Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Miniature Scottish Coffins

In 1836, five young Scottish boys were out huntinCoffins 2g for rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, a hill in the centre of Edinburgh. After chasing a rabbit into a small cave, they saw something jammed into a crevice in the crag. It was the first of no less than seventeen miniature coffins – each one painstakingly carved out of pine and realistically ‘furnished’ with cut iron decorations.

The children pulled them out and were amazed to find that each tomb contained an individual wooden figure. All male figures, they had been individually and expertly carved, and then dressed up in their own set of clothes.

Unaware that they might be valuable or interesting, the boys played at throwing them about so several were “destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles”The Scotsman, 16 July 1836).

Now only eight of the seventeen remain intact, but what they were made for, or why they were hidden remains a mystery.

 the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier,  the effects of age had not advanced to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.  Charles Fort

The coffins ended up in the collection of Robert Frazier, a South Andrews Street jeweller, who put them on display in his private museum  until he retired in 1845 . They were sold at auction as “The celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836” and fetched £4.8s. It was not until 1901, that a set of eight were finally donated to the National Museum of Scotland (where they remain today) by their then owner, Mrs Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire.


Various theories have been suggested as to their origin and meaning – from being gruesome reminders of murder victims, memorials to dead children, pagan ritual dolls, hangman’s souvenirs, or sailors lost at sea.

An excellent in-depth article on the subject is here

In this series you might also like:

The Tudor Copperplate Map

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Entwined

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – the Lost Ruskin Daguerrotypes

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Venice. The Ducal Palace South Façade. ‘Eastern Windows’ Tracery Looking Out Towards the Lagoon, c.1849–1852. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. By John Ruskin and John Hobbs (Ruskin’s valet)

I have just visited Brantwood, the Lakeland bolt-hole of Victorian giant of arts and literature, John Ruskin. Whilst I was there, I came upon this fascinating story. When Ruskin died in 1900, he was largely-forgotten figure, having suffered from bouts of mental illnesss, brought on, it’s said by a sense of powerlessness to change the industrial world and bring better conditions for the poor and the working classes. So his library, paintings, and personal effects were sold off in what amounts to a car boot sale in 1936.

Everything was laid out on the lawn at his family home, Brantwood, near Coniston, and locals were invited to make offers. All his possessions were sold that day, and have only gradually made their way back to Brantwood, which is now a museum to Ruskin’s life. Ever since then, his wonderful drawings, manuscripts, books and items of furniture have been gradually reappearing as Cumbrian people finally realise what they are, and their significance. The daguerreotypes had been owned by an elderly man who had inherited them, and who wanted to sell, having no idea they were of much value.

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John Ruskin

The Penrith auctioneers did not help much either, because they misread the label on the box as ‘Vienna’, instead of ‘Venice’, and put in a conservative estimate of £80. Imagine their surprise when two separate bidders – having spotted the possibility they could be Ruskin’s lost photographs – started to bid against each other, each desperate to have them, until the price reached a whopping £75,000. And even better, imagine the face of the elderly gentleman when he heard how much they had made!

So what is a daguerreotype?

A daguerreotype photograph is one where, because of the process, each photograph is unique. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful process in the history of photography. It uses an iodine-sensitized silvered plate, or even a real silver plate, and mercury vapour to produce the image. It was named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Nowadays, daguerreotypes are scarce, though some contemporary artists have re-embraced the medium today. Daguerrotypes can give very sharp and luminous images.

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The Casa d’Oro, Venice by Ruskin


BBC News  The Telegraph Brantwood, Coniston

Quotations by Ruskin:

‘Fit yourself for the best society, and then, never enter it.’

‘Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.’

‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.’

Pictures from Wikipedia and The Telegraph.
Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – stunning secret behind a Tudor painting


Imagine that you are an art dealer in Swinging Sixties London – 1962 to be precise. You manage to buy a bargain — an atmospheric early oil painting of the Tower of Babel, and intrigued, you decide to look on the back to see if you can find out more about this unsigned painting. A signature would add value to an already saleable thing.

Nimrod supervising the Construction of the  Tower of Babel by Martin Van Valckenborgh 1559

So, you turn it over and are surprised to see it isn’t painted on a wooden panel as you had expected. Instead, it’s painted on an old copper plate, of the sort used by engravers. You rub at it with the cuff of your floral shirt, hoping to see a name. But a thumb over the surface reveals that the plate has already been used to print something else, and there does seem to be something very fine incised into it. So, curious, you get out your magnifying glass and peering through it, carefully clean the surface grime away with some methylated spirits.

The scene that appears seems to be a birds-eye view of people and houses. But there is writing too – all in reverse of course. Excited, you rush through to the bathroom and hold it up to a mirror. It reads ‘Fynnesburie Field’, and you see more detail, and what appear to be windmills. Finsbury Field – that’s right here in London! Closer scrutiny reveals men in Tudor costume practising archery, and women laying out their washing to dry. This could be an original Tudor plate, you realise. But what to do with it? You daren’t destroy the painting of the Tower of Babel, but this copper printing plate seems to be even earlier, and it would be a shame to keep it hidden from view.

The copper plate engraved by Frans Franken

In a ferment of excitement you hot-foot it to the London Museum to see if they can find out more.

And that is how we come to have the extraordinary  “Copperplate” map of London. No copies of the printed map itself are known to have survived; but between 1962 and 1997 two more of the original plates were identified, both used as grounds for other paintings. It is lucky they were recycled in this way, or they could have been lost forever.  The three plates cover the greater part of the built-up heart of Tudor London. The map can be precisely dated to between 1553 and 1559 because Coldharbour House was given to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1553,  and he re-named it Shrewsbury Place. St Paul’s Cathedral is shown with its spire which was burnt down in a fire in 1561. Also, nothing is shown of The Royal Exchange, which opened in 1571.

So here is the section showing Moorfields, and you can see the wonderful detail included by the Dutch artist who engraved it. I wonder if the person who commissioned it managed to find his way around London?


For more about the map, and to enlarge it, go here.