By Lottie Clark, Decant Curator
During any great development project involving collections you get an in-depth reintroduction to the treasures tucked away within the stores. While rifling through drawers of photographs, sketches or drawings; or working through boxes of costume; sky-high racks of painting and artworks; or cabinets of beetles, you’re bound to make discoveries or uncover hidden objects previously unrealised.
Sometimes a decant can be equated to a large-scale tidy up so finally getting to the back of that racking, or looking inside a porcelain pot to find a letter from the donor, or the scrap of an address, is not uncommon. We all remember being told to tidy our room, or finally setting aside that weekend to sort through the attic, only to spend hours looking through old music we forgot we had, posters we once hung on our walls, or that vital bit of cooking equipment we ‘couldn’t live without’. A museum collection is no different. Every so often you come across that label you were meant to file, or that exhibition card you were going to transcribe. While now is the time to get these administrative threads tied up, sometimes loose sheets of paper can lead to more questions than answers, as was the case recently when working through one of our Cottonian print folios.
The majestic folios, dating from c.1740, stand proudly in their original bookcases within the Cottonian Gallery here in the Museum. As Plymouth’s only ACE Designated Collection they have a precedent to be on display and be accessible under certain conditions. As such we have several streams of continuing work with the Cottonian Collection to see it, amongst other things, digitised for our online platforms.
While tying up one of those aforementioned ‘loose ends’ we managed to pair-up a set of over 400 images with their original, previously unknown, folio. Although time-consuming this was a brilliant piece of detective work that now means all those images can be digitally linked on our database to each page of the original folio – how exciting! However, this also meant the folio needed to be carefully removed from its place in the bookcase, then referenced page-by-page. No mean feat when these tomes measure, on average, 50cm x 40cm and weigh upwards of 10kg! Which is when our great discovery occurred! Nearing the end of the folio a loose leaf of paper shifted and fell from the pages. We immediately ensured it wasn’t a loose image coming unstuck from the pages – but there were no gaps to indicate the 18th Century adhesive had disintegrated – all the images remained firmly on their pages. So we began reading what looked like a rudimentary list of prints, albeit it in French.
Initially we thought the list could have been made by one of the collectors – a ‘wish list’ perhaps of prints they wanted sourcing, or were interested in obtaining. But then we turned the slip of paper over to discover a ream of writing, in what appeared to be Italian, signed faintly in pencil ‘P Mariette’.
With the bit between our teeth we delved into the archive to discover a letter from Pierre-Jean Mariette, a renowned collector and dealer of old master prints, to Charles Rogers FRS FSA, founding collector of the Cottonian. The letter is thanking Rogers for the recent acquisition, by Mariette, of a print by Sir Robert Strange based on a Van Dyck work.*
Oh how the plot thickens! Had Mariette scribbled his poem on the back of a list – or vice versa? Who was the poem’s intended – and did they ever receive it? Was this an initial draft that became a more honed final piece (and, if so, why sign it)? How had the poem found its way into the folio – especially as Rogers never travelled to Europe so would not have met Mariette in person, even if the folio, or the prints within it, were traded through him?
All of these questions from such a small discovery! Maybe one day we’ll have the time to delve deeper into the intriguing story of the poem l’amore, but for now we need to continue our documentation and decant work – and, perhaps more so, brush up on our European languages in order to translate it!
*Especial thanks to Exhibitions & Display Officer Kate Johnson who translated the letter for us with her impeccable French!