Spotlight On …

Leather and Superstition!

Written by Graham Lampard

“I love superstitions. They are the opponent of common sense.”

The quote is attributed to Oscar Wilde who, of course, had an alternate view of superstitions. In the middle ages, however, superstition was rife. In the museum there are three items that intrigue, and may have been made to help ward off evil spirits. One is a figure of a woman, about 19 inches high, in a long dress of smooth brown calf. The arms and hands are sewn around the edges. The item is believed to be from the mid nineteenth century and, it is suggested, was used as a candle holder because there is a socket in the head that could hold a candle.

The second and third items are a pair of figures, a cobbler and his wife. Again, these are modelled with thin leather over glass bottles and “paper stuffing”. These, again, are believed to be 1850s and English, but no-one is quite sure. There are openings in the heads that suggest they could be candle holders (as with the first figure), and the items are further decorated with a toby jug on the table beside the woman, and a dog next to the man, plus other miniature items.

© National Leather Collection 2018

National Leather Collection | 1960.75

© National Leather Collection 2018

National Leather Collection | 73.48

© National Leather Collection 2018

National Leather Collection | 73.48

© National Leather Collection 2018

National Leather Collection | 73.48

Lytes Cary, a National Trust property in Somerset, also has two leather ‘people’. This small medieval manor house was the home of the Lyte family who settled in the area in the 13th century and lived there until the 18th Century. It was the home of the herbalist Henry Lyte, who dedicated his 1578 Niewe Herball to Elizabeth I ‘from my poore house at Lytescarie’. Later it was the home of Sir Walter Jenner (son of the famous Victorian physician, Sir Edward Jenner) who rescued the house after a long period of neglect and decay. In the parlour we saw what are described as ‘a pair of rare Spanish female leather figures, coloured, and clothed in farthingales, stomacher-dress and head-dresses of stamped leather; possibly late 16th century.’ It is suggested these smaller than life-size leather figures could have been made for company, to make the room appear occupied, or to ensure there were an even number of people to dinner! Maybe our figurines had similar usage?

A leather lady from Lytes Cary

A leather lady from Lytes Cary

At the time, seating an odd number of guests was considered unlucky so the leather figure was placed at the table to even up the numbers. Such superstitions were an integral part of life when the older figures were first made. Of course the origin of that particular superstition is the Last Supper, where thirteen were present, so in the religious fervour of the middle ages the need for leather figures to ward off evil spirits could be understood.

As an anecdote to such hubris, the London Thirteen Club was set up by historian William Harnett Blanch in the 1890s. It met on the 13th of every month in Holborn. There were thirteen dinner tables each with thirteen settings and diners wore green ties with toy skeletons in their buttonholes. Meals were served by two cross-eyed waiters, who announced dinner was to start by smashing two mirrors. I can imagine they would need a number of leather figures to make up the numbers!

To get in, guests had to follow an undertaker underneath a ladder and then sit at tables decorated with a centrepiece featuring a black cat, peacock feather and witch’s cauldrons. They were asked to spill salt before they could begin eating. The club had numerous members, including leading journalists and politicians, and their membership fees were distributed to the poor of Southwark. Oscar Wilde, however, refused to join, stating: ‘I love superstitions. They are the opponent of common sense.’

Whether it is common sense or not, our woman figure could have been the ‘extra’ guest when needed, and possibly, placing the cobbler and his wife on the table would have provided real and spiritual light for the diners.

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