Charmed Life is a little exhibition at The Wellcome Collection. I wandered in on one of their Thursday lates. And yes, there is a Montaigne quote to kick things off. It seems that the soul…loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon. Objects help anchor the soul.
There is a great deal of soul-anchorage going on in a calm, cream room of the Wellcome building. Displayed in a glass-topped horseshoe-shaped table are the gathered charms of Edward Lovett. He lived in Croydon in the late 19th/early 20th century, worked at the Bank of Scotland, and was fascinated by all things folkloric - charms, amulets, superstitions. He collected trinkets from all over London, from various origins and traditions, and treasured the objects and their meanings. Although he was himself dismissive of the idea that amulets could work as effective magical objects, he did make his younger son an amulet to wear against the dangers of the front during World War I. Unfortunately I was unable to find out if this protection was successful. Having just read and watched Birdsong I sincerely hope it was. Stephen Wraysford, protagonist and odd husk of a man, survived it and he was forever playing games of chance and carrying packs of cards, even if he did admit he pretty much made it all up.
The collection is a feast of horseshoes, shark’s teeth, a mole in a bag, a sheep’s heart pierced with nails, glass sea horses, coral and all manner of tiny treasures. There is even a lobster claw with a silver Virgin Mary inlaid into the base.
The charms have a very physical relationship to our bodies: the dead weight of a horseshoe above a bed, the pointed end of a belemnite ‘thunderbolt’ will prick fingers, a glass sea horse will snap easily in our hands if mishandled. Dangerous beauty, protection laced with threat. Belemnites were called both thunderbolts and Devil's fingers, so strange and talismanic were these fossils of squid-like sea creatures now extinct.
Each charm holds power and wards off some kind of evil or encourages goodness...
Fabric-covered horseshoes against nightmares.
Tips of rabbit’s tongues against poverty.
Acorn forms against lightning, as oak is home of the Thunder God.
Two acorns strung together as a cure for diarrhoea.
Twig of elder to cure warts.
Peony seeds for epilepsy.
Carved frog bones for fertility.
A witch cake made between the first and sixth of April every year to ward away witches.
Circular stones with holes for tying to a cow to prevent fairies stealing the milk.
Phallic iron door handles to avert the evil eye.
Wives of fisherman kept a dried seahorse on their breasts to facilitate the flow of milk.
And the many tiny shoes made out of all conceivable materials represent the path of life.
I'm very glad my own shoes led me to this cornucopia of charms. The necklace I wear most often is made up of a gold chain gifted to me by a bride when I was ten-year-old bridesmaid, a small and empty gold locket that used to belong to my mother, and an unashamedly faux-gold elephant pendant I received from a lovely quaint French girl who lived with us for many moons a few years ago. My charms. They hold so much weight it's a miracle my neck doesn't break. Miracles, and the fact that I never step on pavement cracks.