Art in Context: The Howard Grace Cup

From martyred medieval saint through to 20th-century museum - Philippa Glanville unravels the enigmatic history of an object which opens a window onto England's religious turmoil.

What is the link between the murder of an English archbishop 800 years ago and a battered and time-worn cup in the Tudor Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum? When so much grander court silver has vanished, why have successive generations treasured this silver gilt cup with its cracked ivory bowl and missing gemstones? The answers illuminate the changing nature of our attitudes to the past and demonstrate how an object can accumulate associations.

Arguments about the authenticity of this cup as a relic and about its date have ebbed and flowed since the early eighteenth century and even in the 1990’s, with the full apparatus of scientific analysis to add to the visual and documentary evidence, the cup continues to mystify and intrigue. A suggested history for it follows, marrying together the evidence of its decoration and component parts with its life in documents and setting it in the changing context of the past 370 years.

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