Presents from ancient history; shopping

The Museum Company offers gifts inspired by exhibits in glass cases
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Gone are the days when Christmas shopping meant an endless traipse of the streets in search of inspiration. The burgeoning trend for mail order shopping means that you can now relax in a comfy armchair, safe in the knowledge that your presents are just a phone call away. Museums have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and their catalogues offer a surprisingly large range of merchandise. Quite apart from the obvious advantages of shopping by telephone, these catalogues are a good way of supporting national museums.

The Bodleian Library

This is an excellent example of how a little flair and imagination can result in an interesting and unusual collection of well designed, covetable gifts. Clearly a great deal of thought has gone into creating the catalogue and a large proportion of the gifts take their cue from works of art owned by the Bodleian: Cats Post-It Notes has a procession of cats taken from a 13th-century English bestiary printed on each page (pounds 2.99); and a delightful set of three colouring books for children contains images lifted from the Library's medieval manuscripts (pounds 3.75 for the set). The Bodleian building itself is also a rich source of inspiration - a range of fantastical silver jewellery includes a brooch featuring the Bodleian Beast, which was taken from a stone carving in the Old Bodleian Library. The catalogue is divided up into six sections - "Town and Gown", Indoors, Outdoors, Works of Art, The Middle Ages, Fun and Games, and Reading and Writing. There are plenty of ideas for those of a literary bent, as one would expect: the sturdy oak "Bodleian Bookrest" as long used in the reading rooms of the Bodleian Library (pounds 75), or the Bookworm Game, a novel memory game which uses stories and illustrations from more than 100 children's books in the Library.

The Bodleian Shop in the Old Library is open Mon-Fri 9am-6pm, (9am-5pm, Jan-March) and Sat 9am-12.30pm. For details contact The Bodleian Library Marketing & Publishing Division, Broad Street, Oxford (01865 277091).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

A quick flick through the "Holiday 96" catalogue confirms the Met's legendary reputation. Every single object for sale - from humble glass beakers to elaborate pieces of jewellery - is in what we have come to regard as unquestionable good taste, of an extremely high quality and, furthermore, sold at competitive prices. Don't be deterred by the fact that the Met is 3,500 miles from England. It is relatively easy to order items over the telephone provided one has a credit card to hand. Americans go the whole hog when it comes to Christmas decorations, and the Met offers an exciting range of Christmas tree ornaments including a 24ct gold electroplated, 3-D holly leaf ornament taken from a Gothic design in Floriated Ornament, and a book by Pugin, ($28). Equally good-looking are the hand-blown and hand-painted glass tree ornaments copied from northern European blown-glass vessels in the Museum's Robert Lehman collection ($16.50 each). The huge range of gifts ensures that there is something for every taste, from the funky frosted glass Monkey glasses, based on a design by Joseph Hoffman ($48 for a set of eight), to what has become a design classic, the "Venus Earrings" taken from earrings in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens ($48 a pair).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028. NB: The last mailing date for merchandise to reach the UK to arrive in time for Christmas is 25 November. The special customer service number for orders coming from outside the US is 00-1 718 326 7050, between 9am and 4pm Eastern Standard Time.

The Science Museum

The 36-page catalogue is brimming over with a confusing mix of imaginative brain-teasers, science fiction toys, electronic gadgets - and also some surprisingly mundane practical items, such as a Multiway Plug, which can wire up to four appliances into one unit (up to a maximum total of 13 amps, pounds 12.95), or a zinc-coated instant fire escape, available in two sizes (pounds 75 or pounds 110) - hardly inspiring gifts for Christmas! Lurking amongst the plethora of products are a few items that are worth seeking out. These include a motorised orrery, ideal for any child showing astronomical leanings (pounds 14.95). It comes with an 18-minute cassette by the astronomer Patrick Moore. The museum also sells witty children's pyjamas printed with life- sized skeletons which glow in the dark (pounds 16.95 a pair), and zoom binoculars, which enable magnification from 8x to a powerful 27x, guaranteed for 10 years (pounds 99). For the businessman or woman, you may like to seek out a pocket-sized electronic Travelator which combines a clock for home and foreign time, a calendar, a dual alarm, a calculator, a currency converter and a special "Fund Management System", which keeps a daily record of expenditure (pounds 24.95).

The Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7. For details of the catalogue, call 01793 480666.

The Royal Academy of Arts

A lively, upbeat, forward-looking catalogue with a useful section devoted to artists' materials including an excellent beech-wood table easel, perfect for recreational painters without access to a studio. Many of the items, mugs, ties and mats are commissioned exclusively from Royal Academicians such as Geoffrey Clarke, Norman Ackroyd, Elizabeth Blackadder and Frederick Gore. Particularly exuberant and colourful is the range of products by Terry Frost RA,whose designs include "Raindrops", an umbrella that opens to reveal a witty design of blue, yellow and red raindrops; "Affections", a watch decorated with jolly, coloured hearts, which was inspired by "This is Love", a poem by Frederico Garca Lorca. The forthcoming George Braque exhibition is a rich source of inspiration for a whole host of items; particularly striking are a deck chair and beach towel inspired by Braque's hallmark flying birds.

The Royal Academy, RA Enterprises, Harrington Dock, Liverpool L70 1AX 0151-708 0555

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Flipping through the V&A's "Treasury Catalogue" one could easily be forgiven for thinking it was Past Times' latest offering. Past Times is a phenomenally successful enterprise selling historically inspired merchandise, but hardly a role model for the V&A, surely one of the world's greatest museums of decorative art and design. Silk satin pyjamas, a cheap rendition of an Art Deco opalescent lamp, page after page of objects inspired by William Morris... it is depressing stuff. Furthermore, it is irritating to discover that an outside firm is responsible for the catalogue. Surely it should be orchestrated in-house? The V&A would do well to consider Sir Terence Conran's famous dictum: "Functional can be beautiful, and beautiful must be affordable."

The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7. Orders, 0990-647484; Query line, 01793-480666.

Amicia de Moubray

Buying presents for people you don't know very well but want to please, amuse, thank or impress can be a dismal shopping experience, on a par with trying to find a gift for the man or woman who has everything (not anyone I know, but you might). Suddenly everything in the shops looks samey and dull, and you find you've left your inspiration at home with your comfortable shoes. In which case you won't have considered a tippling stick, a polemoscope or Edvard Munch's The Scream, printed on a tie.

Such rarefied novelties are the very stuff of the Museum Company, an American venture which copies historic items, mainly from the world's museums, and sells them in its 70 stores in the States, nine outlets in Japan and, since last year, two shops in this country.

All the items sold by the Museum Company are accompanied by history cards, which is just as well, as I would not have recognised the tippling stick if it had jumped up and hit me on the nose.

Now I know that the prototype is said to have been invented for Edward, Prince of Wales, whose mother, Queen Victoria, disapproved of his drinking and gambling. So Edward commissioned a walking stick with a whisky vial hidden inside. The tippling stick that the Museum Company sells is copied from one in a private collection. It unscrews into three parts for travelling and includes a compass in the head (presumably so that after drinking the contents of the vial, you still know where you're going)

It will be interesting to see whether the Museum Company does as well in Europe as it has in America. As Lucy Denton, the Brent Cross manager, points out, "Americans are more in awe of history than we are. Our gargoyles, for instance, sell like hot cakes in the States but not so well here." We are more practical, it seems, going for stainless steel and brass business card holders at pounds 30.

The stock varies from the artily sublime (early-19th-century Italian filigree frames, for pounds 20.95 and pounds 23.95) to the joyfully ridiculous (a Venus de Milo mouse pad for your computer, for pounds 16.50). In other words, there is something for everyone - especially those difficult types who seem to have everything. The company does not offer mail order but will gift-wrap purchases and carry them to the car (a bit of living history in itself).

"We keep a list of things that people ask for, for future consideration, and send feedback to the States where all our buying is done," Ms Denton explains. Although most items are bought in, from museums or manufacturers, some are exclusive to the company. And it produces its own sculptures, such as the resin Hebe (price pounds 59) adapted from the original by the Danish artist Bertel Alberto Thorwaldsen, and the alvastone Aphrodite (pounds 149) from the Melos original in the Louvre.

One of the company's best-sellers, Rodin's The Kiss, also in alvastone, comes in two portable sizes, priced at pounds 49 and pounds 169; and you can have Michelangelo's Pieta on the mantelpiece for pounds 149.

Although many items could be classed as executive toys, the store does a nice line in educational kits - ostensibly for children, but I can think of several adults who would enjoy constructing Galileo's telescope, the world's first thermometer or a Roman water clock. Sets in the Scientific Explorer series cost pounds 21.95.

Also likely to invite nostalgia are Tiffany lamps (pounds 309-pounds 349), but classical designs reign supreme. A large selection of items from Tutankhamun's tomb includes a gold-leafed funerary mask at pounds 399, though easier to live with is the stunning range of Roman glassware and jewellery, copies of those found on an archaeological dig in Israel. These elegant reproductions are made using the same glass-blowing process that was used by the ancients.

Timeless, too, is Greek sycamore-leaf jewellery in pewter, gold and garnet (necklace pounds 69, earrings pounds 28.95, from originals in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery). And the utterly romantic early-15th-century ring inscribed Vous et Nul Autre (you and no other), copied from the V&A in 9ct gold at pounds 149-pounds 179.

Another faithfully-copied ring can be seen in a painting of St Catherine by the Venetian artist Lorenzo Lotto in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Reproduced in 9ct gold and iolite, it costs pounds 87.50.

Also look for Russian porcelain boxes with miniature paintings on lacquer, Italian millefiori perfume bottles, and the contents of the scientific case, especially if you are planning on buying a present for a man.

As for the polemoscope, otherwise known as "the Private Eye", this is an 18th-century opera glass which gives a right-angled view; while the owner looked as if he or she were intent on the stage, they could spy on the theatre box next door. Just the thing to give the boss or her husband.

The Museum Company can be contacted on 0181-202 7774

Jenny McClean