The Wernher Collection

England’s largest collection of Medieval and Renaissance jewelry—collected by one of the founders of De Beers—has gone on permanent show in London. Old Master paintings, 18th-century tapestries, Gothic ivories, and other objets d’art also appear.

The 19th-century discovery of diamonds in South Africa ushered in an exciting and turbulent age, an age of great fortunes and extraordinary individuals. In just 10 years, the tiny mining camp of Kimberley evolved into an industrial town filled with Englishmen and their families, who brought with them all the social refinements of their time: calling cards, morning rides, and church services on Sunday. It was within this climate that Sir Julius Wernher—businessman, philanthropist, and collector—came into his own.

The son of a railway engineer, Wernher was born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1850. He moved to London at the age of 21, took an entry-level position in a bank, and soon discovered he had a natural aptitude for business. After a short stint in the Prussian cavalry during the Franco-German War of 1870-71, he was hired by Jules Porgès, a diamond merchant with bases in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Porgès sent Wernher to Kimberley to act as his representative, and by 1875, the Porgès firm had become the largest English importer of Cape diamonds.

In his 1939 book The Story of De Beers, Hedley A. Chilvers wrote: “In every way a remarkable man, Sir Julius had an extraordinarily alert mind. He would grasp at once the essentials of intricate problems and would pass unerring judgment on them.” Through his extraordinary business acumen, Wernher gained his own wealth and prominence in the Kimberley diamond trade and was soon elected to the prestigious Mining Board.

Wernher took over Porgès’s firm upon the latter’s retirement in 1884. He formed a business partnership with Alfred Beit—another prosperous diamond merchant who had learned the trade under Porgès’s tutelage—and in the process converted the company to Wernher, Beit and Co., which became the largest mining house in South Africa. Both men returned to England, but neither severed ties with South Africa. They joined forces with Cecil Rhodes in his efforts to combine the disparate mining ventures operating in Kimberley, and in 1888 these efforts resulted in the formation of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Co. Both Beit and Wernher were named life governors of the company.

That same year Wernher married society belle Alice Sedgwick Mankiewicz—a.k.a. “Birdie.” Already well-liked and respected in the business community, Wernher and his wife soon conquered English society and became known for throwing lavish banquets at their homes in London (Bath House) and Bedfordshire (Luton Hoo, used as a setting in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral).

Wernher had exacting tastes, and his fortune allowed him to indulge his talent for selecting beautiful things. In consultation with the German art historian Wilhelm Von Bode, Wernher set about amassing a collection of extraordinary range and substance, encompassing Old Master paintings, sculpture, porcelain, and what stands as the largest private collection of Renaissance jewelry in England. He was also a generous philanthropist, and despite spending lavishly on numerous causes as well as on his collection, Wernher left a fortune of more than £11 million when he died in 1912.

The collection was moved from Bath House to Luton Hoo in 1930. By the late 1990s, the Wernher estate was deep in debt, and the family was forced to sell Luton Hoo and, in conjunction with joint owners the Wernher Charitable Foundation, auction some of the collection’s treasures—including a Titian and a Rubens. Despite these measures, the collection still faced dispersal.

Enter English Heritage, a group officially known as “The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England” and the primary advisor to the English government on matters relating to the country’s historic sites and buildings and their preservation. The organization secured a 125-year loan of the collection and has put much effort into installing it in Ranger’s House, an early 18th-century mansion in Greenwich Park, London. It officially opened to the public in the summer of 2002 and is on view year-round.

Wernher’s collection comprises 700 pieces, including about 120 items of jewelry. “We have a room specifically dedicated to the jewelry—we call it the ‘Jewelry Vault’—that is filled with mahogany cases,” says curator Tori Reeve. The jewelry—mainly Renaissance Spanish pieces—exemplifies Wernher’s passion for collecting only the best. Pendants set with opals, pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds figure heavily in the collection, and one particularly striking piece is a 16th-century gold lizard pendant set with opals and rubies.

Wernher purchased the items on display between 1890 and 1905. “It’s the Bath House collection,” specifies Reeve, who notes that Wernher’s “later pieces were bought specifically for Luton Hoo—very large paintings and such, and we have a few pieces from this period—but the core collection is from Bath House. They’re predominately medieval and Renaissance pieces. We’re told it’s the finest collection of Renaissance jewelry in the country.”

Wernher’s wife was not as taken with the jewelry as he. Birdie was very much of her age and preferred the contemporary, in both jewelry and style of dress. She did not wear any of the pieces her husband collected. (Beatrice Webb, a contemporary of the Wernhers, kept a diary and in one entry commented on Birdie’s somewhat gaudy taste. Webb, a renowned Socialist, was not one to look favorably upon displays of individual wealth and may not be a reliable source on the subject.) Nevertheless, Sir Julius is known to have bought contemporary jewelry for Birdie, collecting the Renaissance pieces for his own benefit. “He bought the pieces as an asset,” says Reeve.

Reeve and her colleagues wanted to create a display that honors the collector as well as the collection. “We’re not trying to recreate Bath House,” she says. “What we’re really trying to do is showcase a Victorian collector … with dark heavy cabinets and displays that show his collection to its best advantage.” Some of the display cases are original to Bath House, and Reeve says the curators studied archival material to determine how Wernher himself displayed his pieces. “Sir Julius wrote in a letter that ‘every vitrine must be like a picture,’ and he had a very symmetrical eye. He stored his inventory in drawers. Imagine it laid out in leather drawers that he would bring out and show to friends,” she says.

Some of the jewelry presented a challenge. “Often the pieces are as lovely on the back as on the front,” says Reeve. “Sir Julius had a selection of [enameled] skulls that hinge open, and we obviously can’t keep them open all the time, so we’re looking at ways of showcasing the jewelry so that people can see it from different angles.”

Despite years of uncertainty and upheaval, the Wernher collection has stayed together and remains largely intact. “It’s so good to keep the collection in the country,” says Reeve.

Thanks to English Heritage, Wernher’s legacy has a place where it can be cared for and where an appreciative public can view it—at least for the next 125 years.

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