All That Glitters . . . Is Indeed Gold
By Robin Hanson, Conservator of Textiles, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and Holly Witchey, Adjunct Professor, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University
A seldom-seen object in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection is this extraordinary Lord Chancellor’s burse (fig. 1). The burse entered the collection in 1916, a gift from Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857–1926), who likely acquired it in the 1890s during one of his many European trips to collect objects for what would become the inaugural collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. These items were stored in crates for nearly two decades before being delivered to the CMA’s director Frederick Whiting before the opening of the museum in 1916. Wade gave Whiting carte blanche to keep what he wanted for the museum and to sell the rest to benefit Cleveland’s new museum. While the burse’s full display history isn’t known, it certainly hasn’t been on display recently. We know that in 1980 the burse was lent to Pennsylvania State University in State College for an exhibition of needlework and embroidery.
For the past six years this burse has been the focus of research that engaged us in many internal and external collaborations. Students and colleagues at the CMA, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), the Royal Collection, UK, the National Trust, UK, and others have assisted us along the way.
But before we get to that, what exactly is a burse and why did a Lord Chancellor need one?
The Lord Chancellors of England (and also Scotland and Ireland) used the burse (or purse) during ceremonial occasions to carry the great seal of England. The Lord high Chancellor was (and is) appointed by the reigning monarch with the advice of the prime minister of Great Britain. After appointment he serves as a member of the cabinet and is responsible for the functioning and independence of the courts. Until now, all the Lord high Chancellors have been men, but that may change. The office of Lord Chancellor still exists despite attempts to abolish it in 2003.
The burse caught Hanson’s eye in late 2015 when she was looking for an object to assign a student during the conservation unit in a first-year graduate course in museum studies at CWRU, part of the joint CMA/CWRU art history program. Witchey is the long-time faculty member at CWRU teaching museum studies, and her two-semester course includes a conservation component intended to introduce budding art historians — who likely will not become art conservators — to art conservation so they can identify problems and know when to call a conservator. The assignment required each student to spend time in a lab, doing a lot of close looking at an object with a conservator, and then to do library research to learn as much about their assigned object as possible in a few short weeks during the semester. Hanson chose the burse as a student project for Valerie Szepiwdycz, based on Szepiwdycz’s interest in textiles and jewelry making, and also because of Witchey’s interest in the history of the Wade family and collecting patterns in the late 19th century. Collaboration between the CMA and CWRU is a constant in the conservation department at the CMA.
This burse measures roughly 43.2 cm (17 in.) square and weighs about 2.2 kg (nearly 5 lbs.). It is an expensive object to fabricate — constructed of gold and silver thread, red velvet, silk thread, pearls, and jet. Not many of these Lord Chancellor’s burses exist today; through our research we’ve located about 24 of them in public and private collections in the US and UK. The two earliest burses we know about date from the reign of Elizabeth I (monarch from 1558–1603) and are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (fig. 2), and the British Museum respectively (fig. 3).
The most recent burse dates from about 2007, when contemporary British figurative painter Michael Taylor painted this portrait of Lord Chancellor Baron Falconer of Thoroton (2003 to 2007) with his burse. You can see Falconer’s burse on the desktop beside him and his wig on the wig stand behind him (fig. 4).
Cleveland’s burse is a particularly fine example of a Lord Chancellor’s burse and is in very good condition.
With the research provided by museum studies student Szepiwdycz as the foundation for our ongoing project, our next deep dive into all things burse occurred in late 2016 when Stephen Patterson, then Head of Collections Information Management in the Royal Collection of the British Royal Household, and an expert in honors and decorations, spent several hours in the textile lab at the CMA looking at Cleveland’s burse with us (fig. 5).
Patterson “demystified” the burse’s symbolism and read the obvious (to him at least) clues in the burse itself (fig. 6). What we hadn’t seen, although it was staring us in the face, was the letter “G” in the upper left corner of the burse with a number “3” inside the “G” (fig. 7). In the upper right corner is the letter “R” (fig. 8). These letters and number together tell us that the CMA’s burse dates from the reign of George III (who was king from 1760 to 1820); the “R” stands for Rex, Latin for king. From other clues on the burse itself — which we’ll get to later on — we can narrow the date of this burse further, to between 1760 and 1801. This 1783 portrait of King George III by American painter Benjamin West (1738–1820) can be found in gallery 204 (fig. 9).
The lion on the left (fig. 10) is the national animal of England, and the unicorn on the right (fig. 11) represents Scotland. They are heraldic supporters appearing in the full royal coat of arms seen in the center of the burse. And they even figure in a British nursery rhyme dating back to the early 17th century.
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.
And when he had beat him out,
He beat him in again;
He beat him three times over,
His power to maintain.
The coat of arms in the center of the burse (fig. 12) itself provides additional information about the monarch — it is George III’s coat of arms, that of the Hanoverians, in use from 1714 to 1901. A coat of arms typically is divided into four quadrants known as the Quarterly of 4 and describes, in this case, the ancestry of George III (fig. 13). Each of the quarters says something about his ancestry, but most important for us are the three fleur de lys of France in the upper right, blue quadrant. The presence of the little gold flowers enabled Patterson to further narrow the date range of Cleveland’s burse to before 1801. The coat of arms of George III after 1801 would not include this symbol of France, because that year he abandoned his claim to the French throne.
Surrounding the coat of arms is the symbol of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, an order of chivalry founded by Edward III of England in 1348. It is the most senior order of knighthood in the British honors system. The Order of the Garter is dedicated to the image and arms of Saint George, England’s patron saint. The motto on the garter in the order’s emblem is Honi soit qui mal y pense (Middle French for “Shame on him who thinks evil of it”). If you look closely at the detail of the garter on the CMA’s burse (fig. 14) you can see a similar garter buckle at about 8 o’clock.
If the center section of the burse represents the monarchy, then the eight seraphim or cherubim (fig. 15) that surround this center section are “guarding” the monarchy. They are interspersed with cornucopia (fig. 16) and forms that may represent plants or insects (fig. 17).
We don’t yet know, and may not be able to determine, which Lord Chancellor the CMA’s burse belonged to. There were six Lord Chancellors during the first four decades of George III’s reign; one only served for three days. So the Cleveland burse could have belonged to any of the five Lord Chancellors with lengthy terms of office — they served in office for between 4 and 14 years each.
While this may be the only three-dimensional burse in the collection, it is not the only burse. CMA mount maker Philip Brutz provided the next serendipitous discovery. He’d seen the burse in the textile conservation lab and called to our attention a portrait hanging in the galleries that contained a burse.
Lord Chancellors routinely had their portraits painted with their burses. Also hanging in gallery 204 is a life-sized portrait of Irish Lord Chancellor Baron FitzGibbon (1748–1802) with his burse, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1789 (fig. 18). FitzGibbon was Lord Chancellor from 1789 to 1802, during the reign of George III. If you look closely in the lower right corner of the painting, you will see a burse. Yes, it is very gestural, but once you’ve seen a burse in real life, you know that this is what Stuart was rendering. From having looked at several Irish burses in the course of our research, we know that they differ from English burses in one major way. Rather than cherubim in the east and west positions on the perimeter of the burse, Irish burses have harps in these positions, as you can see in this Irish burse from the collection of the Museum of London and dating from the reign of Queen Victoria (reigned 1837–1901) (fig. 19). Fashion and decorative arts curator Beatrice Behlen at the Museum of London was kind enough to facilitate visits by us (Hanson in 2018; Witchey the following year) to see this burse and a second one in their collection.
Other common elements of these portraits are the black robes that Lord Chancellors wore and the squirrel wigs. You can find Ede & Ravenscroft, the specialist tailor that still makes these black robes, on Chancery Lane in London. Established in 1689, Ede & Ravenscroft is located in what was known as Aldwych, the center of the tailor trade in London. They added wig making to their trade in the 19th century (fig. 20).
The final object in the CMA’s collection directly related to burses and Lord Chancellors is a lithograph published in Vanity Fair in July 1869 titled “When Birth cannot lead, Brains must.” It depicts Hugh McCalmont Cairns, 1st Earl Cairns (1819–1885), an Irish-born British statesman who served as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain during the first two ministries of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, first in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880, both terms during the reign of Queen Victoria (fig. 21).
Join us next month as we delve deeper into where the CMA’s burse sits in the history of burses, the precious materials from which the CMA’s burse is made, and the Worshipful Company of Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers. Founded in 1623 to protect the trade interests of those who produced gold and silver wire for use in lavish embroidery such as seen in Cleveland’s burse, the Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers remains one of a number of trade groups referred to as The City of London Livery companies, with a history stretching back over 700 years. Today the combined groups are one of the most powerful philanthropic movements in the world, with 35,000 liverymen. Each year the Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers funds an apprenticeship at the Royal School of Needlework based at Hampton Court Palace, and annually they also sponsor an award for designers of jewelry made from precious and semiprecious wire through the Goldsmith’s Craft and Design Council.