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Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World

By Rohan McWilliam | Posted 15th November 2011, 17:09
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Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World
Jacqueline Yallop
Atlantic Books   430pp   £25

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Why do we collect things? It remains a strange compulsion. Is it driven by love of art and antiquities, the desire to appear cultivated or just the thrill of the chase? Certainly there is a delicious pleasure in finding a long sought after object in a junk shop (run, with any luck, by someone who does not appreciate its value).

Jacqueline Yallop’s excellent new book is a study of the way this obsession shaped 19th-century Britain. The Victorians did not invent collecting but they took it to new levels. Yallop’s figures were forever rummaging for bric-a-brac, buying lost Anglo-Saxon objects uncovered by labourers, scouring the Continent for Old Masters and training their eye to discern the qualities of the best craftsmen. She focuses on the high end of collecting. These were people who had money and  used it to surround themselves with the sublime and the strange. It was a golden age of connoisseurship, laying the basis for the modern history of art and design but also providing the contents for many museums in Britain. Most major towns in the 19th century defined their civic purpose through the provision of buildings that would make beautiful things available to all. Collectors quite literally delivered the goods to fill them.

There is a huge gallery of collectors in Yallop’s book but it is structured around five case-studies. Perhaps the most remarkable is Lady Charlotte Schreiber (better known under her first married name, Lady Charlotte Guest). The daughter of the Earl of Lindsey, she defied high society by marrying into trade. While assisting her first husband to run the largest ironworks in the world, she translated the cycle of medieval Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion into English. With her second husband, she devoted much of her life to a love of china, proving indefatigable in her search for obscure treasures throughout Europe. A collector, hoping to find a rare object in a part of Holland that was off the beaten track, realised his journey was fruitless when he saw Lady Charlotte had got there first, the desired item no doubt carried off in her capacious red bag. Another unlikely scholar was Stephen Wooton Bushell, who went to China in 1868 as physician to the British legation and ended up becoming one of the leading authorities on Chinese art. His purchases of ceramics ultimately became the basis of the Chinese collections in several London museums. Murray Marks, on the other hand, was a West End dealer, whose expertise made him a key contact in the art world. He befriended Rossetti and many other aesthetes.

John Charles Robinson was the obnoxious but indispensable curator to the South Kensington (later the Victoria and Albert) Museum. He built up the institution’s remarkable collection, defining its purpose as the exhibition of great artworks. This brought him into collision with the museum’s director, Henry Cole, who viewed its purpose as the promotion of modern design to stimulate commerce. In the short term Robinson was forced to resign but, over time, his vision won out. A more attractive personality was the antiquarian and philanthropist Joseph Mayer, who dedicated himself to collecting great art but also to archaelogical finds. His collection eventually included the sarcophagus of Bakenkhonsu, stolen from the latter’s tomb at Thebes in Egypt, as well as a stuffed crocodile, Burmese manuscripts, Roman pottery and Babylonian sculpture. Mayer left his treasures to the Liverpool Museum.

Yallop is also a novelist, which explains why her book is so gorgeously written. The author claims that she does not collect anything. I beg to differ. Her book is a collection of collectors. More importantly, like all the best Victorian collections, it provokes curiosity, discourages idleness and provides instruction and amusement.

Rohan McWilliam is Senior Lecturer in British and American history at Anglia Ruskin University. He is the author of The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation (Hambledon Continuum, 2007).


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