Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, By Jacqueline Yallop
Every museum tells a story of obsession
Sunday 08 May 2011
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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 3 The Grace Dent Christmas Questionnaire
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader