It’s not unusual to believe that a treasured object can bring you luck or keep you safe, or else can protect those you care about. I remember the belief in lucky charms starting when we were young, when crowding our exam desks with stuffed toys and trinkets that we knew would improve our chances of success were the norm. I had a lucky necklace with a charm that previously belonged to my grandmother that I wore to every single test from secondary school onwards. In contrast, I also had a necklace I considered to be unlucky, and never wore again after I decided it was at least partially to blame for an unfortunate incident. Is that crazy? Probably, but this utter belief in the power of a charm can bring us hope and reassurance, and this comfort can be sufficient to allow us to relax into the task at hand, safe in the knowledge that the worst case scenario is being kept at bay.
Edward Lovett's collection of amulets, Box containing rice grains thrown for luck at a wedding, Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum [1985.51.190]
Channelling our hopes, fears and superstitions into inanimate objects isn’t a new phenomenon, and the Wellcome Collection’s Charmed Life displays a wealth of trinkets on which generations relied for their wellbeing. The collection was amassed by Edward Lovett, a nineteenth-century bank-worker who spent his spare time trawling working-class London for charms and amulets. His collection ranges from the traditional emblems of luck – four-leaf clover charms and crosses – to items whose meanings and powers have not spanned the ages and integrated into modern life. For instance, we now consider a horseshoe to be generically lucky, but in the nineteenth century fabric-covered versions were believed to ward off nightmares; the power of the symbol remains, but the meaning has become less distinct. There are some truly amazing pieces here, including a tiny scroll on which eighty-eight-year-old George Yeofound wrote the Lord’s Prayer on one side and a dedication on the other in 1872, and then wrapped it around the edge of a coin.
Whilst Lovett’s collection would have been a show in itself, Charmed Life actually focuses on the artist Felicity Powell’s reaction to, and work derived from, the charms. The artist selected 400 of Lovett’s trinkets and contributed her own series of intricate drawings in wax on the backs of mirrors in response to the assortment. The process of creating her wax pieces was filmed for the video piece Sleight of Hand, demonstrating the use of dental instruments and finger tips to achieve tiny carvings that resemble cameo brooch designs in their luminescence and detail. A second film piece, Scanning, which is the final work on display, overlays drawings of some of Lovett’s amulets on MRI and CT/PET scans performed on the artist, merging prognosis with perceived protection from harm. From this, we must assume the artist is ill, which makes the show so much more poignant and brings home how much hope was – and is – poured into lucky charms, and how much they are trusted to protect the bearer.
Felicity Powell, Sleight of Hand, 2011, Film Still, Music by William Basinski, © Felicity Powell
Whilst the artist’s work should not be defined by her health, introducing the relationship between her illness and her interest in these amulets at the beginning would perhaps have created a more cohesive experience for the viewer. As it is, there is a juxtaposition between the historical amulets and the artist’s wax pieces throughout, with a moving revelation at the end. Nonetheless, this is an interesting intermingling of the superstitions of the past and the present, and a welcome reminder that for all our grand, modern ideas we often still need a little reassurance that we are being looked after.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy the Wellcome Collection