The Chatsworth Serpent Pram

Archivist Ian Gregory examines an image of what has to be one of the most peculiar parenting aids ever imagined:

One of the many photographs in Buxton Museum & Art Gallery shows a rather unusual pram. It comes from Chatsworth and was made for the Dukes of Devonshire. Our photo was taken in 1930, but the pram looks older still. It was designed by William Kent in 1733. The pram is decorated with two snakes that writhe down from its hood to its wheels. The first impression is that it must’ve triggered nightmares in any babies travelling in it.

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The reason for this decoration is that a snake is part of the Devonshire family crest. First impressions can mislead; when the pram was in use, those snakes didn’t stand over its little occupant. They would’ve stretched out in front and acted as a harness for a goat, dog or miniature horse that pulled the pram (or stroller, as it has been referred to). This would’ve been less oppressive for any child inside.

Why was there a snake on the family crest? Today the creatures are objects of revulsion for many people. “You snake in the grass” is an insult implying treachery. Snakebites are a frequent cause of death in the tropics. According to the Old Testament it was a snake that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

There is another side to representation of snakes. As they grow, they shed a layer of old skin to reveal a new one underneath. This ability resulted in snakes becoming, at least in some cultures, symbols of renewal or immortality. Apex predators can become symbols of strength and courage as well as causes of terror; the lion is one obvious example. In Greek mythology, Asclepius the god of medicine, carried a staff with a snake entwined around it. Hermes, messenger of the gods, owned a staff with two serpents entwined on it.

Renaissance Baroque aristocrats were familiar with Classical history and mythology. They embarked on the Grand Tour to Italy and Greece They had country houses built in the Classical style, then filled them with ancient sculptures. Bearing this in mind, perhaps it isn’t so odd that they worked a serpent into the emblem of one of their greatest families.

The Strange Case of the Wandering Spoon

I am working on a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation that is overseeing the re-homing of the objects from the School library Loans Service in Derby. This collection consists of paintings, studio pottery, archaeological, ethnographic and social history items. Sadly, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery can only keep a small percentage of this wonderful and eclectic mix of items. Through detective work that involves sifting through old records, myself and my colleague have been gathering information on where the items came from over the fifty years the service was collecting. We are contacting museums and community groups in the areas that these objects originate from to see if they would like the items so that they can have a new lease of life.

The Roman spoon at Buxton museum and Art Gallery

One of these items is a Roman silver spoon, elegant in its shape and practical in its form; the handle ends in a point which enabled the wealthy Roman who owned it to pick out oysters from their shells – Britain was famed in the Roman period for its oysters ! The handle joins the bowl of the spoon with an arched shape that gives this type of spoon its name – swan necked. Through my investigations I discovered that the spoon originated from Canterbury and was purchased from an antiques dealer in Keighley in 1966. I contacted Canterbury Museum who emailed me back to say that they were very excited by the news as it appeared to have originally belonged to a hoard of precious items buried in the city as the Roman Empire collapsed.

The hoard was discovered during road works in the Longmarket area of the city in 1962. Declared treasure trove, it was bought by the city council to be displayed at the Roman Museum which had been established the year before. However five objects appeared on the London antiquities market in 1982 that were originally part of the treasure but had not been declared at the time of its discovery. They were again declared as treasure trove and purchased a year later. It would seem as though the spoon in our collection had also not been declared at the time of the discovery and had been sold to the antiques dealer in Keighley shortly after.

The Canterbury Hoard © Canterbury Museum

The treasure is mostly composed of small silver objects and jewellery. Many of the artefacts have Christian iconography on them. The silver objects include thirteen spoons (one engraved with a sea stag, another with the words in Latin ‘viribonum’-‘I belong to a good man’), a toothpick, a rough bar and three ingots which each weigh one Roman pound. The jewellery include a gold finger ring with an inset green glass stone, a gold necklace clasp and a silver pin. One of the coins in the treasure was minted at Milan in the time of Emperor Honorius which means the hoard must have been buried sometime after 402 AD.

Silver spoons from the Canterbury Hoard with Christian and Pagan symbols © Canterbury Museum

The treasure was buried at a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, the economy was nose diving and plague was sweeping across Europe, weakening the infrastructure of the once greatest Empire on earth. Britain at this time was also subject to raids by Germanic tribes from Northern Europe. In response to the anarchy many people buried their valuables with a view to coming back in safer times to retrieve them; for whatever reason many people never returned. Shortly after the treasure at Canterbury was buried the Romans left Britain to fend for itself and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, filling the power vacuum and bringing with them a new language, art form and society that would form the foundations of modern day England. The spoon from Buxton is now on display at Canterbury Roman Museum along with the rest of the hoard where it forms part of the story of the ancient Roman city of Durovernum Cantiacorum.

Picture credits: Canterbury Museums and Galleries

Favourite Museum Object: Amethyst Crystal by Fay Fallows

When visiting a museum, you will probably find yourself drawn to a particular object. It may be its arresting appearance or perhaps it resonates with you on a personal level. Sometimes we ask members of the museum staff about their favourite object and it’s the turn of museum attendant Fay Fallows:

I have chosen to write about amethyst, as there is something about it I like. Maybe this is its striking colour, which ranges from a pale lilac to deep purple, or maybe there is more to it than this. My fondness of amethyst led me to buy a piece in its raw state around 20 years ago, which I have kept on display ever since, and to become the owner of several items of jewellery made from this semi-precious gem stone.

Amethyst is a type of Quartz Crystal or Silicon Dioxide (a mineral with the formula of SiO2 ). Its colour is derived from the effect of naturally occurring radiation on the traces of iron present in it. Prolonged exposure to sunlight will slowly fade the colour and heat treatment will result in a yellow/orange/brown colour (Burnt Amethyst). It may be transparent or opaque and is pleochroic, which means that it can appear to change colour according to the direction of view. This quality is due to the absorption of the different wavelengths of light in different ways.

Amethyst is found during the extraction of minerals from rock, which are used to produce metals such as lead and copper. It is found in many areas of the world, being particularly abundant in parts of Brazil. We have a piece of amethyst on display in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery which was actually extracted locally, from Water Swallows Quarry in Buxton:

amethyst

It is believed that gemstones have particular powers. Amethyst is attributed to creative thinking, spiritual awareness, and preventing intoxication. The ancient Greeks and Romans wore amethyst jewellery and also incorporated it into their goblets, in the belief that drinking wine from these would prevent alcoholic intoxication. Catholic Bishops wore amethyst rings (Bishop’s Stones), in the belief that this would prevent spiritual intoxication. It is therefore not surprising that the name amethyst is derived from the ancient Greek word ‘amethystos’, which translates as ‘not intoxicated’.

Bearing all these qualities in mind, I have decided to keep my collection of amethyst for a while longer!

You can see the specimen along with the rest of Buxton Museum’s mineral collection and hundreds of other objects in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Admission is free. Plan your visit here.

 

 

Out of Africa: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory shines his unique torch on another murky corner of Buxton Museum’s collections:

In 1921, miners working at Broken Hill, Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) discovered the skull of an ancestor of humanity. Reports of this discovery came into the collections at Buxton Museum, via the geologists William Boyd Dawkins and J.W. Jackson. Both men took a keen interest in scientific discoveries outside of as well as within the British Isles and in many different fields.

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It is interesting to compare scientific knowledge from the 1920s with that of the time of writing. Experts compared the skull from Zambia with the remains from Piltdown in Britain in the hope of shedding some light on it. They were wasting their time; the fossils from Piltdown were later exposed as a hoax. One expert lacking the benefit of hindsight, found the Zambian skull was less important than Piltdown in our understanding of early humans. Radiocarbon dating had not been developed so there were arguments over the African fossil’s age. Since it was buried under layers of stones and animal bones it was certainly old, but no one could be sure how ancient.

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Despite all that, I was struck by how contemporary some of the comments were. One report said that Charles Darwin had predicted that Africa would yield important fossil humans, indeed might be the cradle of humanity. This was a minority opinion until the 1950s but clearly not unheard of before then. Experts also deduced that the skull’s owner had walked upright as well as modern humans can. Comparisons were made with a fossil called Pithecanthropus which came from Java. This has then been re-classified as Homo Erectus but unlike Piltdown man, it is still accepted as a genuine prehistoric material. Remains of European Neanderthals were also used for comparison. One writer says “the Rhodesian man has one of the links in the chain of which many species would be found.” That turned out to be correct.

Today the fossil from Zambia is classified as Homo Heidelbergensis a probable ancestor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in Europe and Africa from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago. Scientists have dated their bones, measured their brain cases and collected their stone tools. Yet questions remain: Did they have language? If not, how close to it did they come? Did they bury their dead? Or tell stories? Or paint themselves with ochre? Many believe that they did but can we be sure? Even in 2019, we don’t know everything about our ancestors.

The Crescent- A Stitch in Time

Nikki Anderson one of our Museum Attendants and Textile Designer has put together this blog about the 19th Century embroideries that are on display here at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

To celebrate the reopening of ‘The Crescent’, the iconic hotel in the centre of Buxton, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery are exhibiting some rare and exciting art works dating back to the early 18th Century alongside some more contemporary paintings and prints.

The Crescent was built in 1788 and included a hotel at each end of the building and six town houses in the middle and was commissioned by ‘The 5th Duke of Devonshire’. Its purpose was to provide luxurious accommodation for visitors to the town. His vision, to create a spa town to rival Bath. Architect John Carr designed the building which was completed in 1788. It quickly became a popular visitor attraction and became a focus for artists whom would interpret ‘The Crescent’ in various art forms.

Embroidery 1
Embroidery 1

Embroidery 2
Embroidery 2

Embroidery 3
Embroidery 3

 

I was fascinated in particular with 3 pieces of embroidery on display. All 3 embroideries show the view of ‘The Crescent’ as the focal point from the slopes at St Ann’s Cliff. There is little known about the embroideries other than they were created in the mid 19th Century. The detail achieved in these works is incredible. You can see in the detail below the accuracy in very small detail. This photo has been magnified so the tiny stitch work can be seen.

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These embroideries have been created from etchings by Henry Moore which were made in 1819. Often the etchings were printed onto the silk fabric and the free hand embroidery was used to create the painting. On close inspection it appears that most of the embroidery would have been done by machine possibly using a pantograph method to transfer the stitches. Silk became very popular in the late 18th Century and by the mid 19th Century it became a common pastime to make these silk embroideries. I love the different contrasting effects used by the satin stitch on the machine and the hand stitching using running and seeding stitch (embroidery  3) whilst still obtaining such a delicate nature to the works. The fashioning of metallic threads of the 18th century have also influenced these works alongside the popularity of satin stitch and long and short stitch. In the magnified photo below a method called ‘couching’ has been used. This is where threads are placed on the surface of the fabric and then sewn stitched on by hand or machine. If you look closely you can see where the couching has unraveled showing the loose yarn.

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It is  interesting to note the fact these embroideries were worked upon in only 2 or 3 shades. Black and gold and/or beige silk. This may have also been influenced by’ Blackwork’, which was developed in the 16th and 17th Century and was incredibly popular.

These incredibly beautiful pieces of embroidery are on display alongside etchings, paintings and photographs until the 1st September at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.