Many of us l think would agree that most of our knowledge relating to those gun carrying cowboys of the American Wild West and the ruthless gangsters of both Prohibition and then the Depression years comes – not from our history books – but from the way Hollywood has portrayed these ‘wild’ men and women as the stuff of movie-making myth and legend.
This year’s special exhibition at the American Museum on Bath’s Claverton Down explores this connection with a display of artefacts that are both gloriously gruesome and fascinatingly macabre. It’s a colourful collection which will also help you come to terms with many a truth behind that tinsel-town treatment – and some of the ‘facts’ are just as amazing!
Did you know Bonnie Parker – one half of that bank-robbing duo Bonnie and Clyde – used an empty bank book to help while away her hours in jail by composing poems and traditional folk ballads? Or that Wyatt Earp‘s Gunfight at the OK Corral – the most famous confrontation in the history of the Wild West – wasn’t so sharp on actual shooting. It took more than 30 bullets in just 30 secs to put paid to the Tombstone villains because the guns weren’t very accurate.
‘Gangsters and Gunslingers: The Good, the Bad and the Memorabilia’ opens – along with the whole of the unique collection of American art at Claverton Manor – on March 23 and the season runs until November 3rd. The special exhibition brings together two defining chapters in the history of the United States that helped shape America’s identity and explores the influence of the Hollywood treatment in turning murderers into movie stars.
There’s some personal mementos too from some of the big names who portrayed these notorious characters on the big screen!
Look out for Rita Heyworth’s cigarette case and a chunky gem-loaded little-finger ring belonging to Elvis Presley.
The collection – curated with clarity and vision by Laura Beresford – showcases items from the comprehensive Americana and Hollywood archive of David Gainsborough Roberts – an Englishman – living in Jersey – who has always wanted to be a cowboy! I asked him for his favourite Wild West hero?
David obviously picked up some skills from his investment banker father is having an eye for a collectible. He started with buying a dress belonging to Marilyn Monroe at auction – twenty years ago – and hasn’t looked back. A bit different though from the cigarette cards and tin lids he collected as a child.
He’s a larger than life eccentric dresser who calls his collection ‘my toys’ but l have to say not all the guns he offered the American Museum managed to get through Customs who argued that a couple could still fire real bullets!
Look out for the death mask of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. You can still see the exit wound of the bullet that killed him. Clyde Barrow – of Bonnie and Clyde fame – gets two exhibits, One a bullet proof vest – punctured with bullet holes – found in the car in which the pair were gunned down. The other is Clyde’s broken wrist-watch. It came off – along with his hand – during the police ambush.
It’s not all macabre – so don’t worry if you’re of a nervous disposition. There’s a fine collection of cigarette cases presented to people like Humphrey Bogart from his second wife – and to Al Capone with ‘love’ from the Mob! Look out for Wyatt Earp’s gaming dice and a device to hide cards up his sleeve. Cinema posters and old movie footage complete the deal.
It is a collection both fascinating and shocking – a visual feast of a history-lesson – and a very unusual take on some of the heroes and villains who made their mark in the US of A.
The American Museum in Britain – which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, has over 151,000 items in its collection of the decorative arts of America – the only such public institution beyond the boundaries of the United States – and it holds one of the largest and finest quilt collections in the entire world. www.americanmuseum.org