Frogs, cows, fairies and dried potatoes make Wellcome's Miracles and Charms lucky

By Culture24 Reporter | 04 October 2011

Felicity Powell talks about Miracles and Charms

Exhibition: Miracles and Charms, Wellcome Collection, London, October 6 2011 – February 26 2012

Snaking across a shining giant horseshoe, the 19 categories at the centre of Miracles and Charms teem with tiny revelations.

Among the amulets, it turns out that hands in silver, tin and lead will protect you from envious eyes, farmers once tied circular stones to their cows to foil milk-pinching fairies, carved bone frogs saw fertility flourish in Japan and dried potatoes guarded against rheumatism.

And this is all before you get on to a dead mole wrapped in fabric and an anti-poverty rabbit’s tongue, side by side under the lights of a Flesh and Bone section.

“A lot of these things are very poignant, but they can be quite funny as well,” reflects Felicity Powell, pointing at a pair of acorns strung together to cure diarrhoea.

“That weird shape is a witchcake from Yorkshire which they would make between the 1st and 6th of April every year. It’s got lovely wormholes in it. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

An artist whose own tiny wax works on the backs of mirrors adorn the surrounding walls, Powell has made “a collection within a collection”, filtering finds by Edward Lovett.

A London bank cashier by day who would scour the city for market oddities at night, Lovett was a folklorist and President of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society during the 1880s, selling hundreds of artefacts to Henry Wellcome before publishing superstition scripture Magic in Modern London in 1925.

His accompanying notes were often misguided or minimal – some are as simple as “extremely old”, or incorrectly dated – but the exoticism on show, from Inuit charms and Chinese accessories to fish carved in bone from Naples and Ivory from Seville, has given Powell an adventure in interpretation.

“There are a lot of questions around how he found these things,” she says. “People were coming from all over the world.

“There was a lot of trading on the river, but who knows? There’s something about the scale of the charms which is intimate and private and allows you to use your imagination in a fun kind of way. There’s something quite personal about the narrative.”

Perhaps the most painstakingly crafted piece is The Lord’s Prayer, inked in a spiral on a miniscule paper circle by 88-year-old George Yeofound in 1872.

Carried by a soldier in World War I, the barely-visible work is one of several charms used as sources of comfort and faith in conflict, a theme Powell became particularly interested in when she underwent treatment for cancer.

A video morphing MRI and CT scans of her own anatomy – which she describes as “like an out-of-body experience” – runs in an adjoining alcove, overlaying the footage with images from the collection, and encircling her heart with the text of the prayer at one point.

“I was working towards Medals of Dishonour [at the British Museum] when I became ill. I’ve always been interested in amulets and I just thought ‘I want to do something with them.’

“Choosing from all these objects is a pleasure because you become really familiar with them. The Wellcome were great because they sent through all the images, so I had this huge database of objects on my computer, put them into categories and then jigged them around. Then I made this huge horseshoe table in a studio I hired for a couple of months.

“But I think that what’s really affecting about these objects is the sense of touch, of bring kept in a pocket. You can tell they’ve been treasured.”

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Thursday, 11am-6pm Sunday, 12pm-6pm public holidays). Admission free.

More pictures from the show:

A photo of a collection of tiny amulets including a seahorse and a shoe
Seahorses and shoes collide in Lovett's collection© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A photo of a spiral of paper covered in squiggles of ink
The Lord's Prayer was written by George Yeofound in Southampton in 1872© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A photo of several pairs of smart brown shoes
Almost the entirety of the shoe amulets Lovett collected are displayed© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A photo of a carving of a head coming out of a block of wood
Flesh and bone feature heavily among the more primal exhibits© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A photo of a set of tiny red carvings
The Glass and Artifice section includes water bottled from the river Jordan© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A photo of a white and brown horseshoe
The horseshoe symbolises the superstition element of the show© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A photo of a tiny painting of a white hand with a red tree coming out of it against a circular black background
Powell's own intricate art provides beautiful accompaniment to the collection© Felicity Powell
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