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‘Splendidly ugly’ artworks to go on show

Ranger’s House in Greenwich, London, is home to more than 700 works of fine and decorative art.

A selection of “splendidly ugly” artworks will be going on public display for the first time.

Diamond magnate and Victorian millionaire Julius Wernher amassed one of the greatest private art collections in Europe after making his fortune in South African diamonds.

Alongside more traditionally beautiful objects, such as Renaissance paintings,  rare French porcelains, tapestries and furniture, he collected unusual looking artworks such as small medieval carvings depicting skulls and rotting skeletons.

Boxwood miniature coffin replica with compartments and skeleton (Trustees of the Wernher Foundation)

They, along with hundreds of other works of art, will be going on show at English Heritage-owned Ranger’s House in Greenwich, south-east London, having previously only been accessible by guided tour.

Wernher coined the phrase “splendidly ugly” for many of the treasures that he loved.

“Sir Julius Wernher had a distinct eye for quality, fine materials and craftsmanship and collected objects from across Europe and beyond,” Dr Sarah Moulden, curator of collections at English Heritage, said.

Oval dish moulded with marine life by Bernard Palissy (Trustees of the Wernher Collection)

“His particular passion was for what he called the ‘splendidly ugly’, artworks mainly from the medieval and Renaissance periods, which were typically small, unusual in their subject matter and expertly crafted from rare or richly embellished materials.”

Many are religiously infused pieces such as memento mori: small objects encapsulating “the fear of going to Hell, a portable reminder to continually affirm your devotion to God”.

People who could afford them were so attached to these objects they were  “interactive to an extent, almost like our smartphones are today, small enough to be looked at and engaged with at close range in the palm of one’s hand”.

Momento mori carved ivory pommel (Trustees of the Wernher Foundation)

At the time they were created, the church was at the centre of medieval life and there was “a fear of having a ‘bad death'”.

One “tiny and splendidly ugly” ivory pendant, dating from 1500, shows on one side “a medieval woman in the prime of her life, with a little dog tucked under her arm”.

“But on turning it around you see the full horror of the fate that will become her, a rotting skeleton infested with salamanders, frogs, and worms,” Dr Moulden said.

Enamelled skull pomander with Baptism of Christ plaque (skull open) (Trustees of the Wernher Collection)

She said it reminds the viewer that “you may be living in this world with your good looks and earthly possessions, like your pet dog, but you will leave it with nothing so there is no point in clinging on to wealth or vanity”.

The Wernher Collection is home to more than 700 works of fine and decorative works of art.

English Heritage Collections Curator Dr Sarah Moulden gives the Triton jug a final brush up before it goes on display at Ranger’s House (English Heritage)

The collection at Ranger’s House will reopen to the public from today and will be open Sunday to Wednesday until the end of September.

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