Columns on fashion, culture and ideas

Art & Culture / Exhibit A

A Wedgwood Dress Sword

In her column, Skye Sherwin singles out artistic works, museum artefacts and curiosities from around the world for closer inspection

A Wedgwood Dress Sword (1820) in the Weapon’s Room of Blythe House, London
A Wedgwood Dress Sword (1820) in the Weapon’s Room of Blythe House, London Photography by Julien Abrams

There are two tiny Wedgwood cameos embedded in the hilt of this sword. In ivory against a washed-out blue, they depict a weapon-wielding duo. The first is the Archangel Michael holding his spear aloft, with his vast wings outstretched; the second figure is a more relaxed-looking St John, his staff slung...

There are two tiny Wedgwood cameos embedded in the hilt of this sword. In ivory against a washed-out blue, they depict a weapon-wielding duo. The first is the Archangel Michael holding his spear aloft, with his vast wings outstretched; the second figure is a more relaxed-looking St John, his staff slung over his shoulder. Covered in ornate silver work and diamonds, it’s hard to imagine this showy 1820 number has seen much action, unless it’s of the social kind. Spot-lit thanks to fashion curator’s Judith Clark’s intervention, it’s one among tens of swords kept behind a grill in the armoury stores of Blythe House, the late 19th-century edifice where the V&A museum keeps its reserve collections of clothing, furniture, jewellery, ceramics, textiles and art.

Its neighbouring blades include a battered iron age relic, a medieval sword believed to have been hung above the door of a tomb and a glitzy 1990s replica of Napoleon I’s rapier, made by Wilkinson Sword for the American market. Clark has singled the cameo-studded sword out for attention, pairing it with its long-lost cousin, a near-identically decorated Wedgwood buckle on a shoe, positioned on the floor before it, under the title ‘Loose’. It’s one of eleven installations she’s created throughout the building as part of the ArtAngel project, A Concise Dictionary of Dress. While Clark has been delving into hoards of historic frocks, ceramic figures and even Victorian pornography, her collaborator the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has created new definitions for sartorial terms like fashionable, conformist and plain.

The big attraction here though is the house itself – ordinarily sealed off from public gaze. Corridors built from white ceramic tiles have the institutional charm of an old swimming baths. With Hessian carpets underfoot, its rooms envelop you in the hush and reassuring smell of an abandoned school library. Treasures untold – from breastplates to figurines – wink from glass covered cupboards in the dim light as you pass them. The past breathes in every shadowy corner.

The Concise Dictionary of Dress exhibition is on at Blythe House until June 27. The accompanying book is published by Violette Editions.

Skye Sherwin is a writer living in London. A regular Guardian arts columnist and former Deputy Editor of ArtReview, she has contributed to titles such as Harper's Bazaar,10, Wallpaper, Time Out, i-D Magazine and many others

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