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Writing Workshop

In June and July 2015 a group of adults met to take part in a creative writing workshop held over two sessions, responding to the Treasured Possessions exhibition. Here is some of the writing that came out of those workshops inspired by objects within the show.

Nautilus shell cup

Nautilus Shell Cup © The Fitzwilliam Museum,Cambridge

The Original Treasure

Patiently waiting under the sea
Holding his breath for as long as can be
The water crackling all around
Shards of sunlight scraping the ground
Poised and ready, spear in hand
Bare feet floating above the sand

Watching the rocks, body tense
The world seeming as if in suspense
Out of the corner of his eye
Saw a nautilus swimming by
Illuminated by the sky above
It inspires respect and love

Lingering on its beauty and history
Its longevity and air of mystery
He hardened his heart and closed his mind
Humanity and conscience began to unwind
Its status within his tribe no longer mattered
His usual reverence fractured and shattered

Instead of hunting fish to eat
To feed his family, to make ends meet
He could sell the shell and buy his food
Enough for a month for his growing brood
The lives of his people mean more
Than some superstitious folklore

It swam slowly, without a care
Of the man it was unaware
If seen, it would vanish into the endless blue
At a speed he could never hope to do
So, quick as a flash his hand reached out
Before he began to have a doubt

Careful to avoid its tentacles and sharp beak
He turned it upside down to make it weak
Gradually returning to the surface with his prize
He marvelled at its imposing size
Yet this was smaller compared to those of old
Its ancestors were ten times the size he’d been told

Unchanged for millions of years
It brought him almost to tears
To take away its life
With his crude handmade knife

Careful not to scratch its shell
He gave a guttural yell
And plunged his knife through its leathery hood
A barricade it created, doing all it could
To protect itself, to save its hide
But least it was swift when it died

Blue blood spurted into the sky
And he realised he had taken something rare
He returned to the shore
And dug out the core
Then prepared the shell
As the tears fell

Soon it was a thing of beauty
And he had done his duty
Bringing out the pearly shades
Precious as Chinese jades
He lifted it above his head
Gave thanks and then said

“Thank you”
But who to?
He did not know

Turning to go, a ray of sun caught its light
Shone right through with all its might
It was its last hurrah, a splendid sight

That same day, the fisherman with regret
Sold it to a merchant for all he could get
Far less than its value, but worth much to him
They engraved it with scenes from home on a whim
It travelled across the sea to land
On our continent on a market stand

It reminded a travelling Englishman of China
And he thought nothing could be finer
It gave its life and he made it into a cup
But it was never tarnished, never used to sup
For fear of ruining the delicacy of its lustre
Only for decoration it passed muster

Of the finest silver it was wrought
Using skills that took years to be taught
The Chinese engravings, skilled and unique
The cup, a pale imitation, bold and yet meek
Roman mythology combines with Chinese tradition
In an uneasy marriage of convenience and sedition

For this item is made from two nations
Captured by men of three stations
A poor fisherman trying to survive
A Chinese merchant starting to thrive
And an English silversmith at their best
But one part is better than all the rest:

The nautilus itself, the one that started it all
Its quiet majesty holds everyone in its thrall

Sarah Burton

Death mask of Earl of Shrewsbury

Death Mask © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


The rich man keeps the heads of animals he kills in the room where he entertains company with tales of the Orient over fresh ice and stale awe. He recalls the giraffe’s eyelashes how two stray ones landed like lovers in the pool of hot blood on the rock that impaled her neck though he got her in the chest first.

The tumblers they drink from make perfect water rings on the table. They stand ominously like the fire that frazzled the chimp he had chased for three hours only puncturing her left ankle. He invites the guest to take a closer look to spot the singed fur and to inhale the tang whilst praising his taxidermist’s detailing even with the messiest kills.

He fetches the decanter from the cabinet eclipsed by the open-mouthed tiger reflections of candle light convulsing along her teeth. The guest sits with rounded shoulders as the rich man remembers how he enraged the biggest tigress in all India by gunning down her cub as he chased a dragonfly. Her irises swelled from the dust storm that swarmed her sprinting body he waited until he felt the heat from her nostrils before he pulled the trigger.

When the rich man dies he will keep his head. She will remember him the only way she knows how submerging him in molten wax where the liquid will kiss him hard leaving ashy bruises everywhere but that won’t matter she will add brows and lashes. He will be framed and kept in the room with the heads of animals he killed.

Charley Genever

Embroidered shoes

Embroidered Shoes © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In Memory Of Curved Heels

You may look but do not touch.
Encased in their glass coffin
as if in Cinderella’s carriage.
Stationary. No longer fit for purpose.

Numbed by her nimbleness,
calluses unseen,
golden capillaries of toil;
those vein-like threads now jaundiced with age.

Embroidered memories of corseted toes.
Those folded ribbons of vanity.
Fashion over function.
‘Me lady’ with her bespoke two left shoes.

Arthritic feet dream of wearing made-to-measure,
abandoning Velcro slippers
extra-wide and functional
with easy access at Christmas.

No accolade from
Louboutin, Blahnik or Choo.
Your style goes unnoticed,
footprints unseen.

So rejoice and buy your replica keepsake,
that mass produced lookalike treasure;
such hope of reliving tottered pasts.
Who says ‘Thou shalt not covet?’

Linda Canalella


Purse © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Purse © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Les Indispensibles

Serpentine cords draw us together
Intricate rose pattern designed and worked by me
Never used by me.

A “reticule” for la Madame du Jour
Holds handkerchief, fan and money for cards
Never to be seen without one.

A “ridicule” to match fine robes
No space in that finery for pockets like mine
Never to be seen together.

Unforgiving ebony mould
Worked on in failing candlelight
Never to be finished by me.

Serpentine strings pull us apart
Fine design started but abandoned by me
Never to be seen again.

Julie Stephenson

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