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Richard Hoover: Antiques offer drama, poetry, beauty of the past

Richard Hoover (Buy photo)

By Richard Hoover

Great antiques are not defined by great expense or rarity. Nor need they come from afar, or boast a provenance from some prestigious auction house or country manor. Rather, great antiques are simply the ones that rocket their beholder straight into the drama, poetry and beauty of the past. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that true connoisseurs of antiques are also connoisseurs of the past; they spend most of their time there, ascribing to the living and the dead a co-equal presence in the sweep of humanity. Intellectuality and emotionally, however, they are drawn to the dead.


This gold locket, backed in lapis lazuli, contains a lock of John Hampden, Oliver Cromwell's cousin and a regimental commander. Courtesy photos

High on my list of great antiques is a one-of-a-kind gold locket, of miniature portrait size, backed in lapis lazuli and containing a lock of John Hampden. One of the great opponents of King Charles I (remember the Ship MoneyTrial and the Long Parliament?), Hampden was Oliver Cromwell's cousin and best regimental commander. Hampden was killed fighting Prince Rupert at the Battle of Chalgrove Field in 1643.

There were two accounts of Hampden's death. The more heroic, the one vastly preferred by generations of Whig sympathizers of Cromwell and Commonwealth, had him honorably slain by an enemy musket ball to the shoulder. The less heroic account, vastly preferred by the generations of Tories who revered King Charles and despised Hampden, had it that Hampden was mortally wounded in battle when his own pistol, over-charged by a careless servant, ingloriously exploded in his hand.

When, in 1828, it was decided to repair the broken floor of Great Hampden Church, the opportunity was seized to exhume the body and settle the controversy. Local antiquaries and diggers were met at the church door by "Mr. Coventry" (see below).

Newspapers and magazines broadcast all the graphic details -- servants from nearby Hampden Hall gasping that the remarkably preserved face matched the Hampden portraits hanging on the staircase; the galloping and gruesome changes to the corpse wrought by exposure to air; how the worm had been at work; Hampden's auburn-brown hair, tied up with a black ribbon; how the digging party, after propping Hampden up in the chancel, with head resting on a shovel, had gone off to eat, abandoning him there for 24 hours in full view of a horrified visiting public, etc.

Now, down to business. An examination revealed a possible right shoulder dislocation, but no bullet wound. Digging further through sawdust, foil and shroud, the savants found the gloved right hand, mangled and totally detached. A little pouch tied to the waist contained a few of its bones. So, Hampden was felled by his own pistol. According to accounts, the Whigs present, who had prayed to find an honorable wound inflicted by the enemy, were plunged into despair. Some would insist to the end of their days that the wrong body had been dug.

In addition to Hampden's name and dates, the locket rim is elegantly engraved with this little quotation from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," from Marc Antony's Funeral Oration: "Yea, beg a hair of him for memory."

Finally, the piece is accompanied by a tattered, undated statement in the hand of John Hutchinson of the London Stock Exchange. Hutchinson declares that the lock was given to him by George Coventry, who took it from the scalp of the "exhuminated" body of the "great patriot" John Hampden. Doubtlessly, Coventry was the eighth Earl of Coventry, who died in 1843. Hutchinson must have written his statement well before then -- the sheet and its tiny envelope are stained with the curling shadow of the lock itself. In style, the locket appears to date no later than the 1850s.

Riding this little rocket into the past, made as it is of gold, glass, lapis and hair, is nonetheless thrilling when one considers that, even before it became a great antique, its contents had lain over 180 years in the grave.

Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warre n County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.


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