From Naples to Antwerp

By Emma Philip, curator of Fine Art

For a long time the Museum had catalogued the Cottonian collector’s cabinet as being of Italian origin.  New research commissioned as part of this project now tells us that it is probably from Antwerp and made around 1670.  South American exotic woods such as snakewood, rosewood and princes wood, were used in its original construction.

Dr Bowett has found evidence that the drawers of the cabinet were remodelled in the mid Eighteenth Century to allow more space for smaller subdivided drawers.  These drawers still retain their beautiful coloured paper and silk linings.

A cabinet drawer, beautifully lined
A cabinet drawer, beautifully lined

Drawers such as these were used by collectors in the Eighteenth Century to securely and safely store small items like coins, medals, shells, fossils and minerals. When someone ordered these new smaller drawers fitted to the cabinet, locks were also installed, upgrading the security for their collection of curiosities.

We do not know which one of the Cottonian’s collectors purchased this cabinet, but there is a possibility that William Cotton III may have acquired it from the Fonthill Abbey Estate sale of 1823.  Further research may yet prove the link back to Fonthill’s famous resident William Beckford, who was well known in his day for his love of art, architecture and furniture.


A Nice Pair of Legs!

Before conservation, our tortoiseshell cabinet was displayed stacked on top of another piece of furniture with a small oak box on top of it.  Examples of similar cabinets still in existence tell us that originally the tortoiseshell cabinet would have stood alone and had its own stand.

The tortoiseshell cabinet before conservation
The tortoiseshell cabinet before conservation


As part of this project, the Museum took advice from the team at Tankerdale and from expert Dr Adam Bowett to commission a new stand for the cabinet.  It is made from ebonised pear wood and has the correct proportions to recreate the effect of the original stand.

Tortoiseshell cabinet back in the Cottonian Gallery post-conservation
Tortoiseshell cabinet back in the Cottonian Gallery post-conservation

 The stand and cabinet are now on display in the Cottonian Gallery.

What a difference!

Monday 8th April was a very exciting day in the Cottonian Gallery.  We accepted return delivery of our first two pieces of furniture from treatment at Tankerdale. 

As you can see from the photos, the tortoiseshell collector’s cabinet and the wave-front cabinet have been transformed. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.

Thanks to the hard work of Alan at Tankerdale, you can now see the original hardwood veneers used on the wave-front cabinet.  Research carried out during their conservation tells us that they include everything from holly, to rare tropical hardwoods such as amboyna and padouk.

Dr. Bowett’s visit

Back in early February Dr Adam Bowett, one of the UK’s foremost experts in historic furniture, came to look at the furniture held within the Cottonian Collection.  After spending a day investigating from the inside out, he had many interesting observations to share with us – not least, the ‘wood of death’.

A New Pair of Legs

Soon after separating the wave front and tortoiseshell cabinets, it became obvious that the two did not belong together.  This fact was soon confirmed by Dr Bowett. 

The tortoiseshell cabinet is of a type originally designed to be displayed high on a stand.   Here’s a similar example from the National Trust collection at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk;

As part of the project’s aim to return these pieces to something close to their original condition, Tankerdale are going to make a new stand for us in an ebonised pear wood.  Whilst this stand will be sympathetic to the scale and materials used in the original cabinet, it will not exactly imitate what was there before so as to make it obvious that it is a modern addition.  The new stand will raise the cabinet to the correct height and will allow this beautiful piece of furniture to stand alone for the first time in many years.

The Wood of Death

Whilst Dr Bowett was examining the many specimen hardwood veneers used in our bookcases, he noticed one particularly rare one; hippomane mancinella, otherwise known as manchineel.

 Manchineel is a tree from the West Indies.  Early Spanish colonisers named it the ‘arbor del muerte’ or ‘wood of death’ on account of its very poisonous sap and fruit, which would burn and blister skin on contact and could be fatal if swallowed!

Stories from the Stores – mystery object 2

By Rachel and Tabitha

Can you help us find out about our mystery objects?

Some objects have been found in the social history stores with no associated information, so we don’t know what they are. Many of them are on display in the museum if you want to come in for a closer look.

This object was found with a collection of material from Farley’s (famous for making rusks). Did you or someone you know, work for Farley’s? Do you have any idea what this object is called? Or what it was used for? Or better still do you have a story or anecdote connected to it?

You can click on the thumbnails for larger images.


Audit reaches object number 5000: record sleeve

Towards the end of last year we had recorded 4000 objects and during March we reached the 5000 mark. I began volunteering in the middle of December so it’s been a great experience being part of this progress and surprising how little time it’s taken to go through around 1000 objects!

Record sleeve c.1930s, from Tulley Music Warehouse
Record sleeve c.1930s, from Tulley Music Warehouse

This record sleeve was a great object to reach this landmark with, especially when you consider what is happening to high street music shops at the moment. The sleeve dates from the 1930’s or earlier. It would have been individual to the shop and used for all the records that it sold, as opposed to the unique album sleeves we see today. We can also see on the left the old logo for His Master’s Voice (HMV) which made records and gramophones from the late 19th century onwards. Interestingly 10 Ebrington Street, where Tulley Music Warehouse was, is just down the road from Drake Circus where the current HMV store is. As the company has unfortunately gone into administration this artefact is a humble reminder of a by-gone era of buying music on the high street and not on our computers.

A volunteer’s view on Stories from the Stores – by Tamsin

Tamsin working in our stores
Tamsin working in our stores

I began volunteering on the Social History audit in December 2012 and I have really enjoyed my experience so far. I mainly help record artefacts but I also have helped select objects for display which was particularly fascinating. Working on the audit means you get to see and handle a huge variety of objects, some of which you certainly wouldn’t expect to see in a museum! This means in every shift you can expect to have a completely different experience and get a broadly different and intriguing insight into the past.

 Through helping with the audit I have come face-to-face with such objects as an air raid warden‘s helmet from WWII Plymouth, a shoe that had been found in a wall to protect a pub from evil spirits, and a knitted English breakfast! This is just a tiny snapshot of the extraordinary variety of artefacts that are hidden away in the stores. As a great enthusiast for social history (especially local) this has been a great experience so far and full of discoveries and I am definitely looking forward to coming across more fascinating objects in the future.