5 Surrey curators share their favourite things from their museum collections
PUBLISHED: 10:13 08 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:20 08 June 2015
Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens or even bright coppered kettles? Here, five of Surrey’s leading curators share their own favourite things from their collections
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2015
Dr Nicholas Tromans
Watts Gallery, Compton
George Frederic Watts seems to have had the good fortune to have spent much of his long life surrounded by brilliant women who nurtured his art,” says Dr Nicholas Tromans, a curator at Watts Gallery in Compton. “A key supporter was Virginia Pattle, one of seven sisters who were making a great impact on London society around 1850 when Watts was first establishing himself as an artist there.
“Virginia’s gently beautiful face can be found in many pictures and drawings by Watts, and it is clear that he was more than a little bit in love with her. One of his paintings of her in 1849-50 made a huge impact when displayed at the Royal Academy. One admirer was a young aristocrat, Viscount Eastnor, who sought out Virginia and made her his wife. So Watts’ painting of his muse led to her going off with another man!
“The Viscount succeeded as Earl Somers in 1852, so when Watts painted Virginia again in 1860, she was now Lady Somers. Although any sentimental connection between artist and sitter was in the past, Watts clearly still wished to pay a kind of homage to his friend’s beauty; not to show her as a grand countess. She is seated, holding a peacock-feather fan, surrounded by luscious fabrics and set against rich floral wallpaper. It is unfinished – perhaps the artist could not obtain enough sittings – and painted on a wooden panel rather than canvas. We were delighted that descendants of Lady Somers generously sponsored the picture’s conservation ahead of the picture being displayed here this year.
“This portrait has a special appeal to me as I have a strong sense of the feelings the artist must have felt when painting it. We know Watts was in love with the lady in the picture, but she had married someone of a much higher social station than himself: it is very beautiful but rather sad too.”
• Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton GU3 1DQ. Tel: 01483 810235. Web: wattsgallery.org.uk
Haslemere Educational Museum, Haslemere
Research undertaken at Haslemere Educational Museum has uncovered fascinating details about a traditional Maori carved ceremonial walking stick or ‘tokotoko’,” says curator Julia Tanner. “Very little was known about the walking stick but through contact with the source community in New Zealand, much has been revealed. We were able to liaise with a representative of Te Aupouri, the northernmost Maori tribal group in New Zealand, and discovered more about the object through local knowledge.
Likewise, we were able to reassure the source community that the tokotoko was also held by the museum as a ‘taonga’, a treasured thing.
“This tokotoko is decorated with inlaid shell, has a bird’s head carved at the top and two silver bands with Maori inscriptions. It is an object of authority and status in Maori culture and is generally decorated with carving that represents the owner’s ancestry or legend. Those who carry a tokotoko at a meeting or meeting place are generally recognised as orators with status and authority to speak at the gathering. We discovered that the walking stick was gifted from Reverend Mutu Kapa, an elder and noted orator of the Aupouri and Waikato-Maniapoto tribes, to Bishop Simkin of Auckland at the time of their retirements from the church.
“The design of the tokotoko is believed to represent a large reptile bird in a common legend between the people of Tainui and Aupouri. We now also know that the walking stick has a ‘sister’ stick that is owned by a descendent of the original Maori donor in New Zealand. The inscriptions commemorate a battle during the Maori land wars with the British.
“The research process was very rewarding and enriching for both parties. It is wonderful how donated museum objects continue to connect us to source communities around the world.”
• Haslemere Educational Museum, 78 High Street, Haslemere GU27 2LA. Tel: 01428 642112. Web: haslemeremuseum.co.uk
Keeper of costume
Chertsey Museum, Chertsey
The Olive Matthews Collection of costume contains over 6,000 items of fashionable dress and accessories, with pieces dating from around 1600 to the present day,” says Grace Evans, keeper of costume at Chertsey Museum, which is home to this extraordinary archive of clothing. “Owned by the Olive Matthews Trust, the collection includes many wonderful and inspirational items, but one of my particular favourites is our ‘Delphos’ gown by Mariano Fortuny, which dates from the late 1920s.
“Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949) was a gifted designer whose clothing designs drew on many inspirations, including ancient Greek sculpture. The Delphos gown took its name from the famous bronze statue of the Delphic Charioteer, which dates to 475-70 BC and survives in the Delphi Archaeological Museum.
“Delphos gowns were seen as artistic and incredibly chic items in their day and tended to be worn as evening gowns by young and daring society women during the period just before the First World War and up until the 1930s. Each example was uniquely hand-made and subtly different from the last and, unsurprisingly, they are now quite rare and costly items to acquire these days.
“Our Delphos gown is made from finely pleated, copper coloured silk with decorative Murano glass beads across the shoulders and down the sides, which also served the purpose of weighing the dress down so that it clung to the body. Falling in a continuous line from shoulder to hem, the gown flatters the body and creates a look that is untouched by the vagaries of fashion. Belts of printed silk were also produced alongside the gowns and these could be used or not according to the wearer’s taste. The gowns were floor-length and meant to cover the feet.”
• Chertsey Museum, 33 Windsor Street, Chertsey KT16 8AT. Tel: 01932 565764. Web: chertseymuseum.org
Surrey museum curators' top picks
Chertsey Museum's The Fortuny Delphos
The portrait of Major Labelliere by James Wright at Dorking Museum (Photo Mike Gooch)
The Palaeolithic flint hand-axe at East Surrey Museum (Photo Chris Taylor)
The Maori walking stick is a highlight of Haslemere Museum (Photo Haslemere Museum)
GF Watts beautiful portrait of Lady Somers, 1860, oil on canvas (Photo Watts Gallery)
East Surrey Museum, Caterham
This Palaeolithic flint hand-axe is about 200,000 years old,” says Christopher Taylor, curator at East Surrey Museum. “It is the oldest man-made object in the museum and was found just a few miles away on the Downs at Chelsham. What I love about this rather mangy looking artefact is the totally different background it comes from compared to that around us today.
“It was made by an archaic form of man who hunted in Britain thousands of years ago. This example shows some really skilful flaking but overall it is very battered and has lost its pointed tip. Its condition attests to the fact that it has probably been around through at least one, possibly two, periods of great cold when glaciers
covered a lot of northern England down to as far south as Norfolk. In such periods, Surrey and other nearby counties were subjected to severe permafrost and probably under snow fields.
“Another fascinating feature of its background is the very different set of animals that roamed this part of Britain back then. The remains of mammoths have been found just a few miles away in Whyteleafe and also Purley. These were cold-loving animals, which went extinct about 12,000 years ago, although it was
not always cold in the last 200,000 years. In fact, sometimes, it was so warm that even hippopotamus roamed here; the remains of a skull have been dug up at Cane Hill in Coulsdon.
“It took great skill to strike thin flakes from the original flint pebble to shape it into a hand-axe, although its maker probably only took half an hour at the most. It would have been held in the hand to butcher animals like the mammoth. Today, experts find producing copies really difficult.
“So, this hand-axe is like something from another world and not just simply old. Do come and meet it!”
• East Surrey Museum, 1 Stafford Road, Caterham CR3 6JG. Tel: 01883 340275. Web: eastsurreymuseum.org.uk
Curator of paintings
Dorking Museum, Dorking
This enchanting little painting of Major Peter Labillière is my favourite picture in Dorking Museum,” says Alexandra Wedgwood, curator of paintings. “The sitter, who died in 1800, was a well-known inhabitant of Dorking in his final years but we see him here in his prime in 1780. He is called ‘A Christian Patriot and Citizen of the World’ on the mezzotint engraving that was made from the portrait.
“From the papers, pamphlets and titles of the books on the shelves behind him, it is immediately obvious that we are looking at someone who has strong American and libertarian sympathies. He had joined the army in 1740 and left as a Major in 1760. He retired to Chiswick and this is where our portrait was probably painted.
“The painter was the American Joseph Wright, who arrived in England in 1772 with his mother, Mrs Patience Wright. She was a wax modeller who acted as a spy for Benjamin Franklin during the American War of Independence and it must have been through her connections with Labillière that her son came to paint his portrait. London at that time was full of American artists among whom the leading one was Benjamin West, who became the second President of the Royal Academy. He helped the young Wright become a portrait painter. In the same year that he painted Labillière, he exhibited a portrait of his mother in the Royal Academy.
“In 1789, Labillière settled in Dorking in ‘a mean cottage’ in South Street. Here, he acquired a reputation as an eccentric and from his lack of cleanliness was called ‘the walking dunghill.’ At his death, and by his own request, there was no service but his coffin was carried up to the top of Box Hill where he was buried head downwards. This was because he believed ‘that the world was turned topsy-turvy, and, therefore, at the end of it, he should be right.’”
• Dorking Museum & Heritage Centre, 62 West Street, Dorking RH4 1BS. Tel: 01306 876591.
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