Behind The Scenes, 15 May 2019: Up close with the Harmsworth Collection
by Jackie Sparrow, Collections Assistant
Working as a Collections Assistant I am lucky to have the opportunity to get to know the collections better, and in some cases, the history behind them
One of these collections is the Harmsworth Collection.
The Harmsworth family owned the Western Morning News from 1920, when Sir Leicester Harmsworth took it over. Alongside their newspaper interests, they supported a number of institutions in the South West including Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, with gifts and financial support towards purchases.
Over the years the Harmsworths made many donations to the Museum. Many of the gifts showed their interest in the South West, for instance this oil painting ‘Staddon Heights and the Mewstone’ by Thomas Luny.
The largest single donation was a mixture of art along with ship models and intricate bone models made by French prisoners of war. This donation was accessioned in 1946. It was first displayed at Buckland Abbey which was for a time under the control of the Plymouth Corporation, before it was handed over to the National Trust.
Originally, Museum records were handwritten in ink. They were later transferred to computers and then from database to database, sometimes leading to occasional errors and conflicts with numbers. Recently I’ve been running some checks on the Harmsworth Collection, to ensure it’s all accounted for and correctly labelled. I’ve been hugely helped by a professionally produced catalogue, which lists the whole Collection.
The ship models and pictures cover a long period in maritime history with the transition from sail to steam. As well as Thomas Luny, artists represented amongst the paintings and prints include Nicholas Condy and William Huggins.
The bone models are particularly interesting as they were produced at Dartmoor Prison, Princetown, between 1809 when the first prisoners arrived and 1816 when the last of the French prisoners were repatriated.
Prisoners included men from many different trades, who used their skills to produce the detailed models, made from bone, wood and straw.
The Harmsworth Collection of prisoner of war models includes ships, two guillotines (one of which can be seen to the right) and a working model of a woman spinning.