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Treasures 2009

JMW Turner The Loss of an East Indiaman

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Treasures from Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum

1st April - 17th May 2009


Treasures was the inagural exhibition at the newly redeveloped Bedford Gallery, a splendid 19th Century, Grade II listed building. Unused for 35 years, it has now been sensitively remodelled by Peter Inskip and Peter Jenkins Ltd., architects acclaimed for their successful heritage projects. Bedford Gallery provided over 200m² of state-of-the-art space for in-house temporary exhibitions and touring exhibitions from national museums and galleries.


The exhibition included British watercolours and drawings, original prints by international artists and a selection of decorative arts from Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, alongside various precious objects which give an insight into the diverse collections of Bedford Museum.


The collection of watercolours and drawings at Cecil Higgins Art Gallery is one of the finest in the UK. Here are some examples of works in the first exhibition.


From the late 18th century, the display includes a major composition, in watercolour, pen and ink, by Francis Towne, 'The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills' (1799), painted during his travels in Italy.

Francis Towne, The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills

Thomas Girtin, Turner and Constable are all represented. Girtin’s 'The Village of Jedburgh, Scotland' (c.1797) is an imaginative approach to the scene, conveyed in his characteristic, subdued tones, and Turner’s 'The Town and Lake of Thun' (c.1841), a watercolour from his final phase, is a study in light and atmosphere. Constable’s majestic pencil drawing, 'Fir Trees at Hampstead' (c. 1833) expresses the transient effects of wind through trees.

The Dancing Girl, James McNeil Whistler, 1885 - 90

Albert Moore's 'Oranges' (1885), depicting a graceful maiden, reflects an interest in the classical world, transmuted into a composition of sensitive, harmonious colours. He was admired by James McNeill Whistler, whose few watercolours are prized for their elegance and delicate handling, achieved by an economy of means. 'The Dancing Girl' (c. 1867), a study for an oil painting, is a fine example.

Oranges, Albert Joseph Moore (1841 - 1893), watercolour

The Higgins houses items of international or national importance. It is the official English Heritage repository for all archaeological excavations in North Bedfordshire, and its holdings of ethnography and foreign archaeology include objects of major interest.


Several magnificent finds from the Late Iron Age were on show in the exhibition.

Warden Mirror, Late Iron Age

The Copper Alloy Mirror (around 80 B.C.), from Old Warden, Bedfordshire, is one of the masterworks of this period. A very rare object, the design on the back is a complex helix based upon plant-like motifs. It was made for show, and such objects were hung from belts and on the wall of the house where the owner lived.


A Bronze Hanging Bowl and Bronze Bucket Handle, both made around 50 B.C. - 50 A.D., were found in Felmersham, Bedfordshire. The Bowl is a high-status, beautifully-crafted item, used at a time when it was fashionable amongst the elite to consume wine from quality metal drinking services. The body of the bowl was made by turning a thin sheet of bronze into shape using a lathe, the base by fixing a disc of thin bronze with solder and rivets. The Bucket Handle, in the shape of a cow’s head, was made using the lost wax technique. It is both naturalistic and comic: the cow has the tip of its tongue in its right nostril!

Iron Age bucket handle

Blackbeard’s Cutlass is a treasure of a very different kind. Edward Teach (c. 1680 – 1718), better known as Blackbeard, was a notorious English pirate in the Caribbean Sea and the West Atlantic, during the Golden Age of Piracy. This splendid sword, allegedly owned by Teach, is engraved with a T and skull and crossbones. It was acquired by the prolific collector P G Langdon, well-known for obtaining objects apparently associated with famous historic personalities, when he was curator of the museum at Bedford Modern School.


Airship R101 was built at Cardington near Bedford. At 777ft, she was the largest airship in the world. On 4th October 1930, a crowd of over 3,000 watched her departure from Cardington for India. After experiencing difficulties in the air, she crashed at Beauvais in France, with a loss of 48 lives. This tragedy aroused huge national feeling: the funeral procession through London was watched by thousands and the bodies of the dead were then taken by special train to Bedford to be laid to rest in a communal grave in Cardington cemetery. The two commemorative plaques depict the airship in flight. They were handcrafted by plumbing engineer J G Minns from the copper sheeting left over from his plumbing work in the airship.