Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Rescued from recycling: a Victorian benefactor

Old documents have always been at risk from fire, flood, decay, insects and vermin for numerous centuries, whether written on paper, parchment, vellum, papyrus or silk. As one Epharmostos writes, to his brother Zenon in 3rd century BC Egypt, 'Your last letter was eaten by mice.'  (British Library papyrus 2655).

Over twenty centuries later, the hapless Charles Pooter finds several pages torn from his diary: "Sarah said ... after the sweep had left, Mrs Birrell (the charwoman) had cleaned the room and lighted the fire herself.  Finding a burnt piece of paper in the grate, I examined it and found it was a piece of my diary.  So it was evident someone had torn my diary to light the fire.  I requested Mrs Birrell be sent to me tomorrow."   George Grossmith makes this a running joke in his Diary of a Nobody (1892), with Pooter's son Lupin remarking, "If it had been written on larger paper, Guv., we might get a fair price from a butter man for it!"

In a more frugal age, when most things were handmade and paper was costly, old manuscripts of all sorts were re-used, from parlour to kitchen to privy, and lost forever.   Yet, like John Evelyn's Diary, some amazing treasures have been rescued by diligent collectors.   Josiah Wedgwood's correspondence with his friend and partner Thomas Bentley were saved by Joseph Mayer, a Liverpool collector (1803-1886).

Thomas Bentley, attrib. Francis Rigaud,  1778
© Wedgwood Museum Trust

  Mayer was collecting Wedgwood ceramics well before it was fashionable, and according to Eliza Meteyard, "while few cared to learn (about Wedgwood's life and work) Joseph Mayer was hoarding up every little scrap of information, purchasing old deeds and papers"; until  "by a mere accident, as strange as it was interesting, a very large portion of the business papers belonging to Mr Wedgwood's works, passed into his hands."

Joseph Mayer the collector,   William Daniels 1848
© National Museum Liverpool

In 1848, he discovered various correspondence and old ledgers from the previous century being used in a shop and rescued them, recognising their importance to the history of Wedgwood.  Eliza Meteyard was able to use them in her classic biography, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood: from his Private Correspondence and Family Papers, published in 1865, and they are now safe amongst the Wedgwood archives, thanks to Joseph Mayer.

Staffordshire earthenware butter pot  c. 1650-1700
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Appropriately, these old manuscript pages were being used in a grocer's shop for wrapping butter - paper having replaced the earthenware pots once used to transport and store butter.  And wares like this had been part of the stock in trade of old pottery families, like the Wedgwoods in Burslem.  

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A Collector's Cabinet: John Evelyn 1620-1706

 Cabinet of John Evelyn, c. 1644-46, ebony veneered with pietra dura panels by Domenico Benotti, Florence.
© Victoria & Albert Museum

It was the historicizing late Georgians who embellished this famous seventeenth century collector's display cabinet with the gilded crest, handles and extra gilt bronze mounts. Imagine it as a rather plainer black frame for an early Grand Tourist's finest souvenirs from France and Italy. The young  John Evelyn had it made  to show off the 19 hard-stone mosaic plaques which he purchased during his stay in Florence in 1644. When back in England he also acquired the four classical figures and eight bronze animal plaques from Francesco Fanelli's workshop; and the drawers would be suitable for the smaller manmade treasures and natural curiosities of his collection.    

He was very taken by the fashionable Cabinets of Curiosities - both whole rooms and items of furniture, which he saw on his travels,  describing those in the Palazzo Vecchio Tribune:  "a Cabinet of an octangular form so adorn'd and furnished with Christals, Achat, Sculptures &c as certainly exceeded any description…Likewise another which had about it 8 oriental columns of Alabaster on each whereof was placed an head of a Caesar, cover'd with a Canopy so richly beset with precious stones, that they resembled a firmament of Starrs:…"
Here Evelyn saw the "incomparable tables of Pietra Commessa, which is a marble ground inlaid with several sorts of marbles and stones of divers colours:"...  some by the leading artist, "Domenico Benotti, of whom I purchased 19 pieces of the same work for a Cabinet. "  He may have been dazzled by all the Medici treasures and curiosities,  but he was not taken in by "an Yron-naile, one half thereof being converted into gold by … a German Chymist,  look'd on as a greate rarity [but it plainly appears to have been but sother'd]".

Evelyn in 1650, engraving by Robert Nanteuil
© British Library

Evelyn's cabinet follows the architectural style of the period,  and although its pieta dura plaques and bronzes were stock designs, not specially commissioned items, the whole would provide the essential showpiece furniture to amaze and amuse his friends and visitors.  The term 'cabinet', for a private room or closet, derives from the Latin for enclosed seats at the theatre, and a theatrical experience is what the display cabinet provides, as drawers and doors are opened to reveal yet more novelties.  The central arched door opens to show a bronze figure of Orpheus charming the beasts (like those on the exterior), with mirrors  enhancing the optical illusion.  The contemporary humanist would have appreciated the conceits linking art and nature, science and the classical world in the design of Evelyn's cabinet.

And why was the cabinet so decorated with extra gilt mounts in the 1830s?  It was following the publication of his famous Diary (i.e. his Kalendarium, a combination of notes and memoirs) in 1818, for this was considered to be the ebony cabinet in which his surviving manuscripts were discovered. 

Drawing of the family house at Wotton by Evelyn, 1640
© The British Library

 Librarian William Upcott was visiting Lady Evelyn at Wotton House in 1813,  and she showed him a drawer of old papers, some left over from cutting out dress patterns, saying, "Sylva* Evelyn and those who succeeded him kept all their correspondence, which has furnished the Kitchen with abundance of waste paper."  Upcott went away with more rescued bundles kept in "the ebony cabinet in the Billiard Room," and eventually  Evelyn's Diary was published by William Bray and Upcott .   Its public success led to the Keeper of the Library at Magdalen College, Cambridge, having the manuscript of Samuel Pepys' Diary deciphered and published in 1825.     

*Sylva, or a discourse of Forest Trees, 1664  was Evelyn's comprehensive and influential work on arboriculture.

Evelyn quoted from The Diary ed. E.S.De Beer 

Monday, 1 February 2016

February in Somerset: Woeful and Joyful

"This is still, essentially, a landscape dominated by water in all its forms, eloquently described by local poet William Diaper, writing soon after the Great Storm of 1703:

'Eternal mists their dropping curse distill
And drizzly vapours all the ditches fill:
The swamp land's a bog, the fields are seas
And too much moisture is the grand disease.'


Further along the rhyne I notice two smaller birds, diving down into the murky water, then bobbing up again like animated corks.  Even tinier than a moorhen or teal, these are our smallest waterbird, the little grebe or dabchick.

Dabchicks, as their name suggests, look rather like the offspring of a duck or moorhen; so tiny you cannot believe they are indeed full-grown. At this time of year they are greyish-brown with a fluffy white rear-end. But in a month or so they will moult into their handsome breeding garb: richer and darker, with a deep chestnut-brown neck, and the tiniest lime-green spot behind their bill, as if someone has daubed on a dash of luminous paint.  This is a colour rarely seen in nature, and all the more striking for that. 

Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds   Stephen Moss

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 7: Catherine Parsons of Horseheath

Catherine E. Parsons was born in Horseheath, south of Cambridge, in 1870, and became an important local historian, publishing detailed accounts of Horseheath Hall and All Saints' Church in Horseheath, based on extensive research in wills and parish records, particularly from the late fourteenth century onwards.  

She excavated sites,  researched countless ancient archives, and traced the history of people and places in Horseheath, and collected "bygones, mainly from the cottages of Cambridgeshire" Once she rescued an early Georgian parish constable's staff which was being shaved down for a broom handle.  She also collected keys - this is the 1000th key from her collection, with its original carefully written label.    

© Pitt-Rivers Museum Oxford

She donated all of her key collection  to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford in 1950, possibly because she had studied closely Pitt-Rivers' book  "On the Development and Distribution of Primitive Locks and Keys", when she began to collect in the late 1890s.  As her collection included examples from Japan, India, North Africa and Coptic Egypt, tracing their technology chronologically, maybe she felt the collection as a whole would not fit as well in a local Cambridge museum.

General Pitt-Rivers' collection was arranged by type of object, not by geographical source, so that European breast-plates would join coconut-matting armour from Polynesia, and Roman pottery lamps would sit with stage-coach lanterns. Pitt-Rivers introduced the same methodology to his anthropological collections as to his pioneering system of archaeological excavations, giving equal attention to mundane objects as to more eye-catching finds.  Today the Pitt-Rivers Museum is one of the world's finest (and most evocative) anthropological museums.

Some of Pitt-Rivers' finds on the billiard table at his Rushmore home.
© Pitt-Rivers Museum Oxford

I first became interested in Catherine Parsons as a friend of Dr. James W. L. Glaisher (see A Cabinet of Collectors 3), and a fellow member of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society.
She was collector and also a recorder of folklore, and presented a paper on witchcraft to the Antiquarian Society in 1915.  She says that her interest in this field was begun by scary stories of the "little hairy men" in the Horseheath woods, which the nursery maids told her as a child.  

 In her account of Horseheath village life, Some Recollections of a Cambridgeshire Parish*,  there are only a few personal reminiscences, but she describes a local washerwoman considered a witch, admiring her many voluminous skirts, crossover (shawl) and poke bonnet, and she carefully recorded villagers' superstitions and cures. Their belief in the efficacy of spiders (hung around the neck in a walnut shell or in muslin) survives from well back to the early seventeenth century, when their Lord of the Manor, Sir Giles Alington, noted that "four or six great spiders mingled with English honey and bound to the place" would cure an adder sting. ( Catherine researched his manuscripts in the Bodleian Library for her fascinating account, Horseheath Hall and its Owners*.)  She also notes that young men and women returning from the First World War were no longer so convinced by these old superstitions.

The White Horse Inn became the Cambridge and County Folk Museum
© Museum of Cambridge

As well as her publications, her legacy was the Cambridge and County Folk Museum, founded after committed campaigning by Catherine (its first honorary curator) and her friends, along with her collection of Cambridge village bygones, in 1936.  Now renamed as the Museum of Cambridge, it celebrates its 80th anniversary later this year.

*Originally published in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society

 See:  C. Wingfield, Finding the Key (england.prm.ox.ac.uk)
and:  Welcome to Horseheath (www.horseheath.info)

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 6: a Trio of Traders

This hand-moulded teapot and its pair was in the collection of William Beckford,  when he died in 1845.

Chinese teapot in the shape of a musical instrument  ( a sheng)  c. 1700-20
© Victoria & Albert Museum

The Chinese had been drinking tea since before the Tang dynasty, but it was the East India Companies who developed the trade with Europe in the seventeenth century, sending fleets from their 'factories' in India to Canton, the only Chinese port open to them.

A fleet of Company ships sailing for Canton, from the Log of the Rochester, 1710
© British Library

One English trader, John Lock,  writes of his cargoes in 1701, "the goods I brought from Surat were putchuk*, olibanum, mirh, cominseed, cotton & pearle, all which renders good profit".   Cotton returned  a hundred percent, but it was a bulky cargo, and some two-thirds of the cargo was in silver dollars, which the Chinese imported in great quantities as an international currency.  His return cargo included copper, sugar, camphor, chinaware and gold.  No mention of tea, although porcelain was still being used as ballast for it, but  he may have carried very little or none, as tea was not yet a regular import.  *(an aromatic root)

Chinese portrait figure of a Western merchant, 29.5 cm. Canton workshop c. 1720-25
© Victoria & Albert Museum

This trade on the far side of the world was full of hazards, conducted in two totally alien cultures, with risky sea voyages..  Having reached China, the traders had to catch the right monsoon winds back to India, in order to connect with the ships sailing on the lengthy voyage home to their markets in Europe. They were kept waiting in the Canton estuary while intermediaries dealt with the Chinese merchants; Young Lock (who went on to become a Director of the East India Company) complains: "to purchase the forgoing commodities, are obliged to trust the merchants with most of our Mony and goods, and are often very dilatory in their dispatch".    These men were explorers and collectors as well as traders, and brought home souvenirs like this painted clay portrait figure, done during their enforced delay.  This merchant stands there with the same aplomb, as if he were in a London drawing room.  (His embroidered coat is made of the fine English wool which they hoped to sell to the Chinese, but the Chinese preferred their versatile silk robes.)

The European taste for hot beverages, tea (especially after its prohibitive taxes were slashed in 1784) and coffee, made many traders' fortunes,  including that of Quakers, John Horniman  and his son Frederick in the next century.  By 1891 Horniman & Co was reputed the largest tea company in the world.

Tea advertisement from the 1900s.

Frederick J. Horniman (1835-1906) used his trade contacts and his travels in the Far East and elsewhere to build a vast collection of natural history, anthropological and ethnographic objects, as well as rare and unusual musical instruments.  When his collection outgrew his house in Forest Hill (and chivvied by his wife), he had a purpose-built museum designed for it.   This was opened in 1901 and he donated Museum and collections, together with other property, to the London County Council for the benefit of the public.

The Horniman Museum Building, 1901, designed by C. Harrison Townsend

Our twentieth century trader, Edward Bramah (1931-2008), was both tea and coffee merchant, learning from the ground up, on tea plantations in Malawi, and coffee farms on the slopes of Kilimanjaro,  and also dealing with China.  He set up his own business, the Bramah Tea and Coffee Company, in 1966.

He was descended from Joseph Bramah, the 18th century inventor. Joseph trained as a carpenter and cabinet maker, and it is thought that making tea caddies for the costly leaf tea, inspired him to create his unpickable Bramah Locke, 'the Challenge".  It was patented in 1784 and was only beaten at the Great Exhibition of 1851, by Frank Hobbs, and it took him sixteen days to work it out.

Joseph Bramah's famous lock

Edward inherited this inventive skill.  His collection began in the1950s, particularly with early coffee-making  machines, which he dismantled in order to perfect his own design, the Bramah Coffee Filter,  and he opened his Museum of Tea and Coffee in 1992.

His famous giant teapot uses four pounds of tea 

Edward eventually sold the collection and today it is in storage, with all its novelty teapots and unique tea and coffee-making artefacts,  awaiting a new home.    Maybe some of Edward Bramah's fascinating collection could be more regularly displayed, on loan to the restaurants and bars in Southwark and the City, where our long history of the tea and coffee trades began.

© The Bramah Tea & Coffee Museum

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 5 : Papyri and Plants, two Victorian Ladies

In 1896 Bernard Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt began excavating a rubbish dump outside the ancient 'City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish', or Oxyrhynchus.  The  thousands of papyri fragments they rescued, from everyday trivia to lost  Greek texts, are still being conserved, catalogued and studied today. [see classics.ox.ac.uk] 

An invitation to dinner, c. 2nd-3rd century AD 
© Imaging Papyri Project

Grenfell and Hunt's expedition was funded through the legacy of Amelia B. Edwards, who established
the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1880, and put Egyptology on the map.  

An established novelist and travel writer, holidaying in Egypt in 1873, she was captivated by her first experience of digging at Abu Simbel.  Determined to save the sites and artefacts from destruction through careless digging and thefts, for the rest of her life she campaigned in Europe and the United States for properly controlled and recorded excavations.  

Published in 1877, her account was illustrated with her own watercolours.

She describes her own collection, saying "dearer to me than all the rest of my curios are my Egyptian antiquities: and of these, strange to say, though none of them are in sight, I have enough to stock a modest little museum..  Stowed away in all kinds of nooks and corners, in upstairs cupboards, in boxes, drawers and cases innumerable, behind books, and invading the sanctity of glass closets and wardrobes, are hundreds, nay thousands, of those fascinating objects in bronze and glazed ware, in carved wood and ivory, in glass, and pottery, and sculptured stone, which are the delight of archaeologists and collectors." 
 Even given a writer's artistic licence, who can resist this description of an archetypal collector at home? 

Out of the wardrobe: 
this married couple (1479-1490BC) was photographed on display in her home c. 1891

When Amelia Edwards died in 1892, she left her 'modest little museum' to University College, London, together with, crucially, the endowment of the first Chair in Egyptian Archaeology and Philology in Britain.  Excluding the British Museum curators, where she was never given the respect she deserved, she ensured the Chair went to young Matthew Flinders Petrie, and it is now as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL, opened in 1915, that it is known.  She chose UCL because it was the only English university which awarded degrees to women equally with men:  she was also a vice-president of the Society for Promoting Women's Suffrage.
[Images and content: see UCL, the Petrie Collection]

Another Victorian lady who had means to pursue her independent lifestyle was Marianne North (1830-1892).  She "collected" plants across the globe, or rather recorded them in glowing oil paintings.  The gallery she had built showing all 832 of them is now one of the treasures of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

The Marianne North Gallery, designed by Jas. Fergusson in 1880-81

She shared her MP. father's passion for botany and travel, and after he died, she set out on journeys across several continents, from the Americas to Japan.  She was encouraged by Charles Darwin and had letters of introduction to influential figures from her father's political circle, but she travelled to very remote areas mostly unaccompanied.  

Flower and fruit of W. Australian gum tree with honeysuckers
Importantly, she showed the plants in their natural habitats, travelling from Borneo to Brazil,  with her no doubt stout boots, and beloved oil paints.

Forest scene, Sarawak, Borneo

Yellow bignonia and swallowtail butterflies, with a view of Congonhas, Brazil

Donating her collection to the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1880, she paid for its purpose-built gallery and spent a year preparing and arranging the paintings.  She wanted to provided "tea or coffee and biscuits  (but nothing else)" for the visiting public, but Kew's Director, Sir Joseph Hooker vetoed this, as detracting from the scholarly importance of the Gardens.  Only slightly deterred, she painted tea and coffee plants above the entrance doors.  (Did she sometimes long for a cup of tea or coffee while on her exhausting expeditions?)  Today you can view all her paintings individually online (at kew.org.) but nothing can match the experience of her glowing paintings surrounding you on every side in Marianne North's Gallery.

Images © Royal Botanical Gardens


Tuesday, 5 January 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 4: Dr John Hunter - the 'Knife Man'.

" My Italian Collection being now ariv'd, came Moulins the great Chirurgion to see & admire the Tables of Veines and Arteries, which I purchasd, & causd to be drawne out of several humane bodys at Padua:
 I saw a private dissection at Moulin's."  so John Evelyn writes in his Diary for April 1649.

One of Evelyn's anatomical tables, from Padua, 1646 
© Hunterian Museum, London 

He purchased his four anatomical tables, the  dissected human veins and arteries preserved on panels of varnished oak, in 1646, after  watching three human dissections at the Padua anatomy school, and had them "transported into England, the first of that kind had ben ever seen in our Country, & for ought I know, in the World, though afterwards there were others".

The College of Physicians was very keen for Evelyn to donate these rarities to them, but he was only prepared to lend them for an annual Lecture, although by 1667 he felt able to present them to the Royal Society, "and are hanging up in their Repositary; with an Inscription;".    The remarkable panels were eventually given to the Royal College of Surgeons, where they are on display in the Hunterian Museum.

The museum is tucked away in Lincoln's Inn Fields,  based on the amazing collection of Dr John Hunter, the eighteenth century pioneering anatomist and surgeon.  3000 of his specimens, or preparations,  are now displayed in spectacular glass showcases* at the Royal College of Surgeons. Thousands more were lost during wartime bombing, but hundreds of  his original specimens, or  preparations, beautifully dried or preserved in formaldehyde, many in their original glass jars, are still in constant use today for the detailed study of animal and human anatomy.

Visiting the Hunterian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons

The younger brother of Dr. William Hunter (founder of Glasgow's better known Hunterian Collection),  John worked as his brother's assistant dissectionist, and as an army surgeon, before setting up on his own, teaching and studying  anatomy, and researching new medical procedures.    He married well, and his surgical skills, together with his wife's fashionable salons for artists and intellectuals, brought him in touch with leading figures of society.

Dr John Hunter 1728-93,    Joshua Reynolds 1786

He introduced several new surgical procedures, from his practical experiences and his anatomical researches, including a cure for Coachman's Leg, a contemporary industrial strain injury.  His collections included a menagerie, and paintings by William Hodges and George Stubbs, and Sir Joseph Banks collected specimens for him.

This preparation, a gift from Edward Jenner to his former teacher,  shows the embryo of a cuckoo, with the shell forming.  Hunter wrote to him: "don't think, try the experiment".

Rare preparation of a pig's epididymis. 
By injecting the tightly coiled organ with mercury, Hunter was able to reveal its full length.    He was even asked to prepare anatomy specimens for teaching King George III's children.  The King appointed him Royal Physician in 1776.

Skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant

Hunter was determined to obtain the Irish Giant's skeleton, against Byrne's wishes, reputedly paying around £500 for it.  It now is lasting evidence of Byrne's actual height of seven feet, seven inches.

The collection has continued to explore surgical history and the amazing nature of the body, carrying on from John Hunter's original work.  Today you can wonder at the left (analytical) half of Charles Babbage's brain or Winston Churchill's all-important dentures, along with the pioneering history of Lister's antiseptics and Harold Gillies' plastic surgery, with films of today's brain and keyhole surgery, all learning from John Hunter's collection and his mantra, "try the experiment!"

Images © Hunterian Museum, RCS
* John Ronan designs