The collection

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Week 11 - The Vulpin Storage Jar. Museum of the Pharmaceutical Society, London SE1. Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display.

The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society houses treasures from more than five centuries of British medicine. Medieval bronze mortars vie for space with decorative glass and ceramic storage jars, and there's a wonderful range of tools used to compound medicines in the traditional chemist's shop.

The museum is especially proud of its fine collection of around 250 drug storage jars, made between 1650 and 1740 in a style of tin-glazed earthenware often known as Lambeth "Delftware". These were used by apothecaries to store the raw ingredients of their medicines or made-up compounds. Medicines were usually mixed and measured in full view of the customer, on the shop counter.

The jars had to be both decorative and impressive. Their simple shapesJand basic blue andJwhiteJglazesJwereJcopiedJfromJstylesJbrought to England by Chinese-influencedJDutch and Flemish potters in the late 16th century - hence they were known as Delftware, after the Dutch town Delft. By the mid-17th century,JLondon craftsmen in Thameside workshops were putting their own idiosyncratic stamp on jars destined for the apothecary's shelf.

A central feature of the jars is their hand-lettered labels bearing the contents name. Always in Latin - the language of scholarship at the time - these show the extraordinary range of ingredients in everyday use.

A few new drugs such as quinine were beginning to filter in from the Americas, but most English medicines were rooted in the classical past: costly compounds could have as many as 60 ingredients, ranging from opium to crushed pearls, liquid amber and even gold.

It was believed that some of an animal's strength could be conferred on the patient - the oil in this jar was made from the boiled flesh of foxes and would have been used as a liniment for bronchial complaints.

The labels are surrounded by decorative motifs that seldom have much to do with medicine, although sometimes include Apollo, one of the Greek gods of healing. Elsewhere, we find a pipe-smoking man, songbirds, fruit, flowers or cherubs with trumpets. Some of the most attractive have "winged souls" with angel faces.

This was the period just after England's Civil War. Roundhead and Cavalier rivalries still divided the country, its artisans and its apothecaries. Most angels on the museum's jars are clearly Puritan, with white collars and sober hair cuts. However, after the 1660 Restoration, we find a sprinkling of heavenly Royalists - the heads between their outstretched wings have courtiers' periwigs and fine moustaches!

Caroline Reed Caroline Reed is curator of the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, 1 Lambeth High Street, London SE1 3JN. Tel: 0171 735 9141 ext 354. The museum welcomes groups of children from age 13 upwards, by appointment only (maximum 25 in a group)

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