As half term approaches I was reminded of a game I used to play with my daughter when she was young enough to be distracted by such things. “You’re making an imaginary farm can you find enough animals here to go in it?” It might seem an odd thing to say in a museum devoted to history and art and without displays of stuffed animals but BMAG is stacked full of creatures. You just need to know where to look.
I’ve begun my search in the Jewellery Gallery. Tucked away at the top of the stairs in the Industrial Gallery it is a space which often gets overlooked. It is arranged along two corridors: one with displays of jewellery from around the world and the other containing British and European jewellery collected and donated to the Museum by Mrs Hull-Grundy.
It doesn’t take long to spot my first animal: a dazzling golden peacock with a fringe of red paste rubies and emerald coloured tail feathers. He’s sitting on top of a French nineteenth century frontlet. Frontlets are elaborate bands fixed to the large combs needed to keep the equally large late Victorian ladies’ hair-dos in place. You could keep the comb and change the frontlet to suit the occasion. Many of them are made from imitation materials. This one uses pinchbeck to simulate gold and paste to suggest gemstones. But across a candlelit table the deception could go unnoticed.
Although peacocks do eat small snakes I think this one would prefer not to attract the attention of the earrings in the adjoining case – a pair of golden cobras from the Nilgiri Hills in southern India – which look like they are just about to pounce on unsuspecting prey.
If I was looking for something a bit more suitable to feed my peacock I might be tempted by the large blue enamelled butterfly from the London firm of Child and Child or even the waist-clasp made in the shape of a monster beetle in gilt copper, glass and paste.
I realise as I continue that it would be a hard task to stock a traditional farm from the jewellery here. Apart from a delicate gold stick pin decorated with a running boar attributed to the French maker Paul Robin in the 1870s and a Swiss ivory horse head brooch and earring set I would do better setting my sights on a wildlife reserve.
There are plenty of contenders here but there is one in particular which caught my attention: a French brooch in the shape of a flying bat made c. 1900.
I’m undecided as whether this bat is intended to be hungry or intimidating with his open mouth and bright, staring eyes. He would have been an attention grabber perched on a lady’s’ coat but I don’t think I would have chosen to wear him.
If you prefer dogs then you might like the enamelled sad-eyed pug on a brooch by the London firm of William Bishop Ford in 1875. Jewellery featuring animals was popular in the Victorian period and makers were often commissioned to produce brooches to commemorate a favourite pet.
He wears a red enamelled collar to symbolise his loyalty and obedience.
There are many other animals hidden away on pieces of jewellery in the gallery and of course if you want to take it further just about every gallery in the Museum will turn up animals both real and fantastic.
You might need to plan an extension to that farm.
Curator (Applied Art)