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By Jan Shearsmith on

Can you help us with a spectacular collection find?

Archivist Jan Shearsmith takes us on another sneak peak into the Science and Industry Museum archives. Here, he discusses how cataloguing descriptions can never quite live up to the experience of finding an unexpected and mysterious collections gem.

A man unwrapping a document

As part of the Archives Team, I’ve been working my way through a section of the catalogue, editing records and generally making sure everything contained in the record is correct. The online catalogue can be accessed by the general public and researchers alike, so it is important to provide the relevant information: dates, who or which company was involved in making the item and a description of the item or collection.

The online catalogue is where people find out what we have, whether they’re studying the life of Sebastian de Ferranti or finding out the working conditions of relatives who either worked in factories or in textile mills.

Unfortunately, the descriptions in the catalogue could be seen as a little dry—we have to work to a set of standards across the Science Museum Group, and the wider cataloguing world. Therefore, as well as being accurate, they have to give a factual description of what each item is, any providence, and the condition of the item. That all means that sometimes they don’t capture the beauty or the personal story that these things evoke.

I came across a great example recently when this catalogue entry came up on my list:

A catalogue entry

This description didn’t really prepare me for what I was going to find when I brought the package out from its location on a shelf in the archives strong room. (Bonus fact: It is called a strong room as at one time, important papers were kept in a bank’s strong room for safe keeping.) As I unwrapped the tissue paper bundle, I found these immaculate, intricately patterned card folders with wonderful coloured patterned labels.

Three cards with ornate patterns on them, with a man's hands holding one of them

But more surprises were to come. Inside each folder was a set of what the catalogue describes as ‘bold printed dress cottons’ but that’s a bit of an understatement, to say the least.

Several patterned cloths laid out in a row

As the catalogue states, these samples are from 1820 to 1850, making them nearly 200 years old, but the colours are as fresh and as vibrant as the day they were printed.

One of the problems with the catalogue description is that we know very little about these stunning samples. The collection was purchased by the museum in 1999 from an auction house, and the description in the catalogue gave us the dates and the name of the company involved with their distribution: Williamson Brothers.

The only things we know about Williamson Brothers is that they were possibly based somewhere in Manchester and were either involved in the printing of cotton textiles or were merchants who helped export printed fabrics to various places, including India. It’s very possible that these samples were made for that market, as the colours and patterns evoke British colonial Asia. There is paisley, which was originally an Indian pattern, combined with florals and dense geometric shapes. One of the labels also appears to be written in an Asian language.

Another extraordinary part of each folder that might give us further information are the illustrations and prints inside each front cover. Each folder has a unique picture that seem to have nothing to do with the samples inside, but are impressive works of art themselves.

An illustration of a ship at sea, with a castle on a hill in the background

This one really captures the imagination. You can just imagine the merchant carrying their samples and setting off on this sailing ship to sell the fabrics in Asia.

An illustration of a woman in upper class Victorian dressAn illustration of an obelisk, surrounded by flowers

This last one is particularly intriguing—the centre panel appears to depict a specific place, and the floral garland is beautifully printed with very accurate illustrations of the flowers.

I would love to do more research on this amazing collection, and it might well be an entry that I come back to, but in the mean time we thought we’d ask you to help.

Do you have any information on the Williamson Brothers company? Do you know what the flowers are in the patterns or the garland? Do you recognise the place or the monument in that central panel? What is the language on the label and what does it say?

Any of this would improve our catalogue description and help inform researchers, the public and ourselves about this spectacular set of samples, so please leave us a comment below.

A man in a dark room placing an item onto a shelf

For now, the folders will be wrapped up and returned to their place in the museum archives, ready to surprise us all over again.

Any further information about the Archival Collections we have here at the museum can be found by going to the Online Catalogue for the Science Museum Group, which can be searched both by museums within the group or by individual museums.

5 comments on “Can you help us with a spectacular collection find?

    1. Dear Masscv,

      Thank you for your kind comments. It gives me great pleasure working with such collections, and also to know that we can allow people the opportunity to see what we have, who perhaps are not able to visit the museum.

      Thank you,

      Jan

  1. Beautiful textile patterns – and that they are over 200 years old is an amazing test to how they have been preserved. Not that I’m an expert, but the writing looks as if it might be Hebrew to me.

    1. Thanks Marie. Jan asked me to pass on the below:

      Thank you for your response. I do have to say that we are continually surprised at the variety of colours we find in some of the earlier collections we have here, even samples of textiles produced during the Victorian period can be astonishing. It has been suggested that the language on the label is Bengali, however we shall bear yours in mind.

      Thanks again.

      Jan

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