Saturday, 28 April 2012

Unzip a banana

Isabella's sense of humour, remembered by a grand-daughter:

Friday, 27 April 2012

Antiques Roadshow

"Why the Antiques Roadshow?" you may ask. Well, the beads are difficult to categorise. Mostly glass, but some metal, they are not clearly anything. Beading may have been a favourite pastime among Victorian young ladies (although I'd have to check that), but these beads don't make anything....they're neither brooch nor earrings, nor set into a dress or gloves. There is no obvious way into their story.

I've hovered between different opinions. Might the soldier might have made them himself, maybe as part of post-operative therapy? Maybe they're a sampler? But then he'd need to have been exceedingly skilful, and well acquainted with traditional designs and the possibilities of pattern. Maybe he was a fine craftsman in civilian life?

Or were they treasure from home he carried in his pocket, a talisman of love from his sweetheart/wife/mother? If so, how did they survive the battle in which he was wounded and captured and ended up under Isabella's care?

I searched the internet and discovered interesting facts such as that Czechoslovakia had a thriving bead manufacturing industry, but I got no further in uncovering the mystery of Isabella's beads.

I emailed the Victoria and Albert museum, uncertain which department to try. Did they count as glass, or jewellery? Where was the authority who could enlighten me? No luck, nobody knew. A definitive blank.

So it's been at the back of my mind that the Antiques Roadshow, with its panel of experts covering every possible area, might be a way forward.

And it was a wonderful day. An hour's drive from Welsh mountains to English elegance and the immense queue at Cheltenham Town Hall. Innumerable anonymous recyclable bags hid the treasures; there was no possibility of peering at other people's precious possessions. But I've never been in such an enjoyable queue. It took nearly three hours to get to the front and find out which expert to queue for, but, thanks to my lovely friends Tash and Julie from Breaking Barriers, it didn't drag.

And what did the experts say about Isabella's beads? They liked them, thought them delightful and very fine and saw no reason to doubt the story. "But what are they," I asked. "They're a belt," Hilary Kay pronounced, "A lady's belt, and the soldier would have carried it in his pocket as a keepsake."

Tick, I'd thought of that one.

"Could he not have made it as he recuperated?"

"No, soldiers did do crafts after being wounded, but they would never have had the resources to make something like this."

So I had my answer, but then more questions were raised. Another expert kept raving about their Art Deco look, "Just right for all those flappers in the twenties," he stated. "But it was earlier than that," I contradicted him.......but doubts began to seep into my mind.

Maybe they were just a random piece of Isabella's twenties wardrobe? Maybe they never came from a soldier at all? But no, if that was the case why on earth would Isabella have placed them lovingly with her medical instruments? I'll stick with the soldier story.

But how about a few more ponderings? Who was the soldier? If the beads are fairly fine, maybe he was an officer from some wealthy family rather than someone from the ranks. And who was the woman whose memory he valued so highly. And what had Isabella done to render him so grateful that he parted with the beads?

But then again, maybe he didn't part with them during his illness and captivity, but bought them specially for Isabella and sent them over to her after the war, in which case they might be Art Deco after all?

But at least now I know the string of beads is a belt, I can go back to the V&A, and try their costume department this time. How old is this belt? Where was it made? Who would have worn it, on what occasions.......there's a date in my diary for June.

Question: Why does the answer to one question so often lead to another.

Thursday, 26 April 2012


I've been blind. I'm getting ready to take the beads to the Antiques Roadshow in Cheltenham in the hope of finding out a bit more. Thought I'd better pop a photo in - thought, they'd like one that's packaged old - thought, better protect this; slid it into a plastic wallet....and whoops, I've owned it for about 40 years and never looked on the back. There it was:

"Ena - with love.
Xmas 1913"

I own the copy of the photo Isabella gave her sister Ena a month after their father died. Gulp.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Context

"Why are you so obsessed with an old string of beads with no apparent function?" you may ask.

The beads are fascinating, but it's their context that intrigues me. And there are two clues. All I remember of the occasion when Isabella gave them to me was that she said they were given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war. That's what caught my imagination, this crossing of twin boundaries - the one between enemies and the other between genders.

But did I make that up, invent myself a story? Why should a German prisoner of war be grateful to her? I can't remember anything else of that day, although she gave me the second clue at the same time. She gave me her medical instruments. For Isabella had been a doctor and she had served in France, Malta and Egypt during the First World War.

And that is the tale I've been tracing - who was this barrier crossing Isabella, and where did her beads come from?

The beads

Isabella's beads aren't strung as a necklace, earrings or brooch. They're not woven as a bracelet, belt or bag. They are simply a long strip, nine beads wide. Heavy, some of glass, some of metal and gloriously coloured, each bead is tinier than the smallest seed beads in craft shops now. And they simply make a long strip. Nothing more complicated than that. Each end is folded over rather than attached to a jewellery finding.

And although they are strung on coarse, age-faded thread, they have evidently been made by a skilful craftsperson. Intricate, classic patterns trace their way along the thread, picked out in carefully chosen colours and separated by looser stretches. A tantalising delight.

Monday, 23 April 2012

African Queen

This blog is likely to be a bit of a puzzle to start with. I mean, what connection might the old film "African Queen" have with Isabella's beads? For me, enough to make me stop watching and come to write this post. The answer is, I never knew that in 1914 there was a German East Africa. And, I promise, that really may link in with Isabella's beads.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Isabella's beads

Isabella gave me the string of beads 40 years ago. I've always treasured them and thought that one day I'd do something with them. But 18 months ago I was chatting with some friends, and it became clear that the moment had arrived. The time was ripe and I had to get out and uncover the story of Isabella's beads.

I've trekked up and down to museums and libraries in London, visited even more diverse places in Edinburgh, downloaded material from the internet, read books and papers, watched films and documentaries, joined forums and followed up as many leads as I can in an effort to track down the story of the beads.

I'm not there yet, but the trail has been fascinating and thought provoking. Now, I've got to go back and see what I've found out, work out what the story is so far.....and carry on hunting.

But I don't want to carry on alone, as if I was preparing a university dissertation; I've set up this blog because I'd prefer to share the discoveries and ideas, and inviting other people to join in and comment. The wisdom of many will make the story fuller.

Question: What makes time ripe?