By Wayne Kett
Whenever we accession new objects into our collection we take a great deal of care to record as much detail as possible. If information is missed at this early stage it might prove difficult to obtain later.
Norwich museums have been collecting objects since 1825, as such our collection is extremely diverse, but it’s also huge in volume. This means that inevitably from time to time we encounter objects that don’t have full records. In some cases by undertaking research it is possible to fill in any gaps in our knowledge, but other times the best we can attempt is an educated guess.
To illustrate this issue I have the perfect object! Whilst auditing box 19 (10 down 14 boxes to go!!) I found this decoupage screen. Decoupage is taken from the French word decouper and simply means to cut things out.
The screen is on a wooden frame, it has brown paper tacked to it using metal fastenings and around the edge is braiding of various colours. The screen has been used as a blank canvas, added to it by its owner are a multitude of stickers, photographs, pictures and drawings. This object is incredibly personal; it is a window into somebody’s life. Its content offers clues as to who its creator was, what their life was like and what type of person they were.
I wanted to know more. My first step was to consult our computerised database records, from these I was able to ascertain some basic information. Including a brief description, its measurements, that it dates to the 1890s and that it was donated to us by a Mr ***** in 1971. This was all useful basic information, but was unable to tell me the story of this screen and the person who created and used it.
Part of the Shine a Light Project involves improving and updating the documentation we hold on objects. For this screen I carefully studied each of the four sides and recorded what I found…….
The above photograph was taken December 21, 1891, just 24 days before his sudden death from influenza, on the 14th January 1892 at Sandringham House in Norfolk at the young age of 28. The nation was in mourning, with many shops closing as a mark of respect. Had he lived he would have been king. Tragically he had just proposed to Princess Mary Adelaide, his younger brother Prince George (Later King George V) married her instead and she became Queen.
The creator of this screen appears to have been rather fond of the Duke of Clarence as his image appears countless times; many were published after his death and titled ‘the late Duke of Clarence’. Perhaps they were deeply affected by his tragic early passing?
The only politician to appear on the screen. Lord Salisbury was a three time conservative prime minister, and the first of the 20th century. He resigned from Benjamin Disraeli’s government as he was opposed to the extension of the franchise to working class men. He opposed home rule for Ireland and was the leader who took Britain into the Boer war. Allegedly his rather reactionary motto was “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”
Also visible on this side are various birds, flowers and butterflies, smartly dressed children with flowers, sailing boats, women with elegant dresses, and smart gentlemen, mostly bearded.
There have been 6 ships in our navy called the HMS Bacchante. It is probable this one refers to a bacchante class screw frigate that was launched in 1876 and sold in 1897. This boat carried Prince Victor Albert (Duke of Clarence) and Prince George (King George V) to various parts of the empire. This explains why the owner of the screen held an interest in the HMS Bacchante.
The above image includes: Queen Victoria who was on the throne for 63 years and 216 days; making her Britain’s longest serving monarch. Queen Elizabeth II will beat this record in 2 years and 86 days!!!
‘The late Duke of Clarence and his brother officers of the 10th hussars on the steps of Marlborough house’. – The 10th Hussars were a regiment of the British army from 1715, until their disbandment in 1969.
Classroom scene with cats dressed as people – There are many scenes and images of animals, indicating that the screens owner was fond of animals, but also perhaps a child or teenager? The idea of animals dressing as humans seems a child like imagination.
Children peer downstairs at smartly dressed grown-ups enjoying a party. – Does the owner of the screen identify with the children looking enviously down at the adults having ‘fun’? The party also looks rather sophisticated; this might imply that they were from an upper class background.
Underneath the above photograph is a flowered ring around a poem. ‘There is a truth in simple words, there is a power in slender cords, a message in a flower may be, Just these two words remember me’ – The ending of this poem asks ‘remember me’. For me this epitomises why museums collect things, it is to remember the past, sometimes we remember society as a whole or a specific community and sometimes an individual. In this instance we remember the person that made this screen. I don’t know if they ever expected to be remembered 120 years later, but I am glad we have the opportunity to do so!
There is not so much of interest on this side of the screen, though I did notice lots of stickers of a figure with snakes for hair. This could be Medusa? Taken from Greek mythology, the legend was that if you stared directly into her eyes you would turn into stone.
Man sat upon open window sill washing it, whilst a lady on the inside stares back lovingly at him. This is one of the few images that seem to depict working class life; most others show people in smart formal clothing, dresses or uniform.
Child drinks from a cup marked Cadburys with the caption underneath stating ‘So Nice’. It seems probable that many of the cut-outs on the screen were from product packaging, especially as some appear multiple times. This is the only one to carry the name of a brand though.
I am fairly certain this screen was made in the 1890s, our records state this, but also many of the images are captioned ‘the late Duke of Clarence’ so it can certainly not have been completed before 1892 which is when he died.
I would guess this screen was made by a young girl, I can see many child-like features in it, such as the representation of children and of adults as aspirational figures. The women are typically wearing elegant dresses and the men are smartly suited and rather dashing or wearing pristine uniforms.
She clearly has a love of animals, specifically cats, dogs and horses. She was also interested in royalty, but perhaps her primary motivation was not patriotism as there are representations of royalty, aristocracy and rulers from a variety of different European countries.
Was this screen the nineteenth century equivalent of a teenager’s bedroom wall? In the 1890’s it was elegant women in dresses and handsome princes and dukes, now it might be pop stars, actors and footballers that adorn a young persons bedroom wall (sorry for the terrible generalistaion, I am sure many teenagers have a greater variety of interests).
Having had a closer look at the screen what do you think?