Lovett, who lived in Croydon, was a banker and self-taught folklorist who was interested in those items that everyday Londoners kept about their person in aid of good fortune or to ward off bad luck. He would travel to the East End and docks to purchase samples of these lucky charms, which could be anything from a dead mole in a bag to a copy of the Lord’s Prayer written in careful handwriting in a spiral on a tiny scrap of paper dated 1872.
Many of the owners would claim not be superstitious, but then explain in hushed tones how a certain coin or nut or shoe had saved them from disaster; numerous items were from soldiers who had taken them to the Western Front in the First World War.
It is an extraordinary and humble collection, but one that grew so vast that Lovett’s wife eventually left him in despair in 1925. At around this time he wrote a marvellous book – Magic In Modern Love – in which he chronicled some of the items from his collection, but in a delightfully haphazard way, rarely bothering to say exactly where he bought them or when or from whom.
Felicity Powell, the artist who is curating the exhibition for the Wellcome, says, ‘He was not the most diligent of reporters. The labelling is often non-existent, which gives the items real mystery. Sometimes you can’t even be sure what they were for so you have this open space in which to speculate.’
Because Lovett was mainly collecting from the docks around east London, the collection gives a real perspective on London as a trading city that used the river to connect with the wider world. ‘There are objects from all over the world,’ says Powell, ‘There’s even an Inuit paddle. It all came through London and into the hands of dockers and hawkers. We don’t know if these originally belonged to immigrants or natives. We don’t even know if he was collecting authentic objects. Did the people selling them see him coming?’
Lovett died in 1933 and much of his curious collection was absorbed by the Wellcome and the Pitt-Rivers Museum. It is rarely seen by the public. The exhibition at the Wellcome Collection runs until February 26, 2012.