Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities December 2017


(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Curiosity: 2 miniature portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte

Created: 1824

Artist: Maestro di Pavia

Measurements: Full-length portrait: 183×118 mm

                              Head portrait: 74×62 mm

These two miniature portraits have come to the University museum’s collection through the bequest of George Powell of Nanteos. As with so many of his objects, we have unfortunately no idea how, when and where he bought them. Holland and Meyrick explain that “Powell was very taken with Romantic struggles for liberty and nationhood. Like many other collectors in the 19th century he collected material associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.” This and the exquisite execution of the portraits might have been his reasons for acquiring them.

Both pictures depict Napoleon (1769-1821). Although they could pass as etchings, they are actually ink calligraphy drawings. The minuscule writing recounts the battle of Waterloo in the head portrait, and in the full-length one Napoleon’s last will and testament. They were created by the ‘Maestro di Pavia’, who had been involved in the unsuccessful revolt in Piedmont, 1821, and subsequently been imprisoned. It took him apparently three years to complete the works. I could not find any further information about said artist; nothing seems to come up online; I could not find a book or journal article that mentions him so far. Hint: In case you have any information, it would be great if you could get in touch.

The Unification of Italy 1815-1870, Shepherd, William. Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I might not have any further details about the Maestro, but I am still asking myself why somebody would produce two portraits of a recently deceased French emperor whilst sitting in an Italian prison. Well, I had to brush up my knowledge about Napoleon and the history of Italy to figure out a possible motive. As commander-in-chief of the French army, Bonaparte started a successful campaign against the various kingdoms and duchies of Italy, including Piedmont in March 1796. Although the kingdom was supported by the Austrians, Napoleon beat them and continued conquering other parts such as Lombardy and the Republic of Venice, too. Under Napoleon, Northern Italy became a republic in 1802. However, only a few years later, in 1805, he crowned himself ‘King of Italy’ in Milan Cathedral; the parts he had conquered became an administrative monarchy. In Piedmont, the French conquest meant the end of the absolute reign of the House of Savoy, rulers of Sardinia-Piedmont. The code civil or code Napoleon that Bonaparte decreed in 1804 came into effect. The code civil prescribed equal rights for all in front of the law, freedom of contract and the division between church and state. Hence, military or administrative careers, for example, were now based on merit rather than social status.

The Unification of Italy 1815-1870, Shepherd, William. Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, after the defeat of Napoleon, the assembled powers, such as Russia, Prussia and Austria at the Congress of Vienna (1815), restored Piedmont to the House of Savoy. Victor Emmanuel I (Duke of Savoy, 1759-1824), who had been restricted to rule Sardinia only during the French occupation of Piedmont, reinstated the customs and laws of the ancient regime with its privileges for the aristocracy and power of the church. Although many welcomed the liberation from the French, having suffered from “heavy taxation, conscription, and anticlericalism born of Jacobinism” as John A. Davies explains, others were less happy with the reestablishment of the old rulers. These were those who had had the chance of creating a career during the French administration and liberals who favoured a democratic constitution. Certain secret societies, foremost the Carboneria, were also dissatisfied with the developments; they were anticlerical and forerunners of the Risorgimento, the movement endeavouring the unification of Italy. Discontent not only grew in Piedmont but also in Naples where parts of the army, the Carboneria and their allies started a revolt in November 1820. By March1821 the unrest had spread to Piedmont’s capital Turin, and Victor Emmanuel I abdicated in favour of his brother Charles Felix (1765-1831). The new regent did not hesitate to ask Austria for support with the result that the rebellion was crushed in the Battle of Novara in May. Many liberals fled into exile, or, as our Maestro di Pavia, were thrown into prison. Tim Chapman explains that the insurrection in Piedmont failed because the mainly middle and upper class rebels did not have the support of the peasantry. To cut a long story short, further revolts followed over the next decades across Italy with the result that Victor Emmanuel II (1820-78) was crowned king of Italy in 1861 with the Piedmontese constitution becoming the constitution of the whole country.

Let’s have a closer look at the images themselves: The full-length portrait shows Napoleon wearing his Imperial robes and a laurel wreath. He is holding another laurel wreath in his right hand and a staff topped with an eagle in his left. He stands next to a small plinth that is decorated with a figure. My guess is that this is the Roman goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology). She was the not only goddess of wisdom but also of (strategic/victory in) war and ally to heroic warriors. An admirer would have had no qualms associating Napoleon with this deity. The laurels are symbols of Apollo, Greek god of the sun and music. The winners of the Pythian Games that were held every three years at Delphi in honour of the god, were crowned with laurels; as were the victors of the ancient Olympics. The custom was adopted by the Roman victorious imperators and emperors.

Example medal, National Order of the Legion of Honour (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Around his neck, Napoleon wears the medal insignia of the National Order of the Legion of Honour which Napoleon himself had founded in 1802. The eagle on the staff is another emblem that originated in Greek and Roman mythology; the majestic bird was accessory of chief god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek). According to Michael Ferber, it was chosen by Gaius Marius (ca. 157-86 BC) in 104 BC as a “special badge” for the Roman legions and subsequently the Roman Empire.

The robe is decorated with bees, an animal that Jörg-Uwe Albig describes as an ancient symbol of immortality that Napoleon chose himself. Ferber writes that the bee had already been adapted by the French kings much earlier, as it was believed that the strictly hierarchically organised bee hive was ruled by a male bee, a king. However, Jan Swammerdam (1637-80) discovered that hives are actually ruled by a female, a queen. According to Ferber that discovery must have caused some embarrassment in France, but it seems, not enough to get rid of the emblem entirely. Those are two opinions on the matter of the bees; I am sure there might be other explanations elsewhere, but I will leave it at that.

Napoleon Bonaparte, François Gérard, ca. 1805-15, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I would suggest that the portrait resembles mostly the painting by François Gérard, but with the plinth depicting the Minerva and Napoleon flashing a well-shaped calf from underneath his cloak, the Maestro has added his individual touch to the composition.

The head portrait was apparently copied from a medal or coin, possibly such as the one on the photo below. Showing Napoleon in profile, crowned as well with the laurel wreath, it is reminiscent of ancient Roman coins with their depictions of emperors.

The School of Art curator, Neil Holland, and I tried to scan and enlarge the images to be able to decipher the calligraphy, but unfortunately our technical facilities are limited. Eventually, we got as far as to just being able to read the signature, but the rest of the text were still illegible ‘squiggles’, blurred by the attempt to enlarge the portraits. However, an article in the University College Wales Magazine (Vol. 5, 1882-82, published March 20 1883) explains that “on microscopic inspection” those squiggles can definitely be identified as words.

Gold 20 franc coin of Napoleon I, struck 1808, Pierre-Joseph Tiolier (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Given the attitude that early 19th century kings of Sardinia-Piedmont had towards Napoleon Bonaparte and France in general, I would imagine that the Maestro di Pavia had to be very careful when he created the two portraits of his French hero. I can see him furtively working on them, always in danger of being discovered. I suppose that this secrecy, in addition to the effort of writing in such tiny hand, probably in bad light as well, is the reason why it took him three years to finish the images.


Beales, Derek and Biagini, Eugenio F. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. Pearson Education Ltd., 2002.

Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century History, edited by John Belchem et al, Penguin, 1996.

Brinkley, Richard. “George Powell of Nanteos: A Further Appreciation.” The Anglo-Welsh Review pp. 130-34. n.d.

Broers, Michael. “Revolution as Vendetta: Patriotism if Piedmont, 1794-1821.” The Historical Journal, vol. 33, no. 3, 1990, ppp. 573-597. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2639731. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Chapman, Tim.”Risorgimento: Italy, 1815-1871. Humanities-Ebooks LLP, 2008. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ABER/detail.action?docID=3306066. Accessed 15 Dec 2017

Short Oxford History of Italy: Italy in the Nineteenth Century. edited by John A. Davis, Oxford UP, 2000.

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols. Greenwood, 2008. Dawsonera, https://www.dawsonera.com/abstract/9781567206623. Accessed 20 Dec. 2017.

Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Cambridge University Press, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aber/detail.action?docID=217836. Accessed 20 Dec 2017

Gooch, John.The Unification of Italy. Taylor and Francis, 1986.

Guerber, H. A. The Myths of Greece and Rome. Dover Publications, 1993.

Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997.

The Faber Book of Greek Legends. edited by Kathleen Lines. Faber and Faber, 1973.

Morgan, Gerald. Nanteos: A Welsh House and its Families. Gomer, 2001.

Riall, Lucy. Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation State. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.







Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities November 2017

Curiosity: Small boxes of different materials

(from the F. W. Rudler collection)

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Prof. F.W. Rudler, (Chemistry, 1875-1879).Frederick William Rudler (8th July 1840 – 23rd January 1915)

Frederick William Rudler was born in London in 1840. He studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic where he attended Science and Art classes. During this time, he was awarded two gold medals in one year. In 1861, he was appointed Assistant Curator at the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, London. He remained there until, in 1876, he was offered to become a lecturer in Natural Sciences at the University College of Wales (now Aberystwyth University “AU”). He taught Chemistry and also became one of the AU’s earliest Geology Professors. In addition, he founded the university’s museum and was its first Curator. When the Curator of the Museum of Practically Geology, Trenham Reeks (1823-1879), died Rudler took Reeks’s position and the roles as Librarian of the museum and the Registrar of the Royal School of Mines, now part of Imperial College, as well. He remained Curator at Jermyn Street until his retirement in 1902. The same year he received the Imperial Service Order from King Edward VII for his services to science.

image001 (1)
Contemporary museum report

(Click on ‘Contemporary museum report’ to open a larger PDF.)

Rudler was an assiduous writer. He was assistant editor to Ure’s Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures (1875 edition) and contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Thorpe’s Dictionary of Applied Chemistry, Muir’s Dictionary of Chemistry and the Anthenaeum. In addition, he wrote the Guide to the Museum of Practical Geology and the Catalogue of Pottery and Porcelain. His lectures were very popular and he presented a series, for example, for the Society for the Extension of University Teaching. His friend Edward Brabrook comments in Rudler’s obituary that he had “a clear voice, a distinct enunciation and a marvellous memory.” Another obituary mentions that “as a mineralogist Mr Rudler was most accomplished, being able to identify and name any mineral specimen at sight, and could state its properties and locality with wonderful precision.”

Rudler at Aberystwyth University

Apart from his jobs, Rudler held a great number of positions in various organisations. I did my best to put them in the correct order and not to get mixed up with the very similar names. I might have omitted some roles, but all in all, I think the following list gives a very good idea of just how busy Rudler must have been:

1869 Assistant Secretary and sub-editor for Journal, Ethnological Society, London; joined the British Association (1872-79 Secretary of the Association’s Anthropological Department and 1880 President of the same)

1870 Fellow of the Geological Society (Lyell Medal 1903)

1871 Fellow of the Anthropological Institute (1873 elected Council member; 1875 Director, jointly with Edward Brabrook; 1880-81 Vice President, 1898-99 President)

1874 Joined the Geologists’ Association (1887-89 President)

1888 Honorary Treasurer at the Fourth Session of the International Geological Congress, London

1901 Chairman of the Conference of Delegates of Corresponding Societies, British Association

1903 President of the Essex Field Club

1904 President of the S E Union of Scientific Societies

F. W. Rudler had expert knowledge in and lectured not only on Chemistry and Geology, but also in Physics, Botany and Zoology. Further interests included the history of British and Japanese pottery making, and he established an important collection of British ceramic art. His aim was to found a Welsh national museum in Aberystwyth, and with the help of donations and exchanges with other museums, he managed to gather a great number of botanical, mineral and paleontological material. The mining industry was a matter he particularly focused on, and he collected many specimens of copper, iron, lead, silver and tin. In addiction, Bryce Wright of London contributed ethnological items such as clubs, spears and paddles from Polynesia and Africa. In 1879, the year Rudler left AU, George Powell of Nanteos started giving objects of his collection to the museum as well. Even after taking up his role as Curator at the Museum of Practical Geology back in London, he stayed in touch with AU, and when he died in 1915 (in Tatsfield, Kent), his own collection was offered to the university to purchase.

Professor O. T. Jones’s report of Rudler’s collection is included in the university’s annual report (probably 1915-16). Together with Mr. Alfred T. Davies of the Welsh Department of the Board of Education, he travelled to Tatsfield to meet Rudler’s brother, Mr. S. G. Rudler, and go through the vast amount of material to find out whether it would be useful for the AU museum. It comprised mineral specimens, gemstones, coins, medals, plaster casts of coins and medallions, hundreds of archaeological pieces, maps, pamphlets, journals, books and scientific instruments. It seems that Rudler was quite an obsessive collector and curious about everything. Jones recommended in his report that the collection should definitely be bought, as it included many interesting and valuable objects; his advice was duly followed.

Among the acquired objects was a large number of, what Professor Jones listed in his report as ‘Curios’. I suppose that included our assortment of little boxes we still have in our ‘treasure trove’ at the School of Art today. My learned colleagues, Head of the School of Art and Keeper of Art Professor Robert Meyrick and Senior Curator Neil Holland, assume that Professor Rudler collected them as examples of different materials and processes of manufacture. Exemplars are made, for example, from wood, horn, celluloid, lacquer and raffia work. To specify each of them would take pages and pages, so I decided to zoom in on some of them that seem to have the most interesting stories to tell.

Relic of the HMS Royal George

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

This booked-shaped piece of iron was apparently salvaged from the 18th century warship the HMS Royal George. Built at Woolwich Dockyard, the first-rate ship was launched on the 18th February 1856 right in time for the start of the Seven Years’ War against France and its allies. It had originally been laid down as the Royal Anne, but in honour of the reigning King George II, it was renamed. Exceeding 2000 tons burden, it was the largest warship in the world at the time and had 100 cannons. It served in the Battle of Quiberon (November 1759) and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (January 1780).

Sinking of H.M.S. Royal George at Spithead Augt 29 1782, etching, no date, Royal Museums Greenwich (Wiki Commons)

In August 1782, she was moored at Spithead and supposed to undergo maintenance before taking provisions and ammunition to Gibraltar. On the morning of the 29th, many workmen, such as shipwrights and plumbers, were on board, and families were visiting the sailors. Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-82) and her Captain, Matthew Waghorn, were also on board. In order to execute the repairs, the ship was heeled, slightly leaned over to one side. It was noticed some time after that water came in through the gunports with the result that the ship capsized and sunk rapidly. The majority of people on board could not be saved; between 900-1200 lost their lives, including about 300 women and 60 children. The story goes that one little boy survived by clinging to a sheep. It is difficult to establish an exact number due to the innumerable visitors and workers on board. An eyewitness, an officer on board the Fleet, wrote a sad letter to an acquaintance in town on the day describing the heart-breaking scene:

“Admiral Kempenfelt was on board, and we are not certain yet whether he was saved. The Beach, and Houses about the Point, are now filling with the dying and the dead, Men and Women promiscuously tumbling in a Heap; nothing is to be seen but Objects of Woe, and Images of Dejection; and as the Benefit of the humane Society is little known or practiced here, few of the Sufferers, it is feared, will be save, beside the Loss of so fine a First-Rate in so simple a Way, I am now in great Haste and Confusion, having been for these two hours assisting the unhappy Sufferers.”

The cause of the Royal George’s sinking as mentioned above is assumed to be correct; however, the subsequent court-martial decided that the ‘general state of decay of her timbers’ was the reason, thus exonerating the officers and crew, most of whom had died in the disaster.

“Spithead, with the exact situation and appearance of the “Royal George”, wrecked – with above 600 people on board – 29 August 1782.” source and date unknown (Wiki Commons)

The masts of the ship were still visible afterwards, just outside the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour; a lasting reminder of the tragedy. Many proposals were put forward for salvaging the Royal George. Diving pioneers Charles Anthony (1796-1848) and John Deane (1800-1884) undertook a series of dives between 1834-36 and managed to recover 30 guns and many other objects from the vessel. (During that time, they also discovered the remains of Henry VIII’s famous flagship, the Mary Rose, which had sunk on the 19th July 1545.) The salvaged warship objects were exhibited in Regent Street, London, in 1835. The wreck was finally cleared and blown up by Colonel Sir Charles William Pasley (1780-1861) between 1839-1844. (The collection’s relic’s plaque states that the iron was recovered in 1839.) Pasley salvaged many bronze cannon, some of which were melted down to form the base of Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. Other recovered objects and timbers were also turned into relics, such as snuffboxes, commemorative coins, and sold. It is still possible to find some of them today on online auction websites.

Wreck of the ‘Royal George’. Frederick Whymper, 1883, Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington (Wiki Commons)


Relic of the HMS Victory 

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Just like the HMS Royal George, the HMS Victory was a first-rate warship with over 100 guns (The sources I used for this blog entry are quoting anything between 100 and 116 guns.) and designed by Sir Thomas Slade (1773/4-1771). She was built in at Chatham Dockyard from 1759 onwards and launched in May 1765. Apparently, over 2000 oak trees were needed for her construction, she had 27 miles of rigging and four acres of sail; the total cost was over £63,000 (over £50 million today). However, she first experienced active service only in 1778 during the War of American Independence (1775-83) against the French fleet in the Battles of Ushant (Brittany, France), in 1778 as the flagship of Admiral Augustus Keppel (1725-86) and in 1881 as that of Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-82).

During a period of peace, the Victory had some repairs made and was commissioned again in 1793, this time in the Mediterranean and was involved in the sieges of Toulon (1793) and Calvi (1794). During the battle of Cape St. Vincent (February 1797) she was badly damaged and sent home. She was converted into a hospital ship and would have almost ended her days as a prison hulk. However, the loss of the first-rate ship HMS Impregnable in 1799 saved her from that sad lot. She had a major refit at Chatham Docks between 1800 and 1803. It was then that she received her famous black and yellow striped coat.

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1799, National Maritime Museum (Source: Wiki Commons)

On the 14th May 1803 Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758-1805) became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, two days before war was declared against France; on the 18th, Nelson hoisted his flag in the HMS Victory. On the morning of the 21st October 1805, the Victory hoisted her famous legendary signal ‘England expects every man will do his duty.’ and the Battle of Trafalgar against the French and allied Spanish fleet commenced. Nelson was badly wounded by a musket-ball shot from the French Redoubtable whilst walking the quarterdeck in the early afternoon and died a few hours later below deck in the cockpit. The Victory had been badly damaged fighting the French flagship Bucentaure and the Redoutable and was towed to Gibraltar after the battle. However, the crew insisted on taking Nelson’s body home to England. He lay in state in Greenwich Hospital and was finally buried on the 6th January 1806 at St. Paul’s, London. His crew of the HMS Victory carried her battle ensigns and, when he was laid to rest below the dome of the cathedral, they tore them to pieces to keep as mementos rather than placing them with the coffin.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, J. M. W. Turner, 1806-08, Tate (Source: Wiki Commons)

The HMS Victory was repaired again and served until 1812 when she was put into reserve in Portsmouth. Another major repair took place between 1814 and 1816. From 1823 she lay permanently at Portsmouth and became the flagship of the Port Admiral in 1824 and from 1889 of the Commander-in-Chief. She was permanently moved to a dry dock at Portsmouth in January 1922, and restoration works were carried out. Due to her connection with Nelson, she has always had a great place in people’s hearts and been kept in good order. The Ministry of Defence transferred the custodianship to the HMS Victory Preservation Trust in 2012. Still a tourist attraction, she is, according to the Royal Navy website, still flagship of the First Sea Lord & Chief of Naval Staff, and thus the oldest commissioned warship in the world. She is staffed by Royal Navy seamen and staff of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

As with the relic of the Royal George, we have no way of knowing whether this object was really made from the wood of the warship. Souvenirs of both were very popular, and enterprising ‘men of business’ most certainly jumped on the bandwagon and produced fake relics which they sold as mementos to an eager clientele.

Hms Victory South Gland Portsmouth
HMS Victory, Portsmouth (Source: Max Pixel)

Copper snuffbox of Christmas Evans 

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Christmas Evans (1766-1838) was born the parish of Llandysul, Cardiganshire on Christmas Day. His father died when he was only about nine years old, and he went to live with an uncle in Carmarthenshire. Four years later he became a farmhand and worked for David Davis (1745-1827), who was an Arian minister of the Arminian congregation at Llwynrhydown. Evans converted and became a member of the church in 1783. He was educated by Davis and learnt to read Welsh and to speak some English. In addition he learnt some Greek, Hebrew and Latin during his life, and knew sufficient English to preach in the language and read texts that were important for his role. He started preaching at cottage meetings but lacking an academic education, he could not become part of the Presbyterian ministry. Thus, he joined the Baptists and was baptized in 1788 in the river Duar in Carmarthenshire by Timothy Thomas (1754-1840) and became a member of the Baptists in Aberdyar.

Christmas Evans, William Roos, 1835, oil on canvas, National Museum Cardiff

1789 proved a very important year for Evans; he was ordained at Salem, Ty’ndonnen, married Catherine Jones and had a spiritual revelation about the wonder of the Grace of God that caused him to preach more passionately and livelier than before. He became a very influential preacher who drew in large crowds. Having a great imagination and a talent for observing people, he would turn his sermons into dramas that would spellbind his congregations. An accident had cost Evans an eye, but fellow Baptist minister Robert Hall (1764-1831) said the remaining one ‘could light an army through a wilderness on a dark night.’ Throughout his career, he also published, for example, sermons and Welsh hymns.

In 1791, he moved to Angelsey and was minister to all Baptist local churches. During his time there he built chapels and went on preaching tours, but the Angelsey churches resented his authoritative and orthodox ways so in 1826 he moved to Caerphilly, Glamorgan, when he was offered the ministry of Tonyfelin Chapel. Whilst in Caerphilly, he married his second wife, Mary Jones, his first wife having died in 1823. After problems with his parish he relocated to Cardiff in 1828, but again, his dominating ways were not met with approval. Hence, he moved to Caernarfon in 1832. He died unexpectedly in July 1838 during a tour in south Wales and was buried on the cemetery of Bethesda Welsh Baptist Chapel, Swansea.

Celluloid boxes     

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

The term ‘celluloid’ was coined by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920), who, with the help of his brother Isaiah, had successfully created and patented an urgently needed substitute for ivory in 1869. He based his research on earlier finds by the English chemist and inventor Alexander Parkes (1813-1890) who had experimented with cellulose nitrate in order to find a better insulator for the electrical industry. Cellulose nitrate was (and of course still is) highly inflammable, a danger that he reduced by including camphor in the process. Parkes called his invention ‘parkesine’ and patented it. However, he failed to commercialize his idea with his Parkesine Company, founded in 1866 in association with George Spill & Co. (a company producing waterproof textiles in East London), already being liquidated in 1868.

Hyatt, on the other hand, managed to develop and successfully market a process with cellulose nitrate and camphor that would create a material suitable for all kinds of objects, such as knife handles, toys, false teeth, piano keys and billiard balls. The last two in particular had been made from ivory in the past, which even in those days was becoming already more scarce due to the incredible high demand for it. Hyatt and his brother set up the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870, and a year later the Celluloid Manufacturing Company was founded. Parkes and his new firm British Xylonite Company Ltd, also backed by George Spill & Co, sued the Americans, because Parkes had put in patents before them for his inventions – without success.

When other forms of plastic where developed celluloid lost its significance, because the new products were less flammable. These days, it’s apparently only used in the manufacture of table tennis balls.

I leave the last word to Frederick William Rudler who wrote in the March 1882 issue of the AU College Magazine:

“Horace Walpole defined a museum as a “hospital for everything that is singular”. But many an object, without being in any way singular, is yet well worthy of a place in a museum. It is the educational value, rather than the singularity, of a specimen which recommends it to the attention of an enlightened curator. […] Far be it from me to advocate the accumulation of miscellaneous curiosities, like Captain Grose’s “auld nick-nackets”. And yet I believe that there is scarcely any object from which, if properly studied, instruction may not be evolved. The old coin, the autograph, or the potsherd may teach more of real vivid history than an ordinary student can learn from many pages of his text-book.” (College Magazine, Vol. IV, March 1882)


Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997. Print.




























Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities October 2017

2017-10-20-2848Curiosity: Charango

Country of origin: South America (most likely Peru or Bolivia)

Maker: Unknown

Created: possibly late 19th or early 20th century

Measurements: 774mm

Material: armadillo shell, wood and metal



The charango is a small string instrument belonging to the lute family. It is a typical and popular instrument in the Andes of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and parts of Argentina. It most likely derives from the early guitars that the Europeans, especially the Spanish conquistadors, brought with them from the 16th century onwards. Before, indigenous instruments included the panpipe, notched flutes and double-headed drums but not strings. With its high pitch and smaller size than a guitar, the charango is more in line with the musical aesthetics of the indigenous people and can be carried around more easily.

Since its first conception, the charango has played an important part in the traditions of the campensinos, the indigenous Quechua or Aymara- speaking peasants of the Andes who earn their living mainly with herding llamas and sheep or cultivating barley and potatoes. There is for example the papa tarpuy, the potato-planting ceremony of Canas, a province in Cusco, Peru, during which the charango would be played. In northern Potosí, in the Bolivian Andes, the instrument is associated with the dry winter season (April-September). Agricultural and cultural calendars are published by a variety of organisations indicating the appropriate instrument for each season. Henry Stobard points out that there are rural areas in which up to 12 different instruments are played in the course of the year.

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

In the above-mentioned areas, the charango is also hugely important during courtship. A young man would come into town, typically on market or feast days, dressed in his Sunday best and woo the girls with his musical skills. He would decorate his instrument with colourful ribbons and mirrors to attract the opposite sex. Legend has it that each ribbon represents a conquered girl; interpreted as such, they are very much a sign of machismo. The charango acts as a kind of intermediary between the young man and the target of his affection; talking is not an obligation. A popular tune for courtship, for example in Cusco, is called the tuta kashwa (night dance). If she likes his musical advances, she might simply indicate this with a smile or glance of encouragement. After a while, she will join him, singing along the charango. A group of young couples might get together to dance and sing and, well, take it from there…. To put it bluntly: A young man out and about with his charango is certainly out on the pull. On the other hand, if a boy can’t play the charango, his chances with the girls are slim. Once a man is married, traditionally, he would put his instrument aside as he might be seen as a bohemio, a womaniser and general rake, if he carried on playing.

In order to get the best out of a young man’s charango, he often follows a century-old ritual after its purchase: At night, preferably during a full moon, he places the instrument near a lake, spring or waterfall. He leaves it there overnight together with gifts such as little ornaments, alcohol, coins or coca for the resident sirena. Sirenas are commonly portrayed as beautiful women with fishtails. Probably evolved from combining legends of local water spirits and Greco-Roman mermaids, these creatures are said to be particularly prevalent around the area of Lake Titicaca. Just like the sirens that lured sailors with their sweet songs in Greek mythology, the sirenas possess great musical powers, which they can transfer onto the charango. They will play and tune the instrument, and the next morning the charanguista will reclaim a powerful weapon for courtship. It is said that its sound will be so seductive that no woman can resist it. However, it is important not to interfere with the sirena as her music could also drive you insane if overheard. It is possible that the sirena/mermaid is so strongly associated with the charango, because the stories about these specific enchantresses arrived in South America at the same time as the guitars and mandolins. Hence, the indigenous people might have automatically connected one with the other in their minds.

Traditionally, men would play the instruments and women would sing. Although, rather than seeing this as a subordinate role, they are well respected for their songs and fine voices. The charango is in fact often seen as an accompaniment to the singing rather than the other way around. There are also again certain beliefs as to why a woman should not play the charango: In Tomaycuri, a rural community in northern Potosí, a woman playing the charango might cause dry fields. In nearby Kalankira, she might lose her weaving skills, and a pregnant woman might lose her child if she played the pinkillu (a kind of flute).

Although a typical instrument of the more rural areas of the Andes, the charango would make its way into cities such as Cusco and Puno, south-eastern Peru, during the early decades of the 20th century. Young middle-class mestizos (originally people of mixed European and indigenous parentage) would learn how to play the instrument from campensinos and then take their skills with them when their families moved into town to find work and adapt a more urban lifestyle. Often, the parents would not be particularly enthusiastic about their offspring’s musical taste as the charango was seen as an instrument of the baja pueblo, the ‘lower class people’ – something they would have liked to distance themselves from. Mandolins and guitars were more respected. However, at the same time a new ideology evolved, called indigenismo, among Peruvian artists and intellectuals. The rights of the Andean Indians and indigenous culture became focus of this movement, and its supporters condemned ‘foreign’ and ‘colonial’ values. Consequently, the charango became more respectable and an urban tradition of charango playing developed. The mestizo charanguistas would perform the long-established wanyo (song-dance) of the central Andes and add different genres such as the waltz to their repertoire. That way, they catered towards an urban, elite audience and raised the status of the charango. They also created a new style of playing the charango. Originally, the strings would be strummed, but the mestizos started plucking them instead.

In the past, the charango was generally made from the dried shell (carapace) of an armadillo, just like our curiosity. These days they are usually made from wood. They normally have five pairs of strings, but there are variations, and this one seems to have had only four sets of strings; unfortunately, they are missing. Strings are usually made from nylon or metal, depending on which playing style (strumming or plucking) and sound the charango player prefers. They are often richly decorated with carvings and/or inlays. The only ornamentation our charango has is a bridge in form of a lizard or salamander.

(Click in images to enlarge them.)

Some of the articles and books I read about the charango during my research go back to the early 1980s. The newest was published in 2008. Maybe a some of the above-mentioned traditions and beliefs have diminished or even vanished since then, and it is already indicated in the Henry Stobart’s 2008 article that women play the charango and that men sing these days, too. However, as the charango has such a tradition and now popular status in many Latin American areas, I thought it important and rather fascinating to include some old beliefs and superstitions as well.

It is just a shame that our charango won’t woo anybody anymore as its missing strings have condemned it to everlasting silence…

These youtube links show a great variety of charango players:

Alfredo Coca

Luciel Izumi

Ernesto Cavour

Feria y Festival del Charango Nacional E Internacional Aiquile 2016

La Mas Grande Orquesta


Broughton, Simon et al, eds. World Music – Volume 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific – The Rough Guide. Rough Guides, 2000.

Stobart, Henry. “In Touch with the Earth? Musical Instruments, Gender and Fertility in the Bolivian Andes.” Ethnomusicology Forum, vol. 17, no. 1., 2008, pp. 67-94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20184606. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.

—. “The Llama’s Flute: Musical Misunderstandings in the Andes.” Early Music, vol. 24, no 3, 1996, pp. 470-482. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3128262. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.

— and Howard, Rosaleen, eds. Knowledge and Learning in the Andes: Ethnographic Perspectives. Liverpool UP, 2003. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ABER/detail.action?docID=380586. Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

Torino, Tom. Moving Away from Silence: Music of the Peruvian Altiplano and the Experience of Urban Migration. University of Chicago P, 2014. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ABER/detail.action?docID=486000. Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

—. “The Urban-Mestizo Charango Tradition in Southern Peru: A Statement of Shifting Identity.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 28, no. 2, 1984, pp. 253-270. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/850760. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.

—. “The Charango and the Sirena: Music, Magic, and the Power of Love.” Latin American Music Review/ Revista de Musica Latinoamericana, vol. 4, no 1, 1983, pp. 81-119. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/780281?sid=primo&origin=crossref. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.


Exploring the work of Bert Isaac – A first glimpse

On 23 October 2017, the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University received a substantial gift of some 174 artworks by the Welsh painter-printmaker Bert Isaac, who died in 2006. As Professor Robert Meyrick discovered on visiting his home in Abergavenny, his studio was a veritable treasure trove of prints, drawings and paintings, as well as sketchbooks and beautifully designed, hand-bound books that Isaac had produced in the course of a long artistic career dating back to the early 1940s.

What a delight it must have been to be offered this collection by Isaac’s widow Joan and his daughter Susan Pochron! His work fits particularly well with the Museum’s already substantial and nationally important collections, not only because of Isaac’s Welsh origins and the predominance of Welsh landscape themes in his work, but also because of his strong affinities with the Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s to 1960s, such as Ceri Richards, David Jones, John Elwyn and Graham Sutherland, whose works already feature prominently in the Collection.

Moreover, Isaac was a dedicated teacher of art, and trainer of future art teachers in Cardiff, Swansea and London, where he continued to work in the Art and Design Department of the Institute of Education until the 1980s. In 1999, he was awarded the MBE for services to art education. In his final years, he was especially content in the knowledge that so much of his life’s work would find its ultimate destination in the School of Art Museum and Galleries, whose explicit mission is to make fine works of art readily available for study by future generations of artists and art historians enrolled at Aberystwyth.

I first become aware of Bert Isaac’s work only recently, in two exhibitions in 2016 at MOMA Machynlleth (Romancing Wales: Romanticism in the Welsh landscape since 1770, and Ffiniau: Four Painters in Raymond Wlliams’ Border Country, both curated by Dr Peter Wakelin). Three of his striking semi-abstract landscapes were highlights for me in the School of Art Gallery’s recent exhibition Outside In: Abstracting the Landscape. So I jumped at the opportunity Robert offered me to start work on the cataloguing of these new acquisitions from Isaac’s own studio. Each week, I am spending a few hours happily installed in Robert’s office, examining, measuring and describing the newly-acquired works.

I thought I should share a few favourites with readers of the blog as I proceed, and here is my first instalment of firm favourites: three multi-media drawings in ink, watercolour, gouache, pastel and pencil, all done in 1979 probably within a very short time of each other. They bear striking similarities, not only in their theme of rugged mountainous landscape including decaying quarry workings – one of Isaac’s favourite themes – but in their brilliant, vibrant colour. What might to some seem a rather grim subject – the relics of a vanished industry over-run by the scrubby vegetation of blasted upland heath – is here transformed. And as he grew older, Isaac’s colours were to become ever bolder, fresher and more striking, as I hope to show in a later post.

Judy Batt

(MA Fine Art student)

Bert Isaac Blue ridge 1979
Bert Isaac, Blue ridge, 1979 (mixed media on paper, 215 x 315 mm)
Bert Isaac Old Fence 1979
Bert Isaac, Old Fence, 1979 (mixed media on paper, 235 x 215 mm)
Bert Isaac Estuary View 1979
Bert Isaac, Estuary View, 1979 (mixed media on paper, 212 x 317 mm)








Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities September 2017

Mask VCuriosity: Noh mask

Country of origin: Japan

Created: 19th century or early 20th century (?)

Measurements: 405mm x 382mm

Material: Wood, gesso, horsehair, glass, paint, papier mâché




Noh is the name of the classical Japanese form of theatre. It developed from the earlier performance styles Dengaku no Noh (field music performance) and Sarugaku (“monkey music”) during the 14th century. During Dengaku, there would be acrobatics and juggling; Sarugaku had comical components and had developed from Shinto rituals. Whereas Dengaku performers would alternate the singing and the more physical parts of their show, Sarugaku actors sung and danced/mimed simultaneously; after 1420, they would also be supported by a choir. Sarugaku also became more serious over the decades and began to supplant Dengaku in the second half of the 14th century. Father and son Kan’ami Kiyosugu (1333-84) and Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) were famous actors of their time and are chiefly responsible for outlining the rules and conventions of the austere, dramatic art of Noh, which are still being adhered to today. Zeami explains, for example, that “the writing of No consists of three stages: choice of “seed” (subject), construction and composition. The “seed” is the story on which the play is based. This story must be well considered and divided into Introduction, Development and Climax. …Then the words must be put together and the music joined to them.” (The No Plays of Japan, Arthur Waley)

Uki-e no kyogen no zu 浮絵能狂言之図 (Perspective Picture of a No Performance) ©Trustees of the British Museum
Uki-e no kyogen no zu 浮絵能狂言之図 (Perspective Picture of a No Performance), woodblock print, Japan, 1780s ©Trustees of the British Museum

A Noh play has strictly defined roles; the lead is the shite, the subaltern who explains the story is the waki. Both have adjuncts, tsure. A shite’s companion is called tomo and everyday characters such as boatmen or sword-bearers are kyogen. Sometimes boy actors are used for characters such as emperors; those are called kokata. In addition, there are a choir that sings, or rather chants, in support of the lead and musicians, usually including a flute, two hand-drums and a stick-drum. The plays can broadly be divided into five categories: Kami No deal with deities; Shura No are battle plays, Kazura No, ‘wig’ plays, stories about beautiful women, Zatsu, which includes a variety of topics and Kiri or Kichiku No, stories concerning supernatural beings. John Mack and Arthur Waley have written about the history and development of Noh in much more detail, especially Waley’s book quotes extensively from Zeami’s treatises. You can find information regarding their books below in the ‘Sources’.

Masks were already used in Dengaku and Sarugaku and previous performance styles such as Bugaku (ca. 794-1185) and the even earlier Gigaku. Noh masks are carved out of a single piece of Japanese cypress wood. After having carved the masks to the desired thickness, holes for the mouth, eyes and nose are inserted. Then they are covered with a mixture of gesso and glue and sanded down to their final shape. Lastly, they are painted in the colours of the characters they represent and features such as the hairline and eyebrows and the area around the eyes are indicated with black ink. Hair or inlaid metallic eyes might be added and some parts might be gilded. Masks tend to be light only covering the face whilst wigs and other headgear are sometimes also worn. Costumes complete the transformation of the performer into the character.

(Click on above images to enlarge them.)

Altogether, there are about 450 different Noh masks, and the subtle variations determine, for example, a character’s social rank and age. It is the actor’s task to bring their fixed expressions to life; tilting the mask upwards indicates happiness or laughter, tilting the mask down means sadness or grief. Gestures and movements are also used to convey emotions. Before a performance, the actor would contemplate the mask in his room in front of the mirror, becoming one with the role. According to Waley, only the shite, his tsure and his tomo wear masks, never one of the other characters. As Eric C. Rath points out there are roughly five different groups of masks: Okina (all masks used for the “three rites,” shikisanban), demon, old men (jo), men and women.

Traditionally, only men perform in Noh theatre. Playing women is the greatest challenge for them. Zeami’s instructions, taken from Waley’s book, on how a female part should be acted, is well worth quoting, I think:

“Women should be impersonated by a young actor. … It is very difficult to play the part of a Princess or lady-in-waiting, for little opportunity presents itself of studying their august behaviour and appearance. Great pains must be taken to see that robes and cloaks are worn in the correct way. These things do not depend on the actor’s fancy but must be carefully ascertained. The appearance of ordinary ladies such as one is used to see about one is easy to imitate. … In acting the part of a dancing-girl, mad-woman or the like, whether he carry the fan or some fancy thing (a flowering branch, for instance) the actor must carry it loosely; his skirts must trail low so as to hide his feet; his knees and back must not be bent, his body must be poised gracefully. As regards the way he holds himself – if he bends back, it looks bad when he faces the audience; if he stoops, it looks bad from behind. But he will not look like a woman if he holds his head too stiffly. His sleeves should be as long as possible, so that he never shows his fingers.”

In her book, Susan Stevie lists the various female masks: “The Omi-Onna is for a woman with a lover’s disturbed heart; Masukami for a female character on the brink of madness, or possessed by a spirit; Fukai is for middleaged female characters who would have experienced the highs and lows of love and life; and Magojiro is used to portray slightly more mature young women.” Rath notes that ““mud eyes” (deigan) and “long hair” (masukami) portray suffering and deranged women”. The latter reminds me strongly of the depiction of ‘fallen women’ in Victorian images; they are often shown with loose, disarranged hair and/or uncovered head.

The mask in our collection represents Hannya, one of those characters with messy hair. In addition to the strands of hair attached to the mask, the actor would often wear a wig of wild hair as well. Hannya is not so much a person, but rather the personification of the jealousy and fury a scorned woman might feel. The moment the protagonist dons this mask, usually in the second act, the spectator knows that the once (usually beautiful) demure woman the actor had portrayed before has become out of control, full of hatred and aggression. The skin tone of the mask depends on the social status of the woman; white symbolises a lady of high rank, red a woman of lesser status and, as Rath explains, “where the Hannya is a dangerous demon and not the spirit of a jealous woman, a very dark-skinned ‘black Hannya’ is used.” Looking at our exemplar, I guess it might be one of the latter. The bulging eyes, horns, fierce, fanged mouth and deep frown are further typical characteristics.

There are various ideas about the origin of the name ‘Hannya’. One is that the mask as it is known today was developed by a monk from Nara called Hannya-bo during the Muromachi era (ca. 1330s-1573). He lived approximately during the late 15th and early 16th century. Thus, the name of the mask carver was adapted for the personification. Apparently, there had already been earlier forms during the Kamakura era (1192-1333) whose features where less refined and accomplished. Rath suggests that the word derives from the Sanskrit word for wisdom, pranja, “as in the Prajna Parmitra in the esoteric Buddhist text known in English as the Perfection of Wisdom.” He further explains that Hannya is closely linked to the snake, a Tantric metaphor for fertility and the gaining of wisdom. Hence, the actor representing Hannya also wears a silk costume with a ‘scaly’ pattern, and the mask is kept in a bag of the same material. According to Rath, the most fearful version of Hannya is the ‘Ja’ or ‘serpent’.

Plays that include the Hannya masks are Aoi no Ue, Dojoji, Kurozaka and Momijigair. The first includes the famous character of Lady Rokujo who transforms into Hannya because she is betrayed by her husband Prince Genji. A translation of the play can be found in Arthur Waley’s book. The photo shows a typical robe style that would be worn by her rival Aoi. Dojoji tells the story of the girl Kiyohime whose father teases her about marrying a priest called Anchin. However, Anchin is not interested in marrying the girl; he flees to his temple and hides under a bell. Kiyohime follows him and, in her fury, turns into Hannya. Serpent-like she wraps herself around the bell, and the heat of her anger melts the bell and kills the reluctant lover. Eventually, only the prayers of the other priests can defeat Hannya and she disappears.

(Click on above images to enlarge them.)

Masks IIIAs so often with early gifts and bequests for the university’s collection, we don’t have a lot of information regarding the origin of the mask. The sticker on the margin on the back mentions the name ‘Black-Roberts’ and the year 1912 (see photo). A search in the university’s annual reports reveals an entry for the 1913-14:

“Gifts and loans to the Museum include:-

1.The Black-Roberts Collection of Weapons, containing about ninety objects, loaned to the Museum by the Misses Black-Roberts, and collected by the late Dr. Black-Roberts, and old student of the College.”

I can only assume that the mask formed part of that collection and that the loan turned into a permanent one. I can also only guess that our mask represents Hannya as there are several other masks of Noh theatre that look similar, for example, Fudo, the God of Fire, Shikami, a malicious spirit or monster, and Shishiguchi, a demon or goblin. However, as the Hannya mask is one of the most famous ones and the features seem to fit, I decided that is was her, the evil, jealous spirit or demon of a woman. She certainly seems the most interesting one. As playwright and poet William Congreve (1670-1729) put it so aptly, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.”


Coldiron, Margaret. “Lions, Wichtes and Happy Old Men: Some Parallels between Balinese and Japanese Ritual Masks”. Asian Theatre Studies, vol. 22, no 2, 2005, pp. 227-248. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137132. Accessed 26 Sep. 2017.

Mack, John et al. Masks: The Art of Expression. The British Museum P, 1996.

Rath, Eric C. The Ethos of noh: Actors and Their Art. Harvard UP, 2004.

Suan, Stevie. The Anime Paradox : Patterns and Practices Through the Lens of Traditional Japanese Theater, BRILL, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, .

Created from aber on 2017-09-26 08:43:01.

Waley, Arthur. The No Plays of Japan. George Allen and Unwin, 1921.











Exploring the School of Art Collection – 2016


As part of the first year art history module Exploring the School of Art Collections, students have the opportunity to write a small piece for this blog. This year the group focused on our photography collection. Each student had the opportunity to choose from a selection of prints from British, American and Italian photographers active in the mid 20th century. They only had one week to undertake some research before presenting their drafts. They all worked very hard on these projects so please take the time to view their efforts.

Continue reading