Artist’s swordstick tops curiosity list

STRIKING: Julia Smith, from Gainsborough's House, with the artist's swordstick.
STRIKING: Julia Smith, from Gainsborough's House, with the artist's swordstick.

A rare artefact which gives a fascinating insight into the life of an 18th century gentleman has won a Sudbury landmark a county-wide award.

A swordstick – a walking cane which conceals a blade – owned by the town’s most famous resident, artist Thomas Gainsborough, was declared curiosity of the year by the Association for Suffolk Museums.

The independent charity, which acts as a representative for 50 museums in the county, held a competition to find the most curious exhibit – and Gainsborough’s original swordstick topped the list of 25 exhibits.

The Suffolk Museum Curiosity of the Year Award was handed over to museum director Mark Bills at a ceremony at University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich.

He said: “We are thrilled to win this award, and it’s been a pleasure to be representing one of the great objects from the wealth of museums in Suffolk.

“I would like to thank all those who voted for us and if you haven’t seem the swordstick, please visit us soon.”

Mr Bills said the swordstick was a personal piece used by the artist.

“Life could be dangerous for an 18th century gentleman as the artist knew from experience,” he said.

“He was once held up in a highway robbery and relieved of his cash and a pocket watch when travelling into London with a group of friends, including Bach the composer.”

He added: “The highwaymen were caught and subsequently hanged for their crimes and Gainsborough’s watch was retrieved.”

Mr Bills explained that, in Gainsborough’s age, the swordstick was essentially a fashion accessory and it was a common part of the dress code of the day.

“The swordstick was essentially a walking cane that concealed a hidden blade, a fashionable and practical accessory that was extremely popular with gentlemen of the 18th and 19th century,” he said.

Gainsborough’s swordstick was voted for by the general public on the Suffolk Museums’ website. Some of the other shortlisted exhibits included items from Bentwaters Cold War Museum and Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum.

The awards ceremony also included an overall winner – Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds.