Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wellcome Collection

“Painters have presented to us with some horrour the skeleton… but the state of a body, in the dissolution of the grave, no pencil can present to us. Between that excremental jelly that thy body is made of… and that jelly which thy body dissolves to…. There is not noisome, so putrid a thing in nature.” (Sermon XCV, John Donne)

When I was in London before the Easter I had a Friday afternoon to kill before meeting a dear friend. Another friend had recently recommended the Wellcome Collection to me, as one of London's premier quirkier and free museums. It's a hop, skip and jump from Euston station and St. Pancreas, an ideal location to kill some time. Here art and artefact meet the bizzare.

Again, this is where I bemoan the quality of my camera, but here are a few of the more SFW (safe for work) objects that caught my eye.

A pair of moccasins owned by Florence Nightingale, 19th century

Vanitas ceramic portrait head, 18th century

Silver vanitas statuettes, 18th century

Vanitas objects and portraits were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their purpose was a symbolic one, the macabre imagery was to remind the owner of the transience of life and the deposition of the body after death. A gruesome warner to the beholder to mind what they do in this life, should they suffer in the next! John Donne wrote some grisly verse on the onset of death (See above).

A collection of artificial limbs, mostly 19th and early 20th century.
I love the spook element of these, how they are displayed upright and facing the visitor as if they are approaching powered by a supernatural will!

Grotesque paintings, a small part of a selection hung on the wall.

The lush glass display cases, wooden panelling and intimate layout of the exhibition space remind me of a Victorian connoisseur's private collection (which indeed it was at one point), walking around it was like being introduced into the inner sanctum. I'm sure not many respectable Victorian ladies would have been given the private tour after dinner parties!

Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector is the man behind the Wellcome Collection. An esoteric Victorian collector, the massive volume of objects held in his collection after his death included a lock of Napoleon's hair to Japanese turn-of-the-century sex aids. There is a heavy medical and instructive theme to the collection.

The shop and café were divine places to lounge afterward. Lots of beautiful hardback art books with Renaissance anatomical drawings and macabre imagery. Too large to fit in my hand luggage for the journey home. A postcard had to suffice (more within my price range, to be fair).

Ladies and gentlemen, the above illustrates one of the many reasons why I am a Victorianist. They were mighty eccentric folk!