Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World
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During the nineteenth century, British collectors were among the most active, passionate and eccentric in the world. Drawing on journals, eye-witness accounts and news reports, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves tells the stories of some of the period's most intriguing collectors, following their hazardous journeys across the globe. Closer to home, it explores the perils of dodgy dealing and forgery, the cut-throat world of the fashionable London market and the competitive spirit that drove the country's collectors, to build a picture of a fascinating world in the midst of change. From John Charles Robinson, curator of the new South Kensington Museum (known to us now as the Victoria and Albert) and his struggles with his superiors over the direction of the museum's collections, to Charlotte Schreiber, an aristocrat who shocked London Society by her marriages, first to an industrialist, and subsequently to the tutor of her children; from silversmith Joseph Mayer in London and Liverpool to doctor Stephen Wootton Bushell in Beijing, Jacqueline Yallop traces the development of Victorian Britain's obsession with the collecting of beautiful things, both private and public. Along the way she explores how the modern roles of dealer, collector and curator emerged; the expansion of local and provincial museums; how collecting became a middleclass pastime, rather than being confined to the aristocracy, while the involvement of women and the impact of empire expanded the notions of what was collectable: from china and the oriental decorative arts to fans and playing cards. And we see how the Victorian era saw the emergence of a newfound obsession with things, with possessions and how they reveal our taste and status to others - one that remains with us to this day.
in town and city museums, even if we rarely visit them. The motivations that drive collectors have frequently been examined by psychologists and psychoanalysts, and this has given us some understanding of why collecting is such a popular activity and how it can become so obsessive. What I want to do with this book is to take a step back, to a period during the nineteenth century when many of the aspects of collecting which we now take for granted were being newly explored, when collectors were
visual language so that it became as instinctive as spoken language: ‘Many see pictures without knowing what to look at. . . We must look and look till we live the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it.’5 It was, of course, a quality collectors also wanted for themselves. But even those who boasted an educated eye of their own were often still keen to employ dealers on their behalf. It was convenient to have someone to undertake the hard, often grubby, work – the
attention, the plain rings and bangles seemed insignificant. But, as time went on and Bushell saw more and more people wearing the bands, he began to ask questions. Listening to the stories, he discovered that the necklaces and bracelets were much more interesting than they had first appeared. The bands were far more than simple ornament or fashion – they were portable property, the family wealth. But unlike the diamond necklaces and elaborate tiaras of the English upper classes, brought out
embroiled within a stagnant culture: ‘toddling, little-eyed, little-footed, little-bearded, [and] little-minded’, suggested the writer Leigh Hunt dismissively.11 With the experimental new science of photography, travellers like John Thomson, an Edinburgh photographer, were able to document some of the most remote and spectacular areas of China, bringing to the English middle classes images of unfamiliar landscapes and communities, of pagodas, river villages and the Great Wall. But, even so,
were turning to individuals to fill the cases. And just as Robinson was overwhelmed by eager contributors, so most local museums found collectors were only too willing to have their names attached to such a respectable municipal venture. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm frequently gave an impression of amateurism and muddle. Even though many museums established specialist loan committees to seek out and woo significant local collectors, most found it hard to turn down objects that they were