Treasure hunting!

Didcot Hoard-cropped

Andrea here, Where I live in New England, the bright blaze of autumn colors are beginning to fade and give way to the more somber taupe and grey hues of Winter. The days are growing shorter too, the sunlight flickering out in late afternoon . . . which puts me in the mood for some bright, sparkly things.

And what can be more sparkly than a treasure trove of gold!

Emperor VespasianI’ve recently been looking at photos from my research travels (Oh, for the day when we can travels again!) and some pictures from my visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford caught me eye. Most of the shots I took related to Regency-era  research for my Wrexford and Sloane mystery series—lots of scientific instruments and early technology. But I also couldn’t resist stopping at the display of . . . buried treasure. Glittery gold—admit it—it sends some sort of primal thrill trilling down your spine to think of stumbling across such a discovery . . .

It’s called the Didcot Hoard (for the town in Oxfordshire, England near where it was discovered by Bill Darley, who was using a metal detector to explore) and it’s considered one of the most spectacular caches of Roman coins ever found in Britain.

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Conserving The Past

RubensNicola here! I’ve recently become obsessed with a BBC TV programme called Lost Masterpieces. In it, art detectives Bendor Grosvenor and Emma Dabiri track down lost paintings from local museums and art galleries. Whilst Bendor delves into their background and oversees their restoration, Emma tells us more about the history of the collection and the people behind it. It’s a wonderful combination of detective work, conservation and history, exciting because so often the pictures have been attributed to the wrong painter or there is a hidden masterpiece waiting to be discovered amongst the racks of pictures in the museum’s store. In the most recent series they discovered a lost portrait by Reubens of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and a painting by Mary Beale, a 17th century professional artist which had been attributed to Peter Lely because it was felt that a woman couldn’t possibly be able to paint as well as she did!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the programme for me – apart from the way in which Bendor Grosvenor was able to identify the artist from the tiniest clues in style – was the way in which the paintings were so meticulously repaired and restored. In some cases they were very badly damaged and needed the most painstaking work, wiping away layers of varnish, even repairing those that had water damage, for example.

I was able to see this process for myself last Friday when we had a tour of the conservation studio Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum. Newly built a few years ago, the studio is on the top floor of the museum with natural north light and a view across the city’s rooftops. The Chief Conservator stressed how important both the light and space were to enable them to do their work.

First we had a talk from the painting conservator. He was working on two very different projects, the first of which was a pair of painted wooden trays that had been donated to the museum by a family who had lived in Oxford. Putting together the story behind the donation had been a piece of detective work in itself; the trays were 19th century origin from India, brought back by one of the sons of the house who had been a soldier with the East India Company. They depicted a story told in a series of images, a moral fable that dated from a much earlier era which told of a virtuous prince who gave away all his possessions to those in need. Apparently the trays had been mass-produced as souvenirs for Mary Tudorsoldiers in the early 19th century. One of the pair was damaged and the conservator explained the judgement needed to decide how much repair to do to a historical object and how much to leave as natural wear and tear, part of its story. For example they had decided to mend a broken corner but to leave a slight discolouration in the white paint that had occurred through the ageing process. He was also working on an amazing portrait of Mary Tudor, dated from before she had become Mary I, which had been very badly damaged. It was absolutely bursting with colour and vivid life but was in dire need of sympathetic restoration with some patches faded and discoloured and peeling. I can’t wait to see what it will look like when it is finished.

Part two of the tour involved the conservation of material objects, ranging from a 16th century ceremonial sword that was about five foot long to the most exquisitely painted Tudor sweetmeat trenchers. The conservator was fascinating on the different ways of cleaning the objects – tiny special sponges! – and the way precious objects were packed for storage or for transfer from museum to museum and especially the difficulties of wrapping a long, pointed object with sharp side and knobbly bits! I found the trenchers in particular to be fascinating as I had always Tudor trencherimagined them to be bigger; these were about three inches square and made of sycamore wood. The sweetmeats were served on the plain side and when you had finished you turned them over to see the picture and read the verse on the other side!

SilkFinally we had a tour with the fabrics conservator and here I realised how much ingenuity was required in the display of the items. Not only did she need sewing skills, she also needed to be very good at creating ways to display items in a way that reminded me of craft lessons in a primary school! A gorgeous piece of three hundred year old Persian silk was wrapped around a model to create a wraparound skirt in the style in which it would originally have been worn, but because it couldn’t be fastened with a belt as that would crush the delicate old material, she had pinned it to foam pleats to help it hang as a skirt would. I thought this showed such wonderful ingenuity! She also showed us how they would sew clothing to the back of upright panels in order to display it so that it wasn't crushed by the glass of the display case. One example she showed us was an embroidered 19th century dress that had been adapted to wear as a jacket in the 1930s! This dual purpose was all part of the story of that item of clothing and for someone like me who had no experience of conservation work, the whole tour was a revelation. All the conservators explained that their work mainly consisted of responding to the items that the curators brought in to them when a new exhibition was planned, or when the museum acquired a new item. I think that if I was let loose in the place though I would be rummaging through the stores looking for an exciting lost painting or researching the stories behind so many fascinating objects! 

What about you? Would you be more interested in the paintings, the swords or the fabrics? Have you ever restored or repaired something precious (to you) or are you more like me, not very  good at the craft side of it but fascinated by the background? 

Christmas Fun and Games!

AshmoleanA couple of weeks ago I went to the Ashmolean Museum Christmas Party in Oxford. The Ashmolean is one of the most famous museums in the UK and one of my absolute favourite places. It was there that I first saw the 17th century engraved Bohemian glass that gave me a key idea for my book House of Shadows. I also set one of the scenes in the book there, so it was wonderful to revisit and celebrate with canapés and champagne, followed by carols in the sculpture gallery.

After the speeches and buffet we were divided into groups and given a short lecture by one of the Snakes board curators on an item in the museum that had a connection to Christmas. In our case it was the snakes and ladders board in the oriental gallery. Snakes and ladders is of course a traditional Christmas game that has been played for hundreds of years. I’m told that in the US it’s called Chutes and Ladders, apparently because when it was launched in the 1940s, children didn’t like the snakes. The object of the game is to navigate one's game piece, according to the roll of the dice, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively and it is based on pure luck.

However, the game in the Ashmolean was quite different. It is an 18th century version of the game as a morality tale. Based on the idea of karma, it teaches the players all about their spiritual path to enlightenment. The snakes have names like “greed” “envy” and “pride” and represent the pitfalls for man as he or she struggles upward towards heaven. This particular board is painted on British watermarked paper and was made for a British patron in the East India Company. The instructions on the board are written in Persian and English. It’s a beautiful and very rare artefact.

Snakes and ladders AshmoleanSnakes and Ladders became popular in England in the 19th century when families returning from colonial India brought it with them. It was the perfect game for reflecting Victorian ideas of morality.  Squares of Fulfilment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart was more forgiving as it contained each in the same amount. This concept of equality signifies the cultural ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption.

In modern versions of the game the idea of morality has faded and it has become a game of chance although it still embodies the idea that for every ladder you hope to climb, there is a snake waiting around the corner! The phrase “back to square one” derives from the game.

Snakes and Ladders was one of my favourite Christmas games as a child and perhaps this association with Christmas has its roots in Old jigsawtoe northern UK because each year there is a snakes and ladders championship held at Christmas in the city of Sheffield. This year we are doing the Christmas jigsaw, another game with a fascinating history. What about you? What are your favourite Christmas games?