Forget Vienna – Britain now has its own chamber of curiosities at the British Museum
Detail of a maiolica vase, c.1565–1571, a star piece for both Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill and later for Baron Ferdinand at Waddesdon Manor
Art is not jewellery. Its value does not reside in the price of the materials from which it is made. After all, the cost of the pigment, oil and cloth that made up a Rembrandt was negligible. It’s what he did with them that counts. On the other hand, spectacular works of art can be made from gold and gems, as is clear from some — if not all — of the items displayed in the new installation of the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum. ‘As soon as the swallows made their appearance,’ Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild wrote in his memoir Bric-à-Brac, ‘my father’s curiosities were packed and stored away in a strong room.’ It was the young Ferdinand’s privilege to help pack these objects. ‘Merely to touch them,’ he recalled, ‘sent a thrill of delight through my small frame.’
Those items belonging to Baron Anselm von Rothschild (1803–74), plus others amassed by Ferdinand himself (1839–98), are now sumptuously lit and housed in a new gallery designed by the architects Stanton Williams. Essentially, the Waddesdon Bequest — the name comes from Baron Ferdinand’s country house where the objects were kept before he left them to the BM — is a Victorian recreation of the treasuries put together by the aristocrats of 16th- and 17th-century Mitteleuropa. This is the nearest thing we have in this country to a chamber of curiosities, Kunstkammer or treasure room of the kind that still survive in Vienna and Dresden. The Bequest contains not wonders of nature — as some such collections did — but marvels of craftsmanship. It is a mixture of the rich and strange, the beautiful and the downright peculiar, all jostling each other as if in an expensive antique shop.
There are a few 19th-century forgeries, a couple of wonderful pieces of medieval Islamic glass and masses of the bizarre drinking vessels much prized in renaissance Germany. Among the last are a griffin claw cup — a name and object worthy of Harry Potter — plus others fashioned around a coconut from the Seychelles and a nautilus shell. The last of those — standing on a foot like that of a giant bird, and with the jagged teeth of an aquatic dragon menacing the lips of the drinker — is weird to the point of the surreal.
Then there is quite enough maiolica (for me), some superb Elizabethan jewelled lockets for slightly nondescript miniature portraits, and one paradoxical masterpiece, the Holy Thorn Reliquary (1390s) made in Paris from gold, jewels and enamel and representing God the Father, Christ, saints, angels and the dead rising from their graves: all this marvellously compressed into an object a foot high — and in honour of a humble blackthorn spike that pokes up at the front.
On the other hand, the 16th-century German prayer-nuts — wooden spheres that open to reveal tiny carvings of sacred scenes swarming with numerous minute figures — are a case of small being not so much beautiful as pointless. Bigger would have been better. If those sculptural tableaux give you too much to look at, the paintings of Agnes Martin — initially, at least — seem to give you far too little. Martin (1912–2004) is a painter whose acclaim has always puzzled me — until, that is, I got halfway round the retrospective of her work at Tate Modern. Up to then I had been suffering from a sense of extreme visual undernourishment. Her mature style consisted of drawing lines in pencil on a canvas, sometimes in the form of a grid, sometimes of stripes.
The colour, if any, is of a most pallid variety: oatmeal, off white, occasionally pastel pinks and blues, bleached out as if seen through a muslin curtain. When she uses a mid-grey, you feel it’s getting all a bit too exciting. Or such at least was my negative frame of mind as I walked into the gallery containing ‘The Islands I–XII’ (1979), 12 canvases so discreetly inscribed that in the catalogue photographs they look absolutely blank. Then, suddenly, I think I got it. Martin made large paintings full of fine lines and subtle nuances. From a distance they look like graph paper, but if you come in close and concentrate, a sense of calm descends — which was probably what the artist, who suffered intermittently from schizophrenia, was after. Somehow, you can carry on and on gazing at small differences between almost nothing. But, for me at least, one room of Zen was enough. A whole exhibition is too much of nothing much.