branscombe which was a renowned local centre for lace making. The tradition likely came to the area in the late 1500s with Flemish refugees. By the 1800s, Beer, Branscombe and Axmouth had a reputation for producing the finest workers. For much of this period in Branscombe, the Chick and Tucker families dominated the industry and it was from this family that the rediscovered lace came from. Abigail Chick moved to the area in 1804 and founded the firm, growing its reputation. Her son-in-law John Tucker, expanded the firm further and they became known as one of the finest producers of lace. They even exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and 1862.
Lace-making is an extremely difficult craft and requires a lot of patience. It can take an extremely long time to produce which makes these examples all the more impressive. Branscombe lace is a type of bobbin or pillow lace. This relates to the fact that the lace would be made on top of a pillow with the thread wound around bobbins, made in bone or wood. This example (below) of a lace pillow from our collection with a huge number of bobbins and partially finished piece of lace, shows just how complex the process is.
To the left of the image below you can see the Coat of Arms of HRH the Prince Consort made in the workrooms of John Tucker. A very similar but larger piece was made and exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and so this is probably of a similar date.
The image on the right shows part of a border designed as a cornucopia with rose, shamrock and thistle. The same design was used for the wedding lace of Princess (later Queen) Alexandra in 1863. Her dress had four flounces of lace which, along with the train, veil and handkerchief, were all supplied by John Tucker.
Thanks to the decant process, the collection is now recorded on our database with its associated historic information. In future, it will be much easier to search for and locate these items. In addition, most of our lace collection has now been re-packed in special acid free sleeves. As you can see in the image below, this will keep the lace flat and in good storage whilst allowing visitors to access it more easily for research.