273. Skull Pomander

English, dated 1628
Size: Apple 6 cm diameter, 8 cm high with stalk;
Skull 4.5 cm high
Silver, colours, leather box

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The story of this extraordinary object unfolds below, in the words of Mrs How, one of the pre-eminent silver dealers of the 20th century, recorded by her husband Commander How. The woodcut of the Pomander while still in the collection of Lord Londesborough shows not only the erased crown and initials ‘J.R.’, but also the date of 1623, later changed to 1628. Mrs How believed that the initials and crown indicated royal ownership by James II, not that it was made in memoriam for James I. While it is difficult to unscramble all the threads of its history, it remains a unique and important example of 17th-century silver. James I died in 1625; James II reigned 1685–88.

Mrs How: ‘People constantly bring things to me to ask what they are, and I find that by far the most frequent answer is “I don’t know”; almost invariably echoed when they ask “To whom can I take it who will know?”

‘Erroneous ascription by an accepted authority can be a most dangerous thing, and about the time I owned the little spouted porringer, I had a bitter experience in this matter. I had just bought a wonderful Skull Pomander with its Apple container. Above the inscription on the Apple were lightly engraved a royal crown and the initials “J.R.”. Being somewhat out of my depth with this object I submitted it to the head of the Metalwork Department of one of our greatest museums, and he assured me that though the Skull and Apple container were genuine, and the inscription original, the lightly engraved crown and initials had obviously been put on by somebody at a much later date to give it a spurious association with James I. As the engraving was light he advised me to have it removed. This I did. A few months later he rang me up on the telephone to say he had made an interesting discovery; he had found an early reference to this particular object and a drawing of it showing the crown and “J.R.”, which, in the circumstances, was conclusive evidence that they were of early date. (The crown and initials “J.R.” probably indicated royal ownership by James II, rather than association or in memoriam for James I who died in 1625). Alack! Alas! They cannot go back. This wonderful relic passed into private ownership. It has recently come back to me minus one leaf. I would like to find it a permanent resting-place, where it will be at last safe, from vandalism such as that I regret I perpetrated myself due to false assumption on the part of an authority; or vandalism such as that private owner, who was not fit to have even temporary charge of objects of national interest and importance.’

Bernal sale entry: ‘An apple, of silver, opening and containing a skull, of silver, crowned with a wreath, and containing a miniature inscribed on the outside, “From man came woman, from woman came sin, from sin came death – 1628.”’

E.F. King: ‘These kinds of devices continued in fashion till a much later period; and a very curious example, from the collection of Lord Londesborough, which appears to have belonged to king James I, is represented in the accompanying woodcut. The whole is of silver, and the leaves appear to have been painted green. On opening it we find in the inside the small skull here represented above the apple. The top of this skull opens again like a lid, and inside are two small paintings representing the creation and resurrection, with the inscription, “Post mortem, vita, eternitas”. The external inscription is not over gallant. To give the apple, externally, a more natural appearance, there are marks of two bites on the side opposite that here represented, shewing a large and small set of teeth.’

The black leather-covered box is typical of Bernal Collection boxes. 

Provenance: King James II
Bernal Collection. Sold 23rd April 1855, lot 3506
Lord Londesborough Collection
Mrs How Private collection, UK

Published: Thomas Wright, Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Remains in the possession of Lord Londesborough, London, 1859; drawing by Frederick Fairholt
E.F. King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, London, 1860
Detroit Free Press, January 1880

Inscription: ‘From man came woman, from woman came sin, from sin came death – 1628.’