- Museum number
Comb; ivory; double-ended; the central fillet decorated with three animals each within a pierced circular frame, the spandrels with leaves; the borders with a band of leaf scroll decoration; one side inscribed 'Missū fruit pecten hoc a Gregorio papa ad Berthā Reginā' (This comb was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Queen Bertha).
- Production date
Length: 114 millimetres
Thickness: 18.40 millimetres
Width: 106.50 millimetres
- Curator's comments
Bertha was the Queen of Kent whose husband was converted to Christianity by St Augustine in AD 597. When the comb was acquired by the British Museum in 1916, the inscription was considered to date to around 1800. The provenance of this 12t- century comb makes it likely that the inscription had been cared upon it by the early 17th century.
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 1916, vol. XXVIII, pp168-71
Wainwright, Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, exh. cat.; 'Horace Walpole and his Collection', 1980, p16.
Text from Zarnecki et al 1984, cat. no. 496; see bibliography.
'This liturgical comb is probably of 12th-century origin. In the late 16th or early 17th century it was inscribed in archaizing script 'Missū fruit pecten hoc a Gregorio papa ad Berthā Reginā' ('This comb was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Queen Bertha'). The claim was thus made, whether in good or in bad faith, that the comb was a gift from Pope Gregory the Great to Queen Bertha, the Christian consort of the Pagan king of Kent whom Gregory converted through the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury in 579. The distinguished provenance of the object in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it passed therough the most celebrated antiquarian collections of the day, shows how a historical association, whether authentic or not, could ensure the preservation and appreciation of a medieval object.'
Horace Walpole and the Gothic Revival
The character of the collections formed in the second half of the eighteenth century by Horace Walpole (1717-97) and his friends were distinctly different from the majority of his contemporaries. The fashion for collecting classical antiquities which had so dominated collectors in both Europe and England since the Renaissance had begun to give way to a new enthusiasm for medieval objects and works of art suitable for furnishing the Gothic Revival houses being built by the avant garde collectors of the 1750s. Strawberry Hill is the best known, thanks largely to the guide book which Walpole himself wrote and published, but other houses like Arbury and Welbeck contained equally interesting collections.
Walpole was well aware of the importance of provenance in collections of ancient objects, and in this area he and his friends were to set higher standards than had been usual before. Such chains of provenance are of course crucial to both private collectors and museum curators in proving the genuineness and date of the objects which they collect. In his Description of Strawberry Hill of 1784 Walpole emphasised that his collection '. . .
was made out of the spoils of many renowned cabinets: as Dr Meade's, Lady Elizabeth Germaine' s, Lord Oxford's, the Duchess of Portland's and about forty more of celebrity. Such well attested descent is the genealogy of the objects of virtu. . .' He therefore took every opportunity to acquire objects whenever an old-established collection was sold at auction: he bought 'Queen Bertha's' comb in 1786 at the sale of the collection of the Duchess of Portland for eighteen shillings. Before the sale he had established its pedigree back at least 150 years. The Duchess had inherited it from her father, the celebrated collector Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford, who had bought it in 1720 at the sale of the remains of the Earl of Arundel's collection. The Arundel provenance was an excellent one, as the collection was made in the 1620s and 1630s before the Earl finally left England in 1641. Walpole accepted that the comb and the inscription were coeval, and, although this is in fact not the case, the inscription was certainly there in 1720 when Harley's librarian recorded it, and it is likely to have been on the comb when Arundel acquired it.
If works of art or antiquity are purchased for their beauty or superlative craftsmanship, provenance is only relevant in establishing their date of manufacture, and even without a provenance the beauty remains. But if the interest of the object depends on the fact that it had belonged to an important historical figure, then provenance is all. Collectors of Walpole's generation particularly prized objects of the latter type. Arundel, who Walpole tells us 'was the first who professedly began to collect in this country' had of course well appreciated this attitude, though Walpole's generation took the matter several stages further. Arundel's interest in Bertha's comb was not that it was an important example of ancient ivory-carving, but that it had been sent to England by the Pope himself and was thus a tangible part of the history of Christianity in this country.
Such connections with historical figures still add interest to objects for the public and museum curators alike.
Literature: C. Wainwright, The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home 1750-1850, London 1989.
'Queen Bertha's' comb
The Latin inscription states: 'This comb was sent by Pope Gregory to Queen Bertha'. Bertha was the Queen of Kent whose husband was converted to Christianity by St Augustine in AD 597. When it was acquired by the British Museum in 1916, the inscription was considered to date from around 1800. The provenance recently established for this twelfth-century comb makes it likely that the inscription had been carved upon it by the early seventeenth century.
Literature: Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London XXVIII (1916), pp. 168-71; C. Wainwright, 'Horace Walpole and his collection', Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, exhibition catalogue, Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham 1980, p. 16; exhibition catalogue, English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, Hayward Gallery, London 1984, p. 366.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2018-2019, 17 Oct-24 Feb, Twickenham, Strawberry Hill Trust, Strawberry Hill Restored
2010 6 Mar-4 Jul, London, V&A, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill
2009 15 Oct-2010 3 Jan, USA, New Haven, Yale Centre for British Art, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill
1990, London, The British Museum, 'Fake: the Art of Deception'
1984 5 Apr-8 Jul, London, Hayward Gallery, English Romanesque Art 1066-1200
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number