Putting a price on all kinds of collected ‘things’ throughout the ages

Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves How the Victorians Collected the World

WANDERING through the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a wonderful experience, no matter which avenue or wing is explored. But it leaves a reverberating question: how did France, Italy, Egypt, Greece, Spain or a myriad of other countries allow these paintings, these marbles, these icons, to escape? Who let them go, and why? And to whom?

Jacqueline Yallop identifies five collectors in the Victorian era whose wealth, taste and scholarship allowed them to accumulate treasures from all over the world. But marvellous collections had been amassed long before this; in her correspondence with the daughters of Cooper Penrose at Woodhill House in Cork, Sarah Curran asks after the fate of the statues being imported from Italy for display in the sumptuous gardens being created for them at Montenotte.

In England the stately country houses, some as grand as palaces, had for centuries been home to cabinets of curiosities, or decorated with the work of great painters and lesser ones.

In The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) for example, Edmund de Waal follows the fortunes of a family linked with a collection of netsuke, the little ivory toggles used as fasteners in Japanese bags or robes. Typical of the Japanese, these were often finely decorated, and as the Orient was opened up to trade and tourism they took on additional value. Again in that book the linked, and often crucial, elements of wealth and political influence are explored: the collector and banker Charles Ephrussi was a man so significant in the Europe of his day that his dealings with Manet or Renoir and his engagement in the famous Dreyfus injustice were matters of international financial as well as artistic concern.

It’s not just money, although money matters. People have always collected, from bones to butterflies. It isn’t always art or antiquities: stamps, coins, trade-marks, post-marks, post-cards, comics, runs of magazines, fans, porcelain, train sets, books, flowers and seeds and even animals, all these are among the things for which people will travel many miles, pay a great deal of money and go to endless trouble.

Whether raided from Egyptian tombs, chipped from Greek temples, excavated from Stone Age burial mounds, stolen from dissolved monasteries, found in inherited attics or bought legitimately at auctions or sales, as objects are gathered in museums and exhibitions their significance, their beauty and their provenance are offered to a wider audience. That at least is the justification one reiterates on those walks around the Metropolitan.

It is also one of the questions raised by Jacqueline Yallop. A former curator at the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield and who, her brief biography notes, “does not collect anything”, she could hardly be blamed though if, after all the research which has gone into this entertaining book, she decided to start.

She sets her scene geographically, revealing the crowded London of the Victorian era as it focused on the London International Exhibition of Industry and Art in 1862 (later the home of the Natural History Museum). At the other side of Exhibition Road, however, was the South Kensington Museum with its new galleries displaying, in a collection covering more than 500 years of art production in all kinds of media and showing “some of the rarest and most beautiful objects ever set before the British public, over 9,000 works of art from over 500 of the country’s richest and most influential owners…”

These were private treasures. Their very presence in South Kensington represented, as Yallop says, “a triumph of negotiation and diplomacy”. For not only did this exhibition reveal the variety, quality and exoticism of especially Medieval and Renaissance art, jewellery and décor, it signalled the extent of Victorian interest in collecting. “It brought into the open a fascination with things that were shaping people’s homes, forging municipal and national identities, and putting the collector at the heart of an increasingly commodified world.”

Ah! Readers in Ireland today might consider that sentence: art, collections and buildings which could amount to national treasures, do have a pronounced relevance to national identity. They are particularly significant as an indication of a country’s cultural wealth, even spiritual wealth, in what Yallop correctly calls an increasingly commodified world.

Of course things are not the sum of the world, but they are the sum of something. Objects do have a narrative, as Edmund de Waal has most recently asserted; the furore over the supposed provenance of items in the Hunt Museum in Limerick is another example of the importance of tracing, and understanding, what happens to ‘things’. From Tutankhamun to Tennessee Williams, they tell a story.

For Yallop that story is condensed into the lives and personalities of John Charles Robinson, Charlotte Schrieber (a philanthropist at home but finding glorious English china amidst the revolutionary aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War), Joseph Mayer, Murray Marks and Stephen Wootton Bushell. What they did, what they found, what they bought and sold, how and to whom and why, these fluent chapters could also provide guidance and inspiration to readers about to set off on their own collecting career.

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