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The Gollcher Bequest

Museum of the Order of St John Tom Foakes, Head of Heritage

Following the establishment of St John’s Gate as headquarters of the Most Venerable Order in the 19th century, an historic collection of objects related to the Order began to form, often as a result of generous gifts and bequests from Order members.

One of the most significant gifts to the collection was presented by Olof Frederick Gollcher in 1935. Gollcher was an artist, scholar and philanthropist, as well as an ardent collector of objets d’art and historical items. He was born in 1889 and was of Swedish, Maltese and Italian descent although his family were essentially international, with homes in London, Rome and Malta. He was a British citizen, although he lived most of his life abroad.

The connection with the Order of St John is apparent in several aspects of his life.   His great-grandfather was a cousin of Fra Gaetano Bruno, the Secretary of the Chancery of the Order of St John on Malta. Fra Gaetano was responsible for saving much of the Order’s Archives, which the French intended to destroy during their occupation of the Island between 1798 and 1800.

His mother, Elisa Balbi, was related to Francisco Balbi di Correggio, who was a Knight of St John who fought in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, and who wrote a celebrated account of the battle. Furthermore, his grandfather, also Olof Frederick, settled in Malta in 1845, establishing a shipping company, which continues today and contributed significantly to the family’s wealth.  So through marriage and geography, Olof Gollcher had numerous links into the Order’s Maltese heritage.

In 1922, Olof’s father, Gustav, died, and by 1926, Olof was living with his mother, Elisa, in Rome.   Through his family’s connections to Gaetano Bruno, the Gollcher family had inherited a significant collection of objects that had belonged to Gaetano Bruno himself. These items of furniture, fine art and silver had been transported from the family’s property in Malta, to Rome, where they decorated the family’s apartments on the Via dei Gracchi.

Olof was an only child and therefore, on the death of his mother, he would stand to inherit the entirety of his parents’ sizeable estate. His father, Gustav, had made a clear wish that “the Bruno Furniture should eventually be given to some museum or other suitable institution”. Olof’s uncle, Major Henry Balbi, who was a Knight of the Venerable Order, suggested that they may like to gift the collection to the Venerable Order at St Johns Gate, in London.   Olof and his mother had visited St John’s Gate in 1924, so they would have had a knowledge of the historic buildings and of the museum as a private, yet growing, collection.   Evidently, Major Balbi’s suggestion was considered a good idea, and so the gift was made, under the following conditions.

  • The collection could not be disposed of;
  • It was to be kept together;
  • Each article was to have a metal plate fixed to it (not necessarily in a conspicuous position) with the inscription, – “The gift of Mrs. Elisa Gollcher and of Mr Olof Frederick Gollcher”;
  • The articles would remain in the custody of Elisa Gollcher during her lifetime for her use and enjoyment.

The articles were described in a detailed list of 30 entries, some of which included a couple of items in one:

  1. One silver inkstand
  2. Two oil paintings in gilt frames
  3. A large wall clock in a wooden case
  4. A large carved chest with the arms of La Cassiere
  5. One large majolica plate, Genoa ware, with figures
  6. Two carved French secretaires on stands
  7. One Italian secretaire once in the San Antonio Palace, Malta
  8. Three armchairs and three chairs with original leather covering
  9. One large inlaid book-case and writing desk combined.
  10. One large silver oil lamp
  11. One ditto [large silver oil lamp]
  12. One large inlaid side table. The duplicate of this piece is now in the Grand Masters’ palace in Malta.
  13. Two large Chinese jars with covers. These jars, filled with tobacco, were presented to Gaetano Bruno by Grand Master Rohan.
  14. One sofa, three arm chairs, two stools, covered with damask
  15. One gold watch
  16. Two white china flower vases with the arms of Rohan
  17. Two portraits. Maurin family
  18. Snuff box presented to Bruno by the Elector of Bavaria for Bruno’s part in the formation of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue
  19. Bruno’s gold snuff box
  20. One inlaid chest of drawers
  21. One inlaid cupboard
  22. Two large silver ewers and two large silver trays
  23. Pastel portrait of a Knight Grand Cross (framed)
  24. One silver tray
  25. One silver coffee pot
  26. One silver hot water jug
  27. One oil portrait of De Rohan in gilt frame

This and the following articles did not belong to Bruno.

  1. One console mirror. White and gold frame. Original glass but frame renovated. Was originally in the Palace of Spinola, Malta.
  2. One very fine oil painting in gilt frame. Battle piece by Borgognone, Knights (not of St. John) and Turks. Was in the collection of Dr. R. Balbi, Mrs. Gollcher’s father.
  3. Glass chandelier (now fitted with electric lighting). Came from the Palazzo della Farnesina (Doria family) Rome.

In 1935, Olof’s mother, Elisa, died, and so proceedings began to transfer the relevant objects to the Order in London at St John’s Gate.   The draft Librarian’s report of 1935/36 gives a detailed summary of the bequest, stating that in July 1935, 12 items of silver were shipped from Rome to London, and then in November, 21 pieces of furniture followed, completing the list.

In 1936, Olof Gollcher was made a Knight of Grace of the Grand Priory of the British Realm of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. There is no record of his Order citation although in all likelihood, his membership was recommended as a consequence of his most generous gift.

In accordance with the conditions of the bequest, the objects comprising the Gollcher bequest remain on display throughout the Museum galleries and historic rooms.   They are an extremely valuable part of the collection, enabling the Museum to show the wealth of the Order at its most opulent while on Malta in the 18th century, and in showing how the collection has been developed through the gifts and bequests of many notable individuals.

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