It seems that the soul… loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon.
(Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580)
I recently visited the exhibition, Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects, currently on at The Gallery, Winchester Discovery Centre until 14th April, 2013. Free admission. Charmed Life is a touring exhibition of three hundred and eighty amulets from the Wellcome Collection, London in partnership with Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford and curated by artist Felicity Powell. The exhibition was originally part of the Miracles & Charms programme, exploring the ordinary in the everyday, organised by the Wellcome Collection and which opened on 6th October 2011 and ran until 26th February 2012.
Charmed Life is beautiful and challenging. If you are interested in social history and visual art, this exhibition is the perfect combination of both and suitable for children too. Whilst viewing Charmed Life, a number of families arrived, the children were fascinated by the bizarre array of objects on display, the mole feet amulet proved particularly popular.
Amulets have appeared throughout history and across cultures in a variety of forms. They are tiny embodiments of the anxieties we feel and their assumed powers often draw on the dark arts of superstition and magic. Those on display range from simple coins to meticulously carved shells, dead animals to elaborately fashioned notes. The objects in the exhibition were collected by the banker and obsessive folklorist Edward Lovett (1852-1933) who scoured London by night, buying curious objects mostly from the East End.
Edward Lovett lived in Croydon and his huge collection grew from his fascination with folklore, charms, amulets and superstitions. He worked as a banker at the Bank of Scotland in the City of London and ‘..in his leisure time he took great pleasure in his collecting trips to the working-class areas of London. He acquired a wealth of material from sites such as herbalist shops, the barrows of costermongers and the city’s dockyards, collecting from people neglected by most historians.’ (Felicity Powell, Charmed Life, booklet, 2011).
In 1916, at the Wellcome Collection (formerly known as the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum) he curated the exhibition The Folklore of London and in 1925 he published a book, Magic in Modern London. In this publication he describes the strange little mole feet that amused the exhibition’s young visitors: ‘The front feet of a mole are permanently curved for digging, and this curved appearance is so suggestive of cramp that these feet are carried as a cure for cramp. (I have also found this superstition quite common on the continent).’
Blue glass beads, displayed in a perspex, wall-mounted cabinet, also caught my eye. Lovett writes about these in Magic in Modern London: ‘In the year 1914, I heard of a remarkable case of prejudice, or superstition, as to the wearing of blue glass beads by children as a cure for, or rather, a prophylactic against bronchitis. They are put on the necks of very young children and never taken off, not even when the wearers are washed or bathed. They are not taken off even at death.’
Lovett had a particular fascination with these blue glass beads and set-out to create a map of London showing exact locations where the beads were being sold. ‘I made a rough outline sketch of a map of London taking in…. 26 districts. I took it quite easily by devoting one day to each of these places…the shops where I made my enquiries were of two classes; viz: A poor class shop..[and] a better class of shop…every shop of the low-class recognised the blue beads as a cure for bronchitis, but not a single shop of the better class knew anything about it, or if they did would not admit it.’ I know several people who wear a St. Christopher around their neck and never remove it for anything or anybody, in case its protective properties should disappear.
A majority of amulets, selected by Felicity from Lovett’s Collection, appear as a river of objects in the exhibit, ‘The Table’ which is a perspex, horseshoe-shaped display case located at the heart of the gallery. Felicity explains: ‘Lovett collected stories as well as objects. He was passionate about collecting. Horseshoes were thought to protect the person against night nerves.’
I was transfixed by Felicity’s taxonomy of amulets which had been so carefully and precisely arranged. Although curated with precision, these objects lost none of their beauty by being repositioned in a different context. A context which no longer consigns the object to a concealed existence as a harbinger of sympathetic magic. These amulets, now protected by their perspex shell, have been freed to create new narratives, drawing the viewer into the powerful world of belief. ‘The ebb and flow of objects across the table introduces us to a visually led taxonomy that links the amulets materially, thematically and by association, allows for insights that emerge across the groupings…Each object speaks of a physical relationship to the world and most particularly to our bodies.’ (Felicity Powell, Charmed Life, booklet, 2011).
The categories of objects displayed in ‘The Table’ include: against nightmares; on concealment, flesh and bone; against lightning; thunderbolts; plants; nail, tooth and claw; foodstuffs and journey; game charms; a parade of shoes; on glass and artifice; of the sea and sailors; against the evil eye; pressed metal; votives and shrines; varied hearts; on roundness; stones with holes; fossils, crosses and phalluses and key attachments. The amulets range from obvious symbols of protection (such as a crystal and silk thread to be hung from your umbrella, protecting you against a lightning strike) to the more grotesque and macabre (the tip of a rabbit’s tongue against poverty). I was particularly drawn to a tiny little pot, which had the inscription ‘rice thrown for luck at a wedding, Caterham, September, 05’ , the owner of this miniscule keepsake obviously hoping that the good ‘luck’ would rub-off onto them wherever they carried it.
Felicity tells me: ‘Amulets would have been concealed upon a person and have meant something to the individual who carried them. Each amulet has their own fascinating story to tell, particularly about the human need to connect to objects which transcends time periods, cultures and classes. During the course of my research I became fascinated by ‘touch-pieces’. In the original 2011 exhibition, we had Dr Johnson’s touch-piece from The British Museum. This type of coin was believed to be imbued by the divine touch of a monarch and would be worn around the owner’s neck as a cure for individuals suffering from scrofula, a disease of the lymphatic system, from which Dr Johnson himself suffered. The coin was given to him by Queen Anne in 1711. Occasions where these coins were given-out were huge theatrical events. Dr Johnson wore the touch-piece around his neck for the rest of his life.’
A clever curatorial twist in the exhibition was the inclusion of two archaeological artifacts local to Hampshire. Felicity tells me: ‘I was presented with a choice of six artifacts from Winchester City Museum. I chose two objects whose provenance I felt to be in-keeping with the other amulets in the exhibition. A Roman lead curse and a late medieval heart-shaped amulet of bronze that had been found in grounds of Hyde Abbey, near Winchester.’
The lead tablet is from the Roman town of Silchester (4th Century AD) and was originally folded but is now opened-up to reveal a curse which interestingly contains named individuals. The curse reads: ‘Him who was stolen, let the god give a nasty blow.’ The folded section of the tablet is where the names were concealed. This amulet is not designed to offer protection.
Charmed Life also contains new pieces and videos by Felicity Powell including an etched coin (‘Against insomnia, for sleep, against amnesia, for memory’ 2011) and eighteen small-scale wax artworks, part of a larger ongoing series, that relate directly to amulets in the Lovett collection. The hauntingly beautiful music featured in both videos is by composer William Basinski. The video, Sleight of Hand, shows part of the process of making the wax artworks. ‘Powell filmed the making of her own small-scale works in wax with an overhead camera, revealing how they take shape, and playing with the sense that making and engaging with objects is in itself rather like being under a spell. The scale of the projection offers a counterbalance to the intricacy of the waxes themselves and allows the possibility of revealing things that are otherwise hard to see with the naked eye.’ (Felicity Powell, Charmed Life booklet, 2011). The translucent, white and red wax pieces have been modelled in low relief on the backs of mirrors with the imagery worked out directly on the mirror surface. The basic shape is laid down in wax applied with the fingers and then details are refined with dental tools. The wax on mirror back series is full of delicate imagery that appears to be in a constant state of flux, which Felicity describes as ‘morphing between states of being.’
The second video, Scanning, is based on MRI and CT/PET scans of the artist’s body, overlaid with images drawn directly from the Lovett collection. In one sequence an image of a transparent rotating torso with the heart at the centre is gradually encircled with the inward-spiralling text of the Lord’s Prayer as written by George Yeofound on his amulet of 1872.
‘On 9th September, 1872 in Southampton, Hampshire the eighty-eight year old George Yeofound wrote the Prayer in ink on both sides of a small disc of paper, the size of a small coin, that is really only legible when magnified. The edges of the paper are cut into points in order for it to wrap around the edge of a coin. This amulet is one of Felicity’s favourite in the exhibition. It is known that this object was part of Lovett’s collection of mascots and amulets carried by soldiers in World War I. This particular prayer was carried by a soldier of the Middlesex Regiment in 1917, but who he was and what happened to him are unknown.’ (Felicity Powell, Charmed Life, booklet, 2011).
Felicity explained to me why this amulet became so special to her: ‘I didn’t realise how important this object was to become to me as I worked with it over time. I traced Yeofound’s handwriting and found it to be urgent in style but formed into a perfect spiral, the text just kept going. In retracing his writing, it felt as if his hand reached across a century and a half. I found working on piece to be meditative, I felt I had a real connection with George and the object’s history. The object’s point of focus is its time and place in the mapping of life and events. This tiny piece of paper had travelled through time before it came to light.’
I asked Felicity about the type of wax that had been used to create the wax on mirror back series and were any special measures required to conserve them? ‘The wax is standard white modelling wax, light in colour so that pigments can be added, it also contains a lot of powder filler. I lay down the basic shape in wax using my fingers. The wax is lovely to work with and retains its translucency. Wax is easy to conserve as it is a very stable medium which holds its own over time. In The British Museum’s medal collection there are a number of eighteenth century wax and slate models made by the Hamerani family. All of which are still in good condition.’ I was also intrigued to find-out the reasons behind Felicity’s choice of modelling tools, why dental? ‘I know of a lot of artists who use dental tools for modelling, shaping and making marks. They are very good to hold in the hand too. The instruments also come with a wide range of different ends.’
Charmed Life continues at The Gallery, Winchester Discovery Centre until 14th April, 2013. Free admission. It is excellent and well-worth a trip to Winchester to view.