Museum objects are not always what they seem, as this intriguing embroidery – currently on display in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition – shows.
The label on the frame says that it shows an astrologer forecasting the birth of a child to King Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria. It’s also been suggested that the face rising from the frames is a tad beardy for a newborn and that the scene may forecast Charles’s execution.
The astrologer is surrounded by a circle of planetary and Zodiac symbols, with knowledge symbolized by astronomical and mathematical instruments. More arcane practices are hinted at by the crocodile (often found hanging in apothecaries’ and alchemists’ shops), and a cat, the symbol of witchcraft.
The label dates the work to 1621. But when our eagle-eyed conservator noticed that the netting on the Queen’s dress looks suspiciously machine-made, we started digging deeper. And the more we looked, the odder this object seemed.
The embroidery has 22 sequins, all of regular shape and glued rather than sewn on. This suggests they were added in the 19th or 20th centuries rather than the 1620s. Of course, the netting and sequins could be later additions or repairs made to a 17th century object. But the style of the embroidery itself suggests otherwise.
Charles I is shown wearing a ruff and petticoat breeches – dapper no doubt, but around 30 years ahead of the fashions of the 1620s. His face is painted, very unusual for an embroidery of this period.
And a final clanger for the 1621 date: Charles and Henrietta Maria didn’t marry until 1625.
The font on the label suggests it was added around the 1930s, before the object came to the Science Museum. Wishful thinking by a collector? Or deception by a seller trying to get a better price?
We’re intrigued to find out more … and maybe our Cosmic Collections competition will throw up some new information about this and other objects in our astronomy exhibition.