‘The Solace of Objects’

 Central to The Materials of Mourning conference are the material traces of Victorian mourning practice. In exploring artist Felicity Powell’s ‘Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects’, currently exhibited at the Wellcome Collection, Claire reflects upon the comfort of things.

‘Charmed Life’ emerges from Felicity Powell’s engagement with the collection of Edwardian amateur folklorist, Edward Lovett. The result is a beautifully eclectic display, featuring a small selection of the 1400 amulets gathered by Lovett from working-class Londoners, alongside Powell’s intricate works in wax, modelled in low relief on mirror backs. Among the many things kept as ‘lucky charms’ are small shoes, fragile glass seahorses, keys and pressed metal votives. Other amulets are more macabre, such as an animal vertebra carved with a human face (pictured), a mole wrapped in fabric kept to ward off danger, and the tip of a rabbit’s tongue against poverty. The exhibition also includes two films, ‘Sleight of Hand’ and ‘Scanning’, in which the artist explores connections between these objects and her own mortality.

These are objects of solace rather than grief. However, like hair-jewellery, post-mortem photography, and other forms in which the dead were commemorated in the Victorian period, they retain the power to fascinate and repel. Similarly, many of the amulets rely upon a complex intermingling of religious, secular, folkloric and superstitious beliefs for their potency. This exhibition led me to question the attachments that we form with objects, particularly in an accompanying video about ‘Charmed Life in Contemporary London’. Are our attachments to keepsakes any weirder than that of the unknown person that carried around a fabric-wrapped mole? Part of understanding the complexity and strangeness of Victorian mourning culture might lie in exploring our own present-day material responses to death.

‘Charmed Life’ is part of the free ‘Miracles and Charms’ exhibition hosted at the Wellcome Collection, London, between 6 October and 26 February.

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