Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A gossip about the art treasures at South Kensington - Part 1

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When the Authorities at the South Kensington Museum came to the very wise resolution of forming a temporary collection of works of art of a bygone period, in order that foreigners as well as our own countrymen flocking to London at this time might have some notion of the exceeding richness of this country in that way, they could have had no idea of the positive embarrassment of riches which has now poured in upon them.

Fortunately, one of the large and well-lighted courts of the new building was available to receive those treasures of art workmanship now to be found more abundantly in England than in any other part of the world.

One of the reasons for our wealth in this respect arises from the fact that, during the troubled state of Europe at the end of the last century, our collectors eagerly availed themselves of the opportunities then offered for procuring fine works of art. Since that period the gold of England has acted like a magnet in drawing hitherwards choice works of art, which no other power could move. These foreign works, added to our own rich stores of national art, have made this country the centre of the greater part of the known art productions of past times; but from our insular habits, and from the fact that by far the greater part were distributed about the country in the hands of private collectors, no general knowledge could be obtained of what we really possessed. Now, therefore, that this superb collection is brought together, and arranged so that nearly all the objects can be well examined, an opportunity occurs not only of seeing, but of comparing the different schools of art which each separate epoch has produced; and, more than that, it enables us to judge in some measure of the position of art in the present day, as seen in the International Exhibition, with the art productions of past ages.

A very important part of the collection consists of the large number of specimens of goldsmiths’ work, and this, too, of all periods; but there is one object of such great interest, of the best period of Greek art, that it deserves especial notice. It consists of a necklace and other ornaments, forming the parure of an Alexandrian belle some two or three centuries before Christ. It is lent by Signor Castellani of Rome, and was discovered about a year ago at Alexandria. It has long been known that the ancients produced fine works in the precious metals, but it is only at a comparatively recent period that we find rising from the forgotten cemeteries of Etruria and of Greece and her colonies, objects in gold, of a workmanship so perfect, that not only all the refinements of our modern civilisation cannot imitate it, but cannot even explain theoretically the process of its execution. No man has done more to unravel this mystery of manipulation than the intelligent and enthusiastic Signor Castellani, as a glance at his exquisite reproductions in the Italian Court of the Great Exhibition will abundantly testify. Indeed it would seem impossible that delicacy and minuteness could any further go; but the Signor declares his inability, as yet, to detect the actual process by which the ancients worked.

The peculiarity of their jewellery is, that, instead of forming the raised parts by chiselling or engraving, they were produced by separate pieces brought together and placed one upon the other. This gives it so peculiar and marked a character, derived rather from the expression, as it were, of the spontaneous idea and inspiration of the artist, than from the cold and regular execution of the workman.

Unquestionably this jewellery has an artistic character altogether wanting in the greater number of modern works, which, owing to a monotonous uniformity produced by punching and casting, have an appearance of triviality, depriving them of all individual character—that charm which so constantly strikes us in the productions of the ancients.

The necklace in question consists of numerous amphoræ-like pendants attached to a band of interlaced gold threads; these are overlaid again with minute circular and leaf-shaped pendants, literally not larger than pins’ heads; these latter ornaments, too, are enamelled, which is a highly interesting fact, as it proves that the Greeks did, at least to a certain extent, practise this particular mode of ornamentation. The colours used are pale greens and blues; the effect is very harmonious and soft, especially when divided by the cobweb lines of filigree gold, as seen in the scale ornaments adorning the central parts of the armlet.

This delicate use of subdued tints of green and blue seems to have been a favourite mixture by Greco-Egyptians of the best period. A similar use of the colours may be seen in the ornamentation of the capitals, &c., of the great temple of Philæ in Upper Egypt, which was built during the era of the Ptolemies, and to which period the gold ornaments in question probably belong. Signor Castellani was fortunate enough to obtain this precious relic for something like 16,000 francs—it is said, to add to his already fine collection.

The French Government would gladly have secured it, and it would doubtless have formed a most valuable example to show the transition between ancient and mediæval art in connection with the celebrated crowns of Toledo, now placed in the museum at the Hôtel de Cluny. These latter objects, so mysteriously discovered in Spain in 1859, belonged to a Gothic king of the seventh century. In these crowns, gold is treated as a village blacksmith would at present treat tin or copper.

It is only surprising that so many fine specimens of the goldsmith’s craft have come down to us. Undoubtedly a very large proportion of these works have disappeared altogether. During the troubled period of the Middle Ages, many a fine example has, without regard to its “art-worth,” been melted up for the value of the material. Many a piece, too, has disappeared in a similar manner in order to evade our absurd laws of treasure-trove.

There are here many fine examples of goldsmiths’ work, of great artistic value; and a still larger number supplied by our City corporations, and especially by Lords Spencer and Chesterfield, which, owing to the quantity of the precious metals used, are of Plutonic grandeur: but these works are of a late period, and depend rather on their money value than on the artistic labour bestowed upon them. They are, however, all highly interesting, as showing the taste and mode of decoration and workmanship prevailing at different periods.

Amongst the many beautiful things sent from our Universities are the fine gilt pastoral staff of Bishop Fox, from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and the still finer one of William of Wykeham, most elaborately chased and enamelled.

In the Irish case may be seen another staff, which belonged to a Bishop of Limerick, A.D. 1112, of the peculiar type and interlaced style of ornamentation which prevailed in Ireland at, and for some centuries before, that period. There are indeed few things better worth marking in this collection than the many evidences of a distinct style of art practised at an early period by that particular school called, generally, the Anglo-Saxon.

From Clare College, Cambridge, is sent a curious cup, illustrating one of the many figments of the Middle Ages: it is a crystal tankard, called the Poison Cup, given to that college by Dr. Butler; it is ornamented with filigree silver, and has a large piece of crystal imbedded in the lid. If poison be introduced into the vessel, it is alleged the crystal immediately turns black.

Amongst the many rich objects made to decorate the boards of our forefathers, should be noticed the Wassail Horn, a drinking vessel of the fifteenth century, sent from Queen’s College, Oxford.

Several large cases are filled with choice specimens of the ceramic art, principally of the Sèvres fabric. There are also fine pieces from the Chelsea and Worcester works. The taste for collecting porcelain is not of modern date. Macaulay says of the consort of William III., when speaking of Hampton Court, “Mary had acquired at the Hague a taste for the porcelain of China, and amused herself by forming at Hampton a vast collection of hideous images, and of vases on which houses, trees, bridges, and mandarins were depicted in outrageous defiance of all the laws of perspective. The fashion—a frivolous and inelegant fashion it must be owned—which was thus set by the amiable Queen, spread fast and wide. In a few years, almost every great house in the kingdom contained a museum of these grotesque baubles. Even statesmen and generals were not ashamed to be renowned as judges of tea-pots and dragons; and satirists long continued to repeat that a fine lady valued her mottled green pottery quite as much as she valued her monkey, and much more than she valued her husband.”

The great collector, Horace Walpole, of whom it is written—

China’s the passion of his soul:
A cup, a plate, a dish, a bowl,
Can kindle wishes in his breast,
Inflame with joy, or break his rest,—

was by no means free from the imputation of “one who loves rarity for rarity’s sake,” has given a capital anecdote relating to this inferior order of collectors.

It refers to a man named Turner, a great chinaman, who had a jar cracked by the shock of an earthquake. The price of the jar was originally ten guineas, but after the accident he asked twenty, because it was the only jar in Europe that had been cracked by an earthquake.