Spotlight On ... The Lincoln Imp

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 by The Collection  | Category: Exhibition News 
  • Imp brooch with diamonds and rubies on a gold bar, made by James Usher & Son in the Usher Gallery collection

    Imp brooch with diamonds and rubies on a gold bar, made by James Usher & Son in the Usher Gallery collection

  • The famous carving in Lincoln Cathedral

    The famous carving in Lincoln Cathedral

The legend of the Lincoln Imp is one of the best known stories from the city that has spread far beyond the boundaries of Lincoln Cathedral where this carved stone figure sits, nestled high on a column above the Angel Choir.  Many stories exist around the Imp, and some are relatively modern in origin, but they usually refer to the Imp being turned to stone by an angel, after making much mischief inside the cathedral.

In form the Imp is short and thick set, with a hairy coat.  He sits cross-legged, with both hands resting on his right leg.  He has horns projecting from his head, with bovine-type ears, and cloven hooves.  The Imp has a wry, cheeky grin on his face, and he is a medieval depiction of a devil.  The Imp is not the only such figure in the cathedral however, and several depictions of devils or demons may be seen throughout the building, serving to remind those that see them of the constant battle between the forces of good and evil.

Although the Lincoln Imp has its roots in medieval history, it was James Ward Usher who should be credited for reviving its popularity in the late 1800s.  The Lincoln jeweller and watchmaker, who took charge of the family business in 1874, was looking for an idea for a novelty that would attract customers to his business on the High Street.  He settled on the legendary Lincoln Imp, and by the 1880s he obtained a Registered Patent design on the imp, to ensure he had the monopoly on producing items with this design for a number of years.  The range of jewellery and souvenirs produced by James Ward Usher included brooches, cuff links, tie pins, spoons and thimbles. 

The popularity of these items brought James Ward Usher a considerable amount of business, and helped make his name.  Potential customers would send letters to "the Silversmith who makes and sells the Lincoln Imp" and even with so little detail they would still find their way to his shop.  Advertisements from the period detail the expanding range of Lincoln Imp novelties, souvenirs and jewellery available, and exclaim that Usher & Son were the original introducers of this design, and therefore all others were 'piracies'!

Ernest A Taylor, Usher's shop manager, records "It was a tremendous success and accounted for much business and orders poured in from all over the world. These Imps were made in precious metals and some jewelled, and the writer's first customer, the day he started with the firm, bought eight diamond-set Imp brooches, and gave orders for many more." (Local Studies Collection, Lincoln Central Library)

Another local story tells of Alfred Shuttleworth, the wealthy Lincoln industrialist who lived in Eastgate House, throwing parties and presenting his female guests with a bejewelled Imp brooch, which they would only discover when the cover of their soup dishes was removed to reveal the Imp sitting in place of the soup.

As Usher's monopoly expired, other makers took up the Lincoln Imp as a design feature, and by the early part of the 20th century it was being produced on a whole variety of goods including Goss china, brass toasting forks, bells and spoons.  The brass souvenirs were of a much lower quality than the original jewellery, but their popularity remains high.  Today, the Imp remains a recognisable feature across the county, including in the logo of Lincolnshire County Council, and as the logo and mascot of Lincoln City Football Club, nicknamed the Red Imps. 

To celebrate the Lincoln Imp Trail taking place throughout the summer of 2021, and to mark the centenary year of James Ward Usher's death, we are sharing this delightful collection of imp jewellery and souvenirs collected by a local resident and kindly loaned for this display.  Other imp related items from the Usher Gallery collection may be seen in Gallery 2 of the Usher Gallery.  The display will be on show until the end of December 2021.


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