Museum Secrets

Opening the Box

May 07, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Jim Harris Season 2 Episode 7
Museum Secrets
Opening the Box
Show Notes Transcript

Join teaching curator Jim Harris as he peers inside a tiny tortoiseshell box. The little box holds a secret portrait of a woman, with a lock of her hair. The tiny empty space inside is stuffed with hidden stories, about wealth and the often ugly means of making it. This polite and pretty little box has so much us to tell us about memory.

Portrait of Sophie Schutz in a tortoiseshell box – Find out more

If you want to take a closer look at artwork in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Jim Harris

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times.

Last week we joined An Van Camp as she lifted the lids of some unusual boxes in the print room. But she’s not the only curator who is fascinated by boxes.  This week, we have come across Jim Harris, who has another tiny box for us to peer into. Despite its miniature size, it’s stuffed with stories. Over to Jim, to tell us more. 

Jim: The museum is full of boxes.

Perhaps the entire Ashmolean might be conceived as one gigantic box into which have fallen all the treasures of the world

Our galleries are a succession of cunningly crafted boxes in steel and glass, boxes to show off our treasures and boxes to protect them, to remind us that they are indeed treasures.

And in those boxes are an infinity of others: boxes made for every purpose from keeping safe our ancestors earthly remains to keeping safe the surgical tools that might have kept them safe in life.  Boxes for wedding dresses, boxes for cutlery, boxes for snuff and boxes for sewing; exquisite, tiny boxes set with alabaster and agate for exquisite, tiny, scissors, combs and mirrors.  Boxes in wood, bone and ivory, porcelain and stone; embroidered boxes, chased boxes, carved boxes. Leather boxes for silver cups, silver boxes for steel pins, steel boxes for the money to buy them. Boxes for hiding and boxes for the revealing of secrets.

And away out of sight there are more boxes.

Tiny, clear plastic boxes, impeccably standardised, inside which are tucked tiny, vulnerable fragments of long ago, nestled in acid-free tissue, their unstable alloys and compounds laid to rest in as secure, inert and peaceful environment as we can provide while they wait for the next researcher, or student, or faculty member or curator to rouse them gently from their slumber.

In the basement, and I promise this is true, there is a cardboard box full of boxes and labelled, ‘Boxes for Gold Boxes’.

But the box on its own is seldom the thing.  The box is never as exciting as the promise of what it contains.  We open boxes to find out what’s inside them.

And sometimes, the only thing we find is a story.

Or in the case of one, small, round box made sometime at the end of the eighteenth century, many stories.

The box is very small, a flat disc, about 3 centimetres high and 8 centimetres in diameter.  It’s made of dark, glossy tortoiseshell, polished to a near translucent shine, its near-blackness glowing, the more you look, with rich reds and ambers.  The box is edged and bound in gold, plain and unadorned, complementing the smooth, sleekness of the tortoiseshell.

The first story, then, is a material one.  Here are the riches of Empire - the desirable produce of the warm seas of the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian oceans and the gold which that produce brought into the hands of the English ruling classes.  It’s a story that infects a great deal of the material culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, from the grandest of country houses filled with the spoils of the grand tour, paid for by the riches of the colonies; to the shell and ivory trinkets of a lady’s dressing table, where, as Pope puts it in ‘The Rape of the Lock’, “the tortoise here, and elephant unite”.

It’s inside the box, though, that its own, private stories can be found.  

Opening the lid reveals the tortoiseshell to be dulled and scratched from use, perhaps as a container for pins or powder, filled and refilled, worn from use.  Here is the workaday box, the useful box, the box whose contents are really the point. But on the inside of the lid is a paper label, inscribed in a 19th century hand that reads, “Sophia Schutz, Married her cousin, William Schutz, Col.  Painted by Plymer”.

And now, suddenly, the box is full of stories and full of mysteries, for there is no painting and no Sophia.

Until you realise that the lid itself is in two parts and hinged so just the top section can be opened.

And when it is lifted, the whole thing springs to life.

For there, in an oval cartouche, is the portrait of a young woman gazing out in three-quarter profile, dressed in white muslin in the style of the late eighteenth century, her loosely curled hair held back by a simple band of the same material, against a background of white clouds with a suggestion of blue sky behind. 

It’s a startling reveal, but not so startling as what is in the part of the lid hinged behind her, under glass, in a circular gold frame.  It is hair; and not plaited and arranged as might be expected in an object like this, but tangled and matted, as if stuffed into its little compartment in a hurry, some strands still poking out from under the frame, with what appears to be glue marring the clarity of the glass.

It’s a striking contrast to the simple precision and beauty of the rest of the box.  Something has happened here.  We’ll return to that.

But the first thing that’s happened, of course, is that Sophia has had her picture painted by Mr Plymer.

Mr Nathaniel Plymer was a not inconsiderable painter in the late eighteenth century.  After growing up in Somerset, the son of a clockmaker, he and his brother Andrew ran away from life as clockmaker’s apprentices and lived in Wales with a travelling community of gypsies before making their way to London and, eventually to training with the fashionable painter and Royal Academician, Richard Cosway.  

Nathaniel himself showed at the Royal Academy and gained a reputation as a portraitist, making pictures of the agreeable sons and daughters of the agreeable English gentry. 

So how, then, does our Sophia, fit into the agreeable English gentry?

Who is the lady in the tortoiseshell box?

The Schutzes, as the name suggests, had their origin beyond these shores.  Sophia’s great grandfather, Louis Justus Sinholt von Schutz, arrived in England in the 1690s, as part of the embassy of the Elector of Hanover.  In the early eighteenth century, after the Elector was invited to assume the English throne,  the family stuck around and dug in.  Sophia’s great-uncle Augustus became Master of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse to King George II, acquiring the great house of Shotover, just outside Oxford.

Sophia’s branch of the Schutzes burrowed into the life and service of their adopted nation more modestly - as soldiers and landowners.  Her father,  Francis Matthew Schultz, married into a long-established East Anglian family, the Bacons, into whose country estate at Gillingham in Norfolk he then settled as the archetypal English country gent.  So archetypal, in fact, that Hogarth painted his portrait, and not flatteringly, but rather vomiting into a chamber pot in his bed after a hard night on the tiles.  You can see it at the Norwich Castle Museum.

So here is another story to add to the rich materials of the box and the fashionable artist who adorned it: the story of that most transplantable of all flowers, the European aristocratic family.

Sophia’s family, though, was not all Schutz, of course.  Her mother, who commissioned Hogarth to paint her husband in the shame of his overindulgence as a kind of cautionary warning, came from longer established English stock.  The Bacons had been at Gillingham since the early 17th century and here is yet one more story to come out of the box.

For the Ashmolean has recently acquired a great silver-gilt cup made from the Great seal of Queen Mary, which was given to Sophia’s nine-greats grandfather, Sir Nicolas Bacon by Elizabeth I as Lord Keeper of her own seal.  Through him, Sophia’s eight-greats uncle, was the statesman and scientist, Francis Bacon, and her little tortoiseshell box, then, hints at another strand in a long story of royal service and its concomitant benefits of land ownership and social prestige.  

At the time of her birth, then, in 1764, Sophia was set for a life of comfort and ease.

And as a young woman, it was a life lived not sequestered in the sleepy Norfolk countryside but in London’s fashionable west end, where the Dukes of Portland were rapidly building those streets north of Oxford Street and west of Cavendish Square, Harley Street and Welbeck Street, that were eventually to be settled by such a great density of doctors.

Sophia lived in Welbeck Street and from what we know of the books in her library, she was a young woman of impeccable virtue  but occasionally racy taste.  She appears frequently in the subscription lists for books published in the 1790s and 90s, books funded by their readers.  She bought, for example, the three-volume edition of Mr Meilan’s Sermons for Children of 1789 and the Reverend George Haggett’s Sermons to Country Congregations of 1796.  But, she was also a subscriber to Lucy Peacock’s ‘The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon in their Travels to the Temple of Virtue’ of 1785 and to Edward Jones’s, ‘Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards’ of 1794.

And so the box gives us our next story - that of a young English gentlewoman, at her leisure between London and Norfolk, the very image of a character from Austen; but also, like the box itself, the very image of a marketable commodity.

For if one of the priorities of the English gentry in the eighteenth century was the maintenance of appearances - London in Season, Norfolk out of season, the right books and the right company - so too was the maintenance of fortune.

And it was to maintain fortune that Sophia, in 1796, at the age of 32, was finally married, as the box tells us, to her cousin.  Keeping it in the family.

William Schutz was older than Sophia by twenty-odd years. He had a distinguished career in the Coldstream guards, having been commissioned as an Ensign in 1754 before rising to the rank of Colonel in 1780.  He served in the American War of Independence, before finally selling his commission, to one Thomas Thoroton, for £5000 in 1782.  The five thousand was payable as an annuity until William’s death, but as the youngest son of Sophia’s great uncle Augustus, the reuniting of two branches of the Schutz family made eminent financial sense.  And so it was that on May 2nd 1796, Sophia was wedded to William at Kilverstone, near Thetford in Norfolk.

Like I said.  Keeping it in the family.

It’s the fortune, though, that is the problem with the box.  There’s always a problem with eighteenth century money, and the problem is that is doesn’t come from nowhere, and that like so many pretty things, this box hides something far uglier.  William’s father, Augustus, seeking to consolidate his position as a courtier and a gentleman, needed money of his own and he found it in a marriage alliance with one Penelope Madan.  Penelope, was the sister of a soldier and future MP, Colonel Martin Madan, and aunt to a long line of distinguished clergy and servicemen.  She was also daughter of one of the richest and most successful slave-holding plantation owners in Nevis in the West Indies, at the very centre of the English triangular trade, shipping people from West Africa for sale into bondage.

The commodities on display here then are not just the tortoiseshell and gold, but the human lives that paid for them.  It’s a telling lesson.  As we wrestle with the origins of so many of our collections we must find ways to talk about the material produce of our culture, in all its craft and beauty, whilst properly acknowledging the appalling injustices and crimes that enabled it to be made.  The story of this box, irrespective of its alluring sheen of quality and polite polish, is as dark and blemished as the dulled, scratched tortoiseshell of its interior.

We serve our collections ill when we forget these things, or ignore them, and its fitting then that the last story of the little box is the story of its forgetting.

Because we know that one day, someone took the box and saw the hair and wanted very badly to touch it.

The scenario isn’t hard to imagine.  A child at a parent’s dressing table, or left alone in the best room where the beautiful things are kept. The box opened and the picture gazed upon.  The gold frame of the plaited hair picked at, the hair tumbling out, unravelling, impossible to put right.  The glue fetched, and Sophia’s hair, tousled and tangled hurriedly, roughly pushed back into place.

And somewhere in all that, Sophia stopped being Sophia and started being just another forgotten lady.  She died at only 41 years old, childless, in 1805.  Her will records the bequest of some of her best things, her diamonds ear-rings, to her sister, along with ‘other trinkets’.  And so the box became another trinket, eventually to be sold and collected and put on the dressing table of someone entirely unconnected to Schutz or Bacon or Gillingham or Welbeck Street.

After that, it was beautiful and valuable; her picture was important and valuable; but she was just a pretty lady and her hair was just hair, too prosaic to be bothered about but too fascinating, under the gaze of a bored child, to be left alone.

For every memory a box might contain, another is lost.

But this is why museums love boxes, and it is why curators work with them

For every time we look inside, even in a box that seems empty and forlorn, damaged and interfered with, there remains the possibility of finding something new.

So we keep looking at our boxes, and we keep opening them.

And as we do, as we listen to their stories, so they fill up again; and we close them, and remember, and keep them safe.

Lucie: Thank you to Jim, and for sharing such a small box stuffed with so many stories. If you want to look at Sophia’s little tortoiseshell box, with its hidden portrait, just follow the link in the podcast notes. Join me next week, for another bitesized secret from the Ashmolean, and until then, stay well.