This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Ask someone to imagine the classic Victorian drawing room and the chances are they’ll describe a grand domestic space adorned with stuffed animals, rare artworks, fine furniture and exotic objects – a display assembled by the rich or aristocratic to project their wealth and status.
According to Jacqueline Yallop, author of Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, this image is accurate in some respects, yet it’s missing one crucial ingredient: the middle classes. For, by the 19th century, collecting was something that an ever-growing number of people, from a wide range of professions, could enjoy. In short, it was no longer the preserve of the elite.
“The Victorian period was one of immense change,” says Yallop, “and, as the middle classes started to exert more of an influence on the world around them – both politically and socially – they began to regard collecting as an integral part of their contribution to life.
“They realised that the things they owned, the pieces they chose and the type of objects they decided to collect said something about them as people, their role in society, and their educational standards and aspirations.”
Massive public events such as the Great Exhibition of 1851 – which saw around 15,000 contributors display some 100,000 objects in London’s Crystal Palace – only served to increase the allure of collecting; this was now a pastime that connected people to exotic countries, travel, discovery and glamour.
Similar extravaganzas, showcasing countless more objects, were staged in Paris and Turin. Yet international exhibitions weren’t alone in fuelling Britons’ love of collecting. Says Yallop: “Another big change that took place in the 19th century was the development of public collections in town museums. Alongside private collectors – who had been active for some time – publicly accessible collections were now being developed with a specific purpose in mind: not just to show off, but also to educate and inspire ordinary folk. It was a new fashion that many people wanted to be involved in.”
The way in which people went about forming their collections differed according to budget, personality and taste. Some people simply bought pieces to enjoy for themselves; others were connected by a network of dealers and collectors who met frequently to swap, exchange and buy objects.
The pastime was not solely confined to male spheres either. Although female collecting was more constrained by social conditions – and for much of the 19th century, married women were legally unable to own objects themselves – Yallop believes there was a lively network of female collecting. Their contribution is harder to trace, however, as many collections were undocumented, and women often chose to collect domestic items, such as china, which were not considered worthy of much attention.
There were, of course, the more eccentric – and usually wealthy – collectors who travelled the world in search of exotic artefacts, but most people could not afford such extravagance and so relied on dealers to source objects for them. “Many of these dealers were collectors in their own right,” says Yallop, “and on the whole tended to be very knowledgeable and scholarly. But they did not move in aristocratic circles.
By the end of the 19th century, however, as the collecting craze grew, dealers had left the cluttered, dark, slightly mysterious stores of the early Victorian era to create light, glamorous showrooms in which they displayed objects to impress and attract customers.”
Inevitably, as the market for collecting grew and people began to pay more money for objects, the market for forgeries also increased. So professional were some of these that even the most scholarly and experienced collectors were at risk of being taken in.
“The profits to be made from forgeries were substantial,” says Yallop, “and the forged pieces themselves were often beautiful and skilfully made. The potential to fool less knowledgeable buyers with money to spend was so great that workshops were set up in Italy specifically to fulfil the market for forgeries: the more the collecting industry boomed, the more people were likely to be cheated.”
But what of the countries losing precious pieces of their heritage to the British hunger for collecting? According to Yallop, as the 19th century progressed, collectors increasingly understood their responsibilities towards the objects they’d acquired and the countries from which they came.
“At the beginning of the period, adventurers and collectors were cramming their pockets full of exotic pieces with little thought for the impact of what they were doing” she says.
“But by the end of the century, we begin to see political discussions – started in the 1870s by prime minister William Gladstone (himself an avid collector) – as to whether this sort of behaviour was acceptable.”
The fact that collecting was the subject of debate in the highest offices in the land says something for the passion that it inspired – a passion that was, says Yallop, inextricably bound to the Victorian thirst for discovery and adventure. Above all, she adds, it genuinely changed ordinary people’s perceptions of the world around them.
“Not only did the collecting boom create priceless collections – many of which we can still enjoy today – it offered a unique learning experience to ordinary people accessing public collections for the very first time.”
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham
Where a diverse collection was created to be shared with the public
Built in the 19th century by John and Josephine Bowes, the Bowes Museum was designed to house an eclectic collection of objects that could be accessed by ordinary people living in the area, as a means of introducing them to the wider world of art.
The extraordinary collection comprises important and precious works from all over Europe and beyond. Opened in 1892, it attracted nearly 63,000 visitors in its first year – and was a passion shared by the couple.
“The museum gives visitors a sense of the Victorian joy of collecting and the eclecticism of the Bowes’ taste in objects,” says Jacqueline Yallop. “The collection grew rapidly, and some 15,000 objects were added between 1862 and 1874.”
Among the items on display is a 230-year-old life-sized silver swan – a musical automaton controlled by three separate clockwork mechanisms.
Sadly, neither John nor his wife lived to see the completion of their beloved museum: Josephine died in 1874, and John in 1885.
The Bowes Museum is still open to visitors and the silver swan plays at 2pm every day.
Abbotsford House, Melrose, Roxburghshire
Where ‘Scotland’s greatest son’ created the archetypal collection
Poet and historian Sir Walter Scott designed and built Abbotsford House as a romanticised ideal of an historic country house. Harking back to medieval times for inspiration, Scott created an interior that brought together a range of objects, often with medieval and military themes, to fashion what later became the archetypal look for a collector.
Suits of armour, shields and pistols were just some of the objects used by Scott to create the desired effect, and the style was one that became extremely fashionable, albeit on a smaller scale, among his contemporaries.
Abbotsford House became a port of call for a number of European monarchs and foreign leaders. Queen Victoria herself was said to have been so taken with Abbotsford’s design that she modelled Balmoral on much of its architecture.Some of the house is still laid out as it would have been during Scott’s lifetime. This includes the armoury and ante-room, which boasts Rob Roy’s broadsword, dirk (dagger), and sporran purse.
It also houses the keys to Lochleven Castle, which were thrown into the loch after Mary Queen of Scots’ escape in 1568.
Abbotsford House is closed for refurbishment until 2013, but a new visitor centre, including an exhibition on the life and legacy of Sir Walter Scott, is due to open this summer.cwww.scottsabbotsford.co.uk
The Victorian Fernery, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Midlothian
Where a Greenock sugar refiner indulged his love of exotic plants
The Victorians did not restrict their collections to domestic objects such as porcelain and fine art: ferneries also became popular in Britain from the 1850s as a result of a growing interest in exotic plants.
“Natural history collections were often the first experience people had of collecting,” says Yallop, “and the Victorian era saw an increasing fashion for bringing back live plants and seeds from around the world. Ferns were particularly popular and ferneries were built to display the plants at their best and allowed them to be appreciated as objects in their own right.”
Some plants were brought back as seeds, while others were transported on ships in Wardian cases, invented in the late 1820s to protect delicate plants and seedlings on long sea journeys. Such methods of transportation made it far easier to import ferns and, by the second half of the 19th century, it became a status symbol to have one in your garden.
Many plants were given to public gardens, while others formed part of specially designed ferneries. One such was the Victorian Fernery in Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. Built in the 1870s by James Duncan, a wealthy sugar refiner from Greenock, the Victorian Fernery is architecturally stunning. It lay derelict for nearly 100 years, but re-opened in its present form in 2009, following an extensive restoration project. You can view it as part of a visit to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden.
All Saints’ church, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire
Where the aesthetics of Victorian collecting can be appreciated
Although most Victorian collecting centred around the home, All Saints’ church demonstrates some of the visual effects that many collectors were trying to achieve in their own spaces. Designed by architect GF Bodley in the Gothic revival style, and built between 1863 and 1870, the church is noted for its striking interior, which includes painted wall and ceiling decorations, stained glass windows and individual figures designed by, among others, Ford Madox Brown and William Morris.
Says Yallop: “Although not a specific collection of objects, All Saints’ does give a sense of the principles influencing the growing number of Victorian collectors who were inspired by the Aesthetic movement, and who were collecting in order to create interiors with a particular fashionable look.”
The church is open to the public and is still used for Sunday morning worship and occasional exhibitions.
Blessingbourne House, Fivemiletown, County Tyrone
Where an impressive display of Wedgwood china can still be seen
Completed in around 1874, Blessingbourne House was the creation of architect and artist Charles Robert Cockerell, on the commission of Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery, and was built in an Elizabethan style. Although a relatively small collection in comparison with others of its time, Blessingbourne is noted for its showcasing of Wedgwood china.
Many of the objects collected during the Victorian period were dictated by fashions of the day, and some names, including Wedgwood, attracted a new generation of collectors from the middle of the century.
The Wedgwood collection at Blessingbourne was started in the 1870s when the style was emerging from obscurity into popularity once more, and provides a valuable snapshot of its time.
Blessingbourne House has recently undergone a refurbishment and you can visit much of the estate, including the gardens.
Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, Gwynedd
Where a mock Norman fortification projected its owner’s wealth
Although artwork was no longer the sole focus for collectors in the 19th century, many still prized fine art – even if it was rapidly becoming the preserve of the rich and aristocratic.
More and more people were collecting objects such as silverware, ceramics and glassware, but those who wanted to make a real statement still plumped for paintings. After all, fine art commanded the most money and there was no better way of expressing your wealth than by owning the work of an old master.
Penrhyn Castle, built by the architect Thomas Hopper between 1820 and 1833 for the Pennant family, was every bit as much an expression of status as the extensive collection of paintings that it housed.
Among the treasures on display at Penrhyn Castle is a Norman-style one-tonne slate bed made for a visit by
Queen Victoria in 1859, as well as artwork by Rembrandt and Canaletto.
The Bell Pettigrew Museum, University of St Andrews, Fife
Where a Victorian natural history collection has changed little since its heyday
Founded in April 1838 by academics and other leading townspeople of the day, the Bell Pettigrew Museum was open to both students and the public throughout the 19th century. It featured objects that had once belonged to leading scientists of the era, such as Alfred Russel Wallace – the eminent Victorian naturalist and co-inventor of the theory of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution.
“As was usually the case with early Victorian museums, the space was crammed full of objects and specimen cases and would have been an exciting place to visit,” says Yallop. “Natural history collections in the 19th century were beginning to illustrate some of the big debates of the period, such as Darwinism and natural selection, and stimulated intellectual discussion. Visitors to the collection would have seen physical representations of some of the major debates of the day.”
Today, little has changed in the museum’s layout and many of its 3,000 objects are still displayed in their original Victorian cases, giving visitors a sense of what it would have looked like during the 19th century. Among the items on display is a species of glass sponge first described by anatomist Richard Owen in
1841, and a number of rare birds and animals.
The museum is open to the public on Tuesday and Friday afternoons throughout throughout July and August. Access at other times can be arranged via the museum’s curator.
Biddulph Grange Garden, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
Where a Victorian vision of China survives
Landowner and horticulturalist James Bateman designed Biddulph Grange Garden to display his collection of plants from around the world. Visitors were taken on a ‘world tour’ through connected gardens themed around specific parts of the world – from Italy and the pyramids of Egypt to a Victorian vision of China. As head of exploration for the Royal Horticultural Society, Bateman was able to employ plant hunters to search for exotic plants and ferns with which to furnish his unique gardens.
“The Victorian age was one of exploration and adventure,” says Yallop, “but the newly discovered places were seen as dangerous and threatening. Collecting was a way of imposing familiar order onto unfamiliar objects, as can be seen in Bateman’s rather British take on a Chinese garden. He tried
to make these new discoveries more comfortable by setting them within their own context; he essentially established a sense of what China was to the English taste.”
Biddulph Grange Garden boasts the oldest surviving golden larch in Britain, brought from China in the 1850s, as well as an imitation of the Great Wall of China. The garden is owned by the National Trust and open to the public.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Jacqueline Yallop, author of Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World (Atlantic Books, 2011)