The Personal Archive of Louis Osman, Goldsmith and Architect

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Date of Auction: 27th March 2018

Sold for £2,800

Estimate: £400 - £600

Louis Osman Archive: Material relating to the Magna Carta casket and to the Victoria & Albert Museum lectern, including eight A1 brown paper sheets of chalk and gilt designs for the Magna Carta casket, including elevations, plans, a drawing of the Capitol Building and a plan for the full enamelled plate, together with tracing paper designs for the calligraphy title, four A4 pages of sketch designs of the Magna Carta casket - and a box of slides illustrating the story of the construction of the casket and its presentation to the United States of America; together with a large roll with inked designs for the engraved decoration to the ‘globe’ of the lectern and an A2 design for the engraving to the rectangular base plate, designs showing the construction of the lecture, an A4 sketch of the complete lectern and an A2 painted design for the enamelled phoenix pendant, suspended at the front of the lectern, and further small painted designs of the same. £400-600


After the Prince of Wales crown, Louis’ two most important pieces of silverware are considered to be the Magna Carta casket and the lectern he designed for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1972 the Goldsmiths’ Company recommended Louis to the British Government, for the commission of a golden box. This box or showcase was to house and display one of the four copies of the Magna Carta, which was to be loaned by Britain to the USA, as a contribution to America’s bicentennial celebrations.
As usual the design is full of symbolism: Louis decided that the plinth on which the showcase would stand should be made of Hebridian Eygon pegmatite rock, a type of gneiss which is 3.5 billion years old - dating back to the period when Europe and America were still joined. The hinged box opens to hold the Magna Carta document one side, with with the obverse and reverse of the Great Seal of King John in gold, weighting the document down. In the centre is vertically set a sheet of optically perfect glass etched and gilded with a double size hand-written translation of the document. The other side of the box contains a sheet of contemporary gold design, described by Louis as
being in three levels, on the bottom level is a gold sheet on which is etched a binary design of balanced unity and related opposites: hot and cold, sun and moon, male and female, Adam and Eve, Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the Dragon. On the second level is the Tree of Life with its roots in the four Rivers of Paradise - the age when haters and misunderstandings are forgotten and the lion lies down with the lamb - a theme often used in American primitive painting. The Tree has the snake of evil coiled around its trunk, it bears the Apples of Original Sin and has blossoms of thistles for Scotland, shamrock for Ireland, daffodils for Wales and Roses for England - red and white for conflict and versicoloured for peace after conflict. Hanging on the tree and making up the third level is the Royal Coat of Arms of England encompassed by the Garter being the inscription ‘Honi Soit qui mal y pense’ and with the lion for strength and virility, the unicorn for purity, the crown for temporal discipline and the orb and cross for the final domination of right over wrong.”
The sides of the box are veneered with 2300 white enamel feathers, representing the indigenous peoples of North America and as well as the bald eagle, the symbol of the United States. The calligrapher Kenneth Breese was engaged by Louis to etch the glass, and also to engrave a gold sheet replica of the Magna Carta itself; this replaced the original document, which was returned to Britain after one years loan. The casket still takes pride of place within the crypt of the United States Capitol building today.

In 1985 Sir Roy Strong, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, having been impressed by Louis’ work, on the Magna Carta casket, decided to commission from him a lectern for the museum. The free standing lectern comprises a tiltable reading desk supported on a bronze shaft containing the gearing mechanism to raise and lower it. This extends from a large silver globe, resting within a flat silver rectangle, both of which are beautifully engraved with symbolic designs reflecting creation and the creative process. The engraving is full of allegorical characters representing the Earth and fertility, the seasons and the battle between light and dark. At the front is suspended an enamelled pendant depicting a phoenix rising from the flames. Louis himself described this as
the largest piece of Fine Art engraving since Hogarth”.
Ultimately, this may be one project where Louis’s creativity could be considered to have really outrun practicality; the final construction of the different elements, at the museum, proved difficult for the silversmiths and the immense weight of the piece makes it extremely cumbersome to manoeuvre. The lectern is still in the collections of the V&A, but is sadly no longer used or on public display.