Choosing an object to illuminate

The Courtauld Gallery has been closed for Courtauld Connects since I started my Illuminating Objects internship. That means that picking an object for my project was quite a bit different for me than for past interns!

Before selecting the ivory box as my object, we experimented with the different ways it could be displayed

The objects are all in storage, so I couldn’t look at them directly in my first few days. Instead, I combed through files and research about the objects. The files contain pictures, data on the provenance, materials, historical context, and lots of other research.

After spending some time with these files, I was able to visit the objects in person! I’d picked out a few objects from the files that I had learned a bit about, and thought were really interesting, and knew I wanted to see.

After seeing the photos, I knew that I wanted to see the ivory box in person—I found the animal and plant paintings fascinating. Some of my favourite paintings are by A.Y. Jackson, one of the Canadian Group of Seven, a group of landscape artists from the 20th century. He painted scenes of trees and lakes and forests in Northern Canada where I grew up, and I always found it fascinating to compare what nature looked like in his paintings and what I saw when I looked at it with my own eyes. Art that tries to capture nature has always been my favourite. That was why I knew I wanted to consider selecting and researching the ivory box—it captures and depicts things in nature, just like some of my favourite paintings.

But seeing the objects in person, there were even more items in the collection that caught my eye. In particular, there was a tea set made by Samuel Courtauld I housed in a shagreen box, a pharmacy jar made to hold “syrup of apples” which used to be used as a medicine, and a gorgeous green pitcher with a fish scale design.

I nearly chose to research this beautiful 18th century tea set made by Samuel Courtauld.

I wanted to research all of them! But I had to choose two to pitch and ultimately only one to research and display. The ivory box and the tea set were the ones that made the cut. I learned a lot about the tea set when researching it—Did you know that even though most people think that shagreen is leather made from sharkskin, it actually most often comes from stingrays? Or that tea was so expensive when it was first imported to England, that it was often kept locked up in special caddies? Or that climate change has the potential to threaten tea production in some areas of the world?

But as interesting as the other options were, the mystery surrounding this ivory box — who owned it, who made it, and what the paintings were based upon or inspired by — was too exciting to pass up. And it was definitely the right choice; every time I see it, I think it’s even more beautiful than it was the last time I saw it.