KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A whimsical exhibition celebrating a unique period in the British Victorian decorative arts will be on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City from July 10 to March 6, 2022. Castles, Cottages, and Crime features more than two dozen small ceramic structures from the museum’s permanent collection, along with several local loans and a new gift. Most were made by Staffordshire potteries in England’s West Midlands in the mid-1800s and served to decorate British middle- and working-class homes.
William Keyse Rudolph, the Nelson-Atkins Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, arrived at the museum in Spring 2020 just as it was closing due to the pandemic. He spent his time familiarizing himself with the collection and was delighted to discover a cache of unique ceramics.
“These quirky ceramics recall a specific period in British history, one that might have been overlooked if not for William casting a fresh eye on the museum’s permanent collection,” said Julian Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins.
“This exhibition is what happens when a new curator goes digging in storage,” said Rudolph. “I love these little structures. They each have a fascinating story that I’m looking forward to sharing with our visitors.”
The ceramics fulfilled both ornamental and useful functions. Before the advent of improved ventilation, houses were arenas of unpleasant odors from kitchens and chamber pots. Pastilles, similar to incense cones, were dipped into essential oils and placed in the openings in the back of these ceramics. When lit, the smoke curled through the cottage’s or castle’s chimneys, acting as an air freshener.
The ceramics are grouped in three categories. Some are imagined rural cottages embellished with graceful florals; some are based on actual castles dotting the English countryside; and several depict places where gruesome crimes occurred. These ceramics commemorate structures that were dubbed “murder houses” – places where actual crimes were committed. Sensational stories of true crime fascinated audiences then, much like today. The museum’s “murder houses” commemorate the Stanfield Hall murders of 1848, which arose out of a property dispute; as well as the so-called Rugeley Poisoner.
The collection of buildings was the gift of Richard A. Wood in memory of Virginia Conklin Wood.