Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, By Jacqueline Yallop

Every museum tells a story of obsession
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The Independent Culture

The calm of modern museums belies the rampant mania that lies behind the presence of so many of their exhibits.

Many of them were acquired during the Victorian era, when pioneering collectors of all kinds would spend decades obsessively pursuing everything from samurai swords to dinosaur bones. In this scholarly yet diverting account, Yallop delves into the 19th-century craze by scrutinising the careers of five wildly different collectors.

Compulsive collecting could be dangerous. Charlotte Schreiber found herself in Paris in 1871 after the crushing of the Commune. Two of the dealers she came to see had expired from fright, while windows were bricked up for fear of les pétroleuses – working-class women said to stalk the streets with petrol bombs. Nonetheless, the intrepid Schreiber busied herself adding fine china to her portfolio.

Other hazards included forgery. One of the most notorious cases concerned a wax bust called Flora, supposedly sculpted by Leonardo da Vinci. It was authenticated by Murray Marks, an extraordinary interior designer and intimate of the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a respected collector. Nonetheless, later forensic tests demonstrated that the bust was bogus.

Looting was an especially reprehensible means of acquisition. One of the worst episodes occurred during the sacking of the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace in 1860 by British and French forces, when more than one million artefacts were stolen. The wanton destruction and pillage held back Stephen Wootton Bushell in his research into Chinese arts and crafts. Bushell was a doctor attached to the British legation in Peking who became one of the leading authorities on Chinese ethnographic art.

Rigid social proprieties dominated the scene. Collecting by women was viewed as eccentric, if not downright insane. Schreiber attracted censure not merely for her gender but also because she married a servant – her children's tutor. Collectors who were also dealers, meanwhile, were looked down upon: dealing was considered "trade". Yet collectors without private income often had to deal to get by.

When Bushell lost his life savings in the collapse of the Oriental Bank he turned successfully to dealing. John Charles Robinson took the same course when he was ousted from his curator's post at the South Kensington Museum, the forerunner of the Victoria & Albert. The museum's narrow-minded remit was to display examples of manufacturing design in order to mould consumer taste. Robinson defied this, buying outstanding Renaissance artworks instead. His approach brought furious rows with his managers and led to his second career as a dealer.

None of Yallop's five has remained famous. Most collectors wish their collections to endure after their death, but they are almost always broken up. Even so, the quintet's insatiable lust for spoils has benefited us because so many of their treasures are now on public display, even if the picaresque tales behind their acquisitions remain hidden.