Throughout December and January I’ll be posting blogs inspired by the well-known Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Each blog will focus on a V&A textiles and fashion object related to one of the twelve gifts featured in the song. And all of the objects that I’ll discuss are currently housed at the Clothworkers’ Centre.
This time I’m taking my cue from the song’s opening lines:
On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
A partridge in a pear tree.
Our collection contains numerous walking sticks, including this rather elaborate one, which is made from pear wood. The wooden shaft terminates with a steel-tipped brass ferrule, while the handle’s inscribed silver cover is now detached.
Pear wood is a high-quality hardwood. Its hardness makes it difficult to carve, but means that pear wood objects can feature intricately detailed designs. Pear wood’s association with quality, solidity, and beauty helps to explain why it was used for the walking stick in question, which Edward VII (King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British dominions and Emperor of India) gave to Colonel Albert Edward Williamson Goldsmid (the British Army’s first Jewish colonel) in 1903. Edward presented these walking sticks to the officers who served as his adjutants at Balmoral Castle.
While the wood itself subtly conveys status and solidity, this walking stick’s carved features are overtly symbolic. The royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom announces the owner’s allegiance to the crown, as does the word “BALMORAL,” which has been stamped into the walking stick’s handle in two places. Maltese crosses were also stamped onto the handle, presumably because as heir to the throne Edward had been the Grand Prior of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Edward himself liked to wear Maltese crosses.
The foliate elements carved into this walking stick suggest national unity and pride. The rose represents England, the thistle signifies Scotland, and the shamrocks denote Ireland. I would expect to see a leek or daffodil for Wales, but most of the leaves depicted beneath the shamrocks are ivy leaves, which may have been chosen to represent this country; ivy is abundant in Wales. The shaft is also notable for its false knots. Although regular, they add a rather unexpected sense of informality.
The King’s choice of a walking stick is significant in itself. Ornate walking sticks, and to an extent walking sticks generally, were the preserve of the wealthy. They were also associated with power, having been used by leaders including pharaohs of ancient Egypt and Henry VIII of England, and because some contained concealed weapons. Relatedly, walking sticks signified masculinity, not least because they were used predominantly by men traversing the public sphere.
If you’re interested in making an appointment to view textiles and fashion objects at the Clothworkers’ Centre, please email email@example.com.
This post was edited by the author on 21 December 2020 as part of work on sensitive terminology and topics.