PEEP INTO THE PAST: A very curious collection

Susanna Arethusa
Susanna Arethusa
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An assortment of curios brought together by Susanna Arethusa, the last representative of the Cullum family from Bury St Edmunds, is now on display at the town’s Moyse’s Hall Museum. By Keith Cunliffe, Collections manager, St Edmundsbury Borough Council Heritage Service.

Curiouser and curiouser’ exclaims Alice at one point in Alice in Wonderland; and we might feel tempted to say much the same looking at one of the new displays at Moyse’s Hall Museum.

For what could a lock of Isaac Newton’s hair (and one of the Duke of Wellington’s), a piece of Bonny Prince Charlie’s tartan, a peacock feather from the ballgown of the Empress Eugenie, a bust of Garibaldi and a knife used by Napoleon at breakfast on the morning of the battle of Austerlitz possibly have in common – or be doing in Bury St Edmunds? The answer is that this wildly improbable collection of objects (genuine or fake) was assembled by the Cullums of Hardwick during the 19th century.

More precisely it seems, in the case of these particular objects, by one member of that family, Susanna Arethusa, only child of the last Sir Thomas Cullum. Right is a portrait of Susannah Arethusa herself, painted by Gambardella around 1850, perhaps in Rome on one of Sir Thomas’s various Italian trips.

It was probably on these visits that she became a supporter of the cause of Italian unification and independence – which accounts for the bust of Garibaldi. But it turns out that she also had personal links with the owners of several of these objects. For this last representative of the Cullum family from Bury St Edmunds in fact spent much of her life in Paris, where she became a notable figure in Parisian society: She held a famous salon for many years and was on friendly terms with the likes of Victor Hugo, Mazzini, Louis Napoleon, Garibaldi, Dickens – one of whose children she sponsored – and, of course, the Empress Eugenie. With this impressive array of connections the links to many of the Cullum curios become obvious: Napoleon’s knife, Eugenie’s feather and Garibaldi’s bust all have close personal associations and look like the real thing. Unfortunately, Isaac Newton’s hair – which has been DNA-tested – probably isn’t, and the story behind Bonny Prince Charlie’s tartan fragment – allegedly from the tartan given to Flora Macdonald when they traded clothes – seems too good to be true. But who can say; you might think the same about Napoleon’s knife, if you didn’t know that she was a friend of the family. As with all such things it’s not so much the object itself which intrigues us; it’s knowing – or thinking we know – who used it, touched it, wore it.

So while historical accident may have brought these objects together, it’s also clear that this rather random assortment of objects became a collection because the Cullums chose to keep them: They demonstrate an important aspect of collecting, the fascination which people have always felt for ordinary things – as these mostly are – which are connected to extraordinary people. In a way they are an early example of the celebrity culture in action, and there are plenty of people today who try to assemble similar collections of memorabilia. It’s just that most of us don’t have quite such an extraordinary Christmas Card list as Susanna Arethusa…