Under the Eaves: Mexican Antiquities in the Camborne Collection

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Under the Eaves: Mexican Antiquities in the Camborne Collection

There is a collection of objects listed in the record cards from the Camborne Collection held at the museum, described generally as ‘Mexican Antiquities’. These items are currently not on display within the museum’s collection but are in boxes under the eaves. The listed objects include beads, necklaces, spindle whorls, jade and copper bell pieces, clay heads and small figurines.

Rather like the Egyptian artefacts (see previous blog) they are at odds to the collection in the Museum of Cornish Life’s galleries and stores. There are several questions that emerge from this curious collection:

  • What exactly are the objects (as well as their age and provenance)?
  • Why are they here?
  • How did they come to be in the museum’s collection?

The information about the objects is scant, held on record cards. In fact, there are three sets of record cards, stored in different box-files, all with much the same information. For example, the necklaces in the photograph are delicate, of unknown material, and uncertain in age. There are 29 of them! I hope to do some more detailed research on the objects themselves in the coming weeks, but for now, my focus has been on trying to tie down the story of how the items came to be in the collection, and that comes via the donor listed as, “C C James, Penzance.”

That’s it! A name, a place. No date… but it’s a start. With a donor to locate in the folds of time, then that might provide enough clues to establish why the Mexican objects have ended up here in a box in Helston.

In thinking about C C James, the research has been aimed at finding out who they are/were, and what their connections to Mexico were, if any. This blog tells a ‘story so far’, partly because it is fascinating in itself, but also to share the process of the research. 

My search has been desk-bound, but also took me to the archives at Kresen Kernow. I have the beginnings of the story, but the information hasn’t arrived in a linear fashion, more like fitting together pieces of a jigsaw, without having the image on the box to look at. I now know a little more about who C C James was, and I know for certain he had strong ties to Mexico – and Gwennap.

C C James was born Charles Cecil James in 1880. The 1901 census has the James family living in Gwennap where his occupation is listed as an elementary school teacher. In 1911 he is not listed in the census at all. I suspect that he was in Mexico then, but that is unverified.

From the records sighted at Kresen Kernow, I know that on 14 October 1907 he married Lilian May Chipman in Mexico City. The James’ had two children whilst they were in Mexico – Charles James, born and died in 1909 and Ida Winnifred James, born in 1915 and died in 2005.

In terms of the assumptions that we can make in relation to the items in the collection, we can say that he wasn’t in Mexico as a tourist, he built a life there. However, the question of what he did still remains unanswered… for now!

At some point the James family returned to Cornwall. There are traces of C C James’s life in the archives, pointing to someone of influence in Cornish society at the time. In 1941, he was made a Bard of Gorseth Kernow. His bardic name was Map Penseghnans, or Son of Gwennap. In 1949 he published History of Gwennap, a detailed account of the development of the village that he grew up in. It has a very touching dedication to his father in the introduction.

C C James seems to have developed as a writer. I traced down a reference in Philip Payton’s The Cornish Overseas, to a paper ‘Cornwall and Mexico,’ he wrote for Old Cornwall Society Journal. In it he wrote about the history of the Cornish in Mexico, through mining, and families that were still there in 1949. This adds weight to the fact that he had deep knowledge or experience/connection to the country, but the ‘what’ still eludes me.

Even though C C James was known for his strong connection to Gwennap, I found something that placed him in Penzance. According to the Cornishman published on 28 August 1948, ‘at Gulval’s fete, Mexican miniatures were displayed by Miss I W James (daughter of C C James), including insects dressed in human attire.’

Here the paths in the archives seem to have run out, so I decided to go back to the objects to see what they might reveal. Intriguingly, when I was trying to identify what the figurines were (as a matter of curiosity), I discovered that The British Museum acquired some of their Mexican artefacts from C C James. This feels like a significant discovery, from someone who donated a collection of items to their local museum, to someone who had a wider acquisition of artefacts and was potentially a collector, may be even trader.

The research story pauses here, but with other leads to follow, I hope to continue the story, coming back to one of the threads that has been central to this series. If we can identify what the objects are and where they might have come from, who do they really belong to?

Julia Webb-Harvey

Volunteer Researcher

[Photo of beads, photo credit: Nina Verdon]

Citizen Curator 2020

Museum of Cornish Life