The Plaque is Back!

by Emma Philip, curator of Fine Art

One of the 10 items conserved as part of this project is our rosewood occasional table made around 1825.

We haven’t yet got to the bottom of how it entered the Cottonian Collection, but its date would suggest that it was one of William Cotton III’s purchases, perhaps after his marriage and move to The Priory, Leatherhead in 1824.

A brass plaque, engraved in French, was originally set into the top of the pillar, but the glue had aged and the plaque had come loose.  Tankerdale carefully cleaned the plaque and set it back into place for us, meaning that in future we can display the table with the plaque showing.

The plaque back in its original position
The plaque back in its original position (click for a closer look!)

Here’s the inscription;

Le cinq d’Avril dixhuitcent
Quatorze.  Napoleon Bonaparte signe
Son abdication sur cette table dans
Le Cabinet de travail du Roi
Le 2eme après la chambre a coucher
á Fontainbleau

Or in translation;

On the 5th April 1814
Napoleon Bonaparte signs
His abdication on this table in
The King’s work room (office)
The second after the bedroom
At Fontainbleau

This implies that the French Emperor Napoleon signed his abdication on the table! However, such a direct connection to Napoleon himself seems rather unlikely given that the style and presumed date of the table are a decade later than the historical event.  We need to do some further digging to try and work out how this table entered the collection, and where its extraordinary claim to fame comes from.

If you know something we don’t know with regard to the history of this table or Napoleon, or both, please add your comments below, or get in touch with us via our website.


We have finally done it!

After weeks of hard work by all members of the Young Explainer’s Gallery Interpretation team, the new Cottonian Adult’s Guide is in its final stages and nearing completion. Over the last couple of months we have all been busy researching into different aspects of the collection, whether that has been looking into the individual stories of pieces or searching out wider themes that run through our collection. We have come up with a wealth of information.

As well as researching, our team have been busy finding ways to make the information more accessible to a wider audience. As a result, we have created a guide that uses various formats to present our information including thematic spreads, a creative writing piece and interviews!

Alongside our Adult’s Guide, the Gallery Interpretation team have been working hard on creating an activity guide for children. Along with activities and snippets of information, the Children’s Guide shall also include a short story and some illustrations!

The Big One’s Little Mystery

By Emma Philip, curator of Fine Art

Following on from my last post, once we’d finally managed to clear all 300+ books out of the largest bookcase, Allan and Chris from Tankerdale set about dismantling it into its 16 sections; eight glazed top units and eight low cabinets with veneered doors.

Carefully deconstructing the bookcase
Carefully deconstructing the bookcase

When they got to the middle sections, we found that they were shallower in depth than the other base units, and that the incremental depths of the eight sections were regular until the centre two units.  There were also what looked like veneered sides to some of the vertical abutting bits of the units, which (in its current configuration), never see the light of day.  What do these discrepancies mean?

Thanks to Dr Bowett, we already knew that the configuration of this bookcase had been altered, and that what were once two separate bookcases had become one.  These new clues may help us to pin down the original configuration of Charles Rogers’ bookcases and may yet suggest further alternatives for the early life of this 256 year-old piece.

Designing the Cottonian

Taster One
Taster One

As one part of the design team working with the Young Explainers project this year it’s exciting to share a bit of what we have been working away on. We started with the word ‘Unweaving’ and this idea of unraveling the history of the Cottonian Collection.

We, the design team, are a couple of students from Plymouth University studying Graphic Communication with Typography (I’m Luke Pitcher and my colleague is Lauren-Jean Ratcliffe).

One of the focuses of our course is the use of type. This has aided us to bring a bold and contemporary typographic style to the design work in this project, whilst at the same time respectful of the collection.

We are also aware that any developments in the collections future need to be well thought-out. Due to this we have to consider how the work we are creating now could link into any future designs. We don’t want to show too much just yet, but here’s a tiny little snippet to give you a taster of things to come…

Taster Two
Taster Two

Trip to William Cotton’s Grave and Highland House

Over the last few weeks the Young Explainers have been getting underway with all aspects of research in preparation for new labels, Art Bites and gallery guides.

Two members of the team, Vicky Smith and Ellie Barker, took a visit to the prior residence of William Cotton in Ivybridge. The trip was very rewarding as on finding the house had been split into three residences they were able to talk to most of the families who now live there. The residents gave all the knowledge they had on the estate and what they knew about the house, as well as giving us a tour of their beautiful sections of the house, each as grand as the other. Where the house was divided, which was done in such a way it complemented the house, you can see the old archways of the grand entrance of the house so you can imagine the grandeur of the house when in its original state.

They explained to us about how the front of the house once looked, and in which direction the horse and carriages would drive the family or guests up the drive.

Whilst there the pair also took the opportunity to visit the graves of William and Mary Cotton (William’s wife) which are situated in the grave yard, which is only metres away from the house. One of the residences of the house told us that he goes down and cleans the ivy and moss off the graves from time-to-time so that the graves are up kept.

William Cotton's Grave at the Parish Church of St John the Evangelist, Ivybridge
William Cotton’s Grave at the Parish Church of St John the Evangelist, Ivybridge

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!