THE tiny council flat with its pebble-dashed exterior and windows with flaking paintwork did not fill the deputation of museum staff with much hope.
For some it was the first time they had ever set foot in the Edinburgh suburb of Oxgangs, and they were beginning to wonder if they were wasting their time.
They had come to the one-bedroom flat of a Miss Eileen Crowford, whose lawyer had written to the Royal Museum of Scotland to say that it had been left “the first choice of any articles of antique or artistic interest” in her will.
But once through the door of Miss Crowford’s home, what awaited them was an Aladdin’s cave of treasure.
Adorning artificial plants, hung from the spines of books and stuffed into toilet bags were small but beautiful pieces of jewellery; gorgeously enamelled butterfly brooches, porcelain pendants, strings of beads, floral earrings that sparkled as the sun poked its way past the curiosities clipped to the curtains . . . at every turn another gem would be spotted amid the clutter of the former council typist’s bric-a-brac filled flat.
“It wasn’t what we expected,” says Rose Watson, senior curator of applied art and design with National Museums Scotland, although on that fateful day a more junior member of the museum team, which was led by former curator of modern jewellery, Elizabeth Goring.
“I was one of the first people who went into Miss Crowford’s home and my first thought was ‘where does she sit?’ – it was so crammed with stuff.
“But it was such a revelation. There was costume jewellery everywhere. It turned out she had been collecting from the 1920s to the 1980s, and while she never really wore it, she had it displayed around her house, pinned on to artificial flowers, in her books, on her curtains . . . it was amazing.
“Then there were the toilet bags crammed full of jewellery, all colour coded. It was all sorted according to colour, type or material. There were even layers of necklaces between her clothes in drawers.”
Of course, the discovery of Miss Crowford’s vast treasure trove – which filled a gaping hole in the museum’s applied arts collection – happened 20 years ago.
But her legacy is still vital to National Museums Scotland – and is being used as an example of how important such bequests are to the nation’s historical depository as it launches a campaign to encourage more people to leave their collections to the institution in Chambers Street.
“People collect things that they are interested in, and that means that other people could also be interested – even if they are not of huge financial value,” says Rose.
“Miss Crowford’s jewellery was all costume, it wasn’t expensive gold and jewels, but that didn’t mean it was worthless – quite the opposite. For us it’s an amazing resource. It shows the development of jewellery, mass manufacturing techniques, the changes in society and fashion . . . it all adds to the history of the nation and its people.”
Sandy Richardson, head of development at NMS, agrees: “Bequests are very important to us, be they in cash or as objects.
“We receive legacies quite regularly – usually a couple each year – although they tend to be unpredictable by their nature.
“Those that are in cash terms are an important part of our revenue, especially as times are tight when it comes to public sector funding and there’s increasing competition on philanthropic resources.
“Normally, if people have decided on a bequest, they will let us know in advance so they will know to what use it will be put. They’re tidying up their affairs and want to ensure it will be put to good use, and that people will get pleasure and inspiration from their donation.”
Miss Crowford, though, was different in that she had not made the museum aware of her collection before she died.
“She had informed her solicitors that she wanted us to be the first people to go into her home and to choose whatever we wanted – apart from a few toys, which she wanted to go to the Museum of Childhood.
“But basically we had carte blanche and it was wonderful,” recalls Rose.
She adds: “All we knew of her was that she had been a secretary and had no family, but she had lots of diaries which told us where and when she had bought each piece.
“It was painstakingly done. In fact there are still some diaries which are written in a very old style of shorthand and we still haven’t deciphered them.” Not only did she keep a meticulous record of her purchases, but also how much she spent on bus fares and cups of tea in the process.
One diary entry from February 1968 reads: “From St Mary Street boutique, ‘flock’ pink parakeet on metal, 3/-! This really was too much so won’t be making any further purchases here”, while another entry states: ‘I must stop buying crystal beads NOW!”
By November of the same year she had resolved to “call a halt to usual heavy expenditure on jewellery and all bric-a-brac!”, but the next day she says she spent 6s4d on Christmas stamps, a Christmas novelty, two torch batteries, and one Italian glass (green and gold) stud earring, 3d.
“She seemed to spend her lunchtimes buying little pieces which she liked, be they from antique shops of Woolworths. She obviously got a lot of enjoyment from them, but sometimes she forgot what she already had as she would buy two of the same thing,” says Rose.
“She also did quite a bit of travelling so some of the collection is foreign material. It’s a very comprehensive collection.”
Indeed, as Elizabeth Goring said at the time of the bequest: “Unknown to the NMS she was quietly collecting in many areas yet to be tackled by curators working on 20th century material. She gathered around her those things we had meant to acquire but which, because they were so obvious and familiar, we had not got round to . . . with one generous gesture Miss Crowford filled an enormous gap in the national collections.”
Costume jewellery dates back to the 18th century when the aristocracy would have paste copies made of the real thing, so they could be worn every day while the genuine jewels were kept safe.
By the 1920s, new manufacturing techniques meant that costume jewellery was becoming more common, and designers such as Schiaparelli and Chanel used to use it to “complete” their clothing designs. By the 1930s, everyone was wearing it.
“Miss Crowford didn’t have anything quite like that, but what her collection does is remind people of pieces their mothers or aunts perhaps wore,” says Rose.
“It’s a great way of connecting people to modern history. And when her estate was wound up there was money left which was given to us so the museum bought a Chanel costume necklace from the 1920s to display alongside Miss Crowford’s collection. We thought she would have found that fitting.”
n For more information on leaving legacies to the National Museums Scotland visit the website www.nms.ac.uk.