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

Felix Driver on a sympathetic portrayal of a group of Victorian collectors

Magpies, Squirrels  and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World
Author: Jacqueline Yallop
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Reviewed by: Felix Driver
Price (RRP): £25

The Victorians liked a show. This much we know from the Great Exhibition of 1851 which spawned a tradition of international and imperial expositions. On display at these events was an incredible variety of things – raw materials, specimens, artefacts, curiosities, crafts, artworks, architecture, machinery, people – all collected together for the purpose of national edification.

The attention lavished on the great exhibitions by historians is understandable given their spectacular scale. But there is another kind of history, indeed a more personal history, to be written about the collecting impulse itself. This is the subject of Jacqueline Yallop’s book.

The figure of the collector is a recognisable type in Victorian literature: eccentric and antisocial, the collector’s obsession with his collection to the detriment of customary civilities is often presented as a kind of madness. While various forms of mania recur in this book, the overall impression given of collectors is rather more generous.

Admittedly, there was a lot at stake in the business of collecting – credit and character to be preserved, fortunes and reputations to be lost – but Yallop’s achievement is to portray her subjects in human terms.

So readily lampooned in the pages of Punch – or worse, subject to retrospective psychoanalysis – collectors figure here as remarkably genial and indeed generous characters.

The book is organised around the stories of five characters in the Victorian world of art and antiquities: John Charles Robinson, the influential curator of the South Kensington Museum; Charlotte Schreiber, an aristocratic collector who scoured the shops of Europe for ceramics, with her red velvet collecting bag; the jeweller Joseph Mayer who bequeathed a remarkable collection of antiquities to the Liverpool museum; the London art dealer Murray Marks who exploited the craze for blue-and-white ceramics; and doctor turned sinophile Stephen Wootton Bushell, the author of an authoritative guide to Chinese art.

Rarely figuring much – if at all – in academic histories of exhibitions or museums, these collectors shared a compulsive interest in the collecting of artworks and antiquities, an ability to mobilise increasingly large amounts of money to fund their pursuits and a strong personal legacy in the collections of our public museums.

This book gives us a glimpse of the personalities and institutions that drove the business of Victorian collecting. It raises important questions about relationships between museum curators, private collectors and dealers, and the extent to which these roles could overlap in the same person.

Most of all, it allows us to see collecting as a social activity, not simply a private pursuit, and one which has left a wonderful legacy in the collections of major museums across the British Isles and beyond. 

 Felix Driver is professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London

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