A Man of Charms: Edward Lovett Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection

Edward Lovett (1852-1933) was an amateur folklorist who, from the age of 8, was an avid collector of charms and amulets. Despite his ‘amateur’ status, Lovett was widely considered to be a leading authority in British folklore and superstitious tradition. Lovett’s reputation was borne out of the many excursions he made to working-class districts of London. He visited shops, dockyards and costmongers looking for discarded or lost objects. It seems only fitting that nearly a hundred years later, his rather curious collection of charms and amulets should be included in the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition ‘Miracles and Charms’, which includes Mexican art and Felicity Powell’s art installation Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects. Although the exhibition ends this weekend (26 February 2012) the Wellcome website offers people a chance to see the exhibition virtually.

James (my husband) had recommended that I try and visit, especially because of my growing interest in religion and materiality. Obviously, not living in London, this proved tricky and it was only this week when I was giving a paper at the IHR that I finally had chance to go. I’m pleased that I finally did. I was reminded of Sarah Williams’s discussion of working-class belief in Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark, c. 1880-1939, a book that I have long admired. The exhibition was a wonderful way to engage with a culture that has all but disappeared in modern society. No longer do South London children wear blue beaded necklaces to ward off bronchitis, or have their hair cut and placed in two slices of bread which is fed to a passing dog so that they might be cured of whooping cough. This is not to suggest that we don’t have a relationship with objects anymore, as Nathalia Brichet discovered when she walked around present day London asking if people still have an ‘attachment’ to personal ‘stuff’.

The Victorian and Edwardian charms and amulets were displayed on a horseshoe-shaped table. They were chosen and arranged this way by Powell, whose contemporary art was displayed nearby. Though I am sure that this was a stylistic choice, I would also like to think it reminds us how lucky we are to have this collection. An object can easily be discarded, thrown in the rubbish or dismissed in later life. Here, Lovett’s passion and interest in these objects is striking. He collected the same objects again and again. They were grouped into 19 sections by the curators. You begin with horseshoes, acorns, lambs hearts with nails sticking out, shoes, hearts, and finally keys. These objects were all given symbolic meaning by the original owner which is explained by the free exhibition catalogue. Some of these amulets clearly held religious beliefs (the exhibition calls them ‘shrines’), but the majority were folklore objects protecting the user from sickness, lightening, thunderbolts, the evil eye or milk-stealing fairies.

Powell noted recently that “What was interesting [about Lovett’s collection] was the humbleness of the objects, which gave them a strange allure…throughout the collection there is this real feeling of comfort, that these items will allay fears and anxiety, to keep one safe.” I would agree that some of these objects are fascinating not only for what they were thought to do but also for the delicacy and intricacy of their design. Take, for instance, one of the very few explicit religious objects in the exhibition, the disc of paper which contains the Lord’s Prayer. In 1872, aged 88, George Yeofound wrote the Lord’s Prayer on a small disc of paper. This piece of paper not only demonstrates how a simple coin could be transformed into a sacred relic for the user, but also the importance that amulets could have to a person’s construction and articulation of faith. The word might have been mightier than the sword, but sometimes religious belief needed to be expressed materially, where the simple act of touching or looking could connect people to their faith.

My only niggle with the exhibition is that we were given no indication as to how these objects were used. Who made them? How would they have been displayed? How did the users interact with these objects? Of course, this is the problem for all exhibitions. An object’s meaning is not timeless, and we do not share the same understanding of the charms and amulets on display with their original users. The free catalogue did have overall descriptions of the groups of objects and a few individual object explanations, but in general the visitor is encouraged to read Lovett’s Magic in London (shortly be downloadable from the Wellcome website). Lovett, despite giving an amulet to his son during the First World War, was not always sympathetic to the objects he collected. It would have been interesting to uncover voices other than his to put the charms into context.

What this exhibition highlights to visitors is that objects are just as important as texts and images to uncovering and understanding the lives of people in the recent past. Too often we discard material culture as rubbish, as many objects similar to those in the exhibition must have been. Today’s rubbish is, most evidently, tomorrow’s treasure (as the Tate could profitably have been reminded this week). As I organise my conference ‘Material Religion in Modern Britain and her Worlds’ I am reminded that material objects were more than ‘stuff’ or ‘things’, but vital conduits linking a person’s physical and spiritual life.

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