Knick-Knackatory

Simon Schaffer

  • Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum edited by Arthur Macgregor
    British Museum, 308 pp, £50.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 7141 2085 5

‘The British Museum – not a Museum of Britain’, so reads the caption on a photograph of the Museum’s imposing portico, at the start of a recent survey of national collections conducted by the Museums Journal. The BM is not an exhibition of the nation nor does it incorporate one coherently developed collection. Until well into the 19th century it housed the legacy of the Royal Library, the Classical legacy of the Mediterranean world, colonial natural history, and a host of private cabinets of curiosity, in apparently chaotic if snooty profusion. Radicals attempted to replace the Museum’s aristocratic, Tory management with more scientific and professional direction in the dangerous decade of the 1830s, but the natural history collections were not shifted to Waterhouse’s great palace in South Kensington until the 1880s, and they only seceded from Bloomsbury’s control in 1963. The Museum’s ethnographic holdings, which, unlike some other collections in Europe, do not now count as a branch of natural history, were moved to Burlington House. In 1973, the British Library was formally split off, followed almost at once by plans to shift its collections away from Great Russell Street. Now the holdings of the Museum of Mankind are slowly returning, as the Library even more slowly moves to St Pancras. These wanderings, and the complex controversies which surround them, are eloquent testimony to the intimate relationship between the British Museum and the patchwork of national heritage. So though we might agree, and might even sometimes be grateful, that Britain lacks a museum of the nation, it does possess in this museum a richly fascinating, if often infuriating, emblem of its varying conceptions of value and culture.

These variations are illuminated by the career of Hans Sloane, the confidently opulent metropolitan physician, president both of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal Society, whose collections of more than eighty thousand curiosities and antiquities, along with a magnificent library, formed the principal nucleus of the Museum founded after his death in 1753. Arthur Macgregor, who has previously co-edited an important work on the history of museums, has gathered here a series of essays by current and former staff of the British and Natural History Museums, who use the 30 extant manuscript catalogues of Sloane’s original collections both to document their contents and to consider his interests and aims.

The epithet ‘founding father of the British Museum’ (which, intriguingly, appears on the title page, but not the cover), is not entirely apt. Former students of the tortuous process by which the Museum was established in the wake of Sloane’s legacy have concluded that more was owed to Parliamentary negotiation than to Sloane’s vision, and even doubted whether he was genuinely the author of his own collection. Anxiety about his real strategy in amassing the tobacco pipes and astrolabes, gallstones and ‘druids’ beads’, which stocked his rooms in Bloomsbury and Chelsea, is very marked throughout these essays. The ‘huge investment’ Sloane made in trying to gather insect specimens from around the world ‘was at least partly wasted effort’: most have rotted or disappeared. One early 19th-century natural-history keeper staged annual cremations of Sloane’s decaying entomological specimens. John Cannon, an eminent plant taxonomist, reveals that after contemplating Sloane’s herbarium ‘one is left with a slight nagging feeling of anti-climax’ because the collector had the misfortune to live just before taxonomy became a proper science with Linnaeus. In a brilliant essay on his attitude to Classical antiquities, Ian Jenkins records that ‘Sloane’s curiosity was of the blinder sort,’ and that ‘his was a half-hearted interest and his assemblage an unremarkable affair,’ while the editor himself acknowledges that Sloane’s interest in Egyptology, accompanied by ‘a marked degree of bulk buying, seems accurately to reflect its unfocused and undiscriminating character’. Elsewhere, we are told that he had ‘very little interest in the artistic merits or demerits of the multifarious objects in his collection’. Though Sloane acquired some fine Inuit and Oriental material, helped set the taste for Netherlandish painting, and amassed a fine collection of Dürer’s work, his approach was always decidedly ‘opportunistic’, and he acquired such treasures ‘almost by accident’. The relic of a rapacious and unflagging accumulator rather keener on compilation than judgment and on show than study, Sloane’s collection, it seems, will not receive high marks.

Attention to the problem of collecting has been high on the scholarly agenda in recent years. A Journal of the History of Collections has been founded, and a ‘new museology’ has sought to interpret the construction and meaning of such holdings. Philosophical fashion in this field was set by Foucault’s citation, at the opening of Les Mots et les choses, from an essay by Borges about a Chinese encyclopedia which allegedly classified animals in an apparently crazy manner: beasts belonging to the emperor, stray dogs, frenzied animals, sucking pigs and so on. Different modes of order establish the possibility of different modes of knowledge, and objects so classified acquire vital symbolic meanings. Successive curators of the BM and analysts of Sloane’s catalogues have found it extremely difficult adequately to classify their content, puzzling over distinctions between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ productions, wondering where to place a foetus resembling the cloaked ape which its mother had seen during her pregnancy, or how best to deal with Sloane’s obsessively discriminated flint collection.

The typically Baroque dream of a universal classification which could perfectly capture the essences of things went hand in hand with the passion for collection and for curiosity. These collections, for all their apparent disorder, reflected the collectors’ sense of distinction and of social privilege, of their power over a complex and recalcitrant Creation. Significantly, Borges’s essay was focused on the mid-17th-century programme of Bishop John Wilkins for a universal language capable of accurately registering each and every occupant of the world, a scheme Wilkins developed at least in part to help his calculations of the original contents of Noah’s Ark. Debates about the Flood and its aftermath were often resolved by appeal to the holdings of virtuosi museums. As Margaret Nickson informs us here in her helpful analysis of Sloane’s library, Wilkins’s work was one of the first folios which the young Hans Sloane purchased when he reached London as an ambitious apothecary in the early 1680s. Decades later, various drafts of his will underlined the high religious purpose he reckoned such collections should discharge, especially ‘the manifestation of the glory of God’ and ‘the confutation of atheism and its consequences’. John Cannon makes a persuasive analogy between Sloane’s herbarium and the volumes of the Bible. Sloane bought and stored the world to manifest its divinely validated wisdom and good order, and as this collection’s exclusive owner, he became its local deity.

Much of Sloane’s career was marked by this concern with the moral order of property and by distinctions of rank and wealth, of religion, race and political allegiance. His first two decades were spent among the embattled Protestant settlers in Ulster, where his father was a tax receiver and one of his brothers became a sterling defender of the rights of Protestant Ulstermen in the Irish Parliament. Ever after a staunch Whig, Sloane witnessed at first hand the military persecution of his co-religionists in southern France in the 1680s when studying medicine there, and by the end of that decade, already a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians, he was established as medical adviser to the new Governor of Britain’s slave colony in Jamaica. The island was, as Braudel once put it, ‘a capitalist machine serving the rich’, a viciously exploitative economy increasingly run for the benefit of absentee landowners who recycled sugar profits through the London markets. While his noble patient on the island soon died, Sloane turned his own sojourn there into an indispensable source of status and money.

Though he complained about persistent attacks from the Jamaican maroons – bands of escaped slaves engaged in endemic conflicts with the European settlers – Sloane rapidly accumulated local animals and plants and took careful notes, especially on their medical and culinary virtues. A snake he wanted to bring back to London was, regrettably, shot by his master’s servants. He noted that manatees could be salted like beef, and recommended smoking a calming mixture of tobacco with poppy seeds. He thus established something of a precedent for those naturalists who seem peculiarly devoted to consuming their specimens, and a precedent, too, for British naturalists whose careers were forged in voyages to the tropics. John Evelyn enthusiastically visited Sloane’s Jamaican collections in the 1690s, and Sloane eventually published a fine catalogue of Jamaican plants and two volumes of his travel journal. Meanwhile, he spotted more immediately advantageous opportunities, by collecting and marketing quinine and chocolate, the latter of which he mixed with milk as a newfangled medicament, marketed as bars of ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate’ through Soho shops. He also married a very wealthy planter’s widow, Elizabeth Rose, who brought him at least £4000 a year from the sugar plantations, a business which he kept up throughout the early 1700s. ‘One had to be back in England to make money out of the colonics,’ Braudel confirms. While Sloane’s average income from his medical practice was about £600 per annum, his account books record profitable deals on sugar and tobacco imports backed by the enterprises linked to the slave estates.

Connections with the slave trade brought other advantages. He became adviser to the managers of the Africa Company on the best drugs and spices to collect in West Africa, in strategies to inoculate slaves against smallpox to preserve them from disease during the appalling ‘middle passage’ to the Caribbean, and, inevitably, began to use the worldwide network of physicians, naturalists and collectors associated with the trade as an invaluable source of specimens for his own burgeoning showrooms. The Duke of Chandos, one of the bosses of the Africa Company, provided him with samples of ointments used in Guinea. Sloane also obtained an Asante drum, which, as J.C.H. King reports here, is the only surviving 18th-century African artefact associated with slavery. David Dabydeen has pointed out that the very word ‘patron’ could at this point mean both connoisseur and slave-owner. It would be intriguing to know whether the peculiar interest which Sloane had in tobacco and its paraphernalia was connected with his other business interests. Alongside a remarkable collection of cigarettes and pipes, he preserved a strap for whipping slaves and a noose for catching and hanging them.

Sloane’s worldwide network was a formidable system for the commercial accumulation of information and booty. In his London headquarters, which by the 1710s included a fashionable house in Bloomsbury, the manor at Chelsea and the Physic Garden there, he employed a series of assistants, often recruited through his powerful connections at the Royal Society, to act as librarians, cataloguers and agents. One servant was a former slave, Job Jalla, brought to London by the managers of the scheme to establish a new colony in Georgia. Pre-eminent among Sloane’s staff was Johann Scheuzer, a young Swiss medic whom he swiftly promoted through the College of Physicians while using him as amanuensis and curator. Scheuzer’s greatest achievement was his glossy edition of a remarkable account of contemporary Japan compiled in the 1690s by Engelbert Kaempfer, who had spent two years working as a medical officer for the Dutch East India Company immured on their tiny (and artificially-constructed) island in Nagasaki harbour. This History of Japan (1727), the subject of an excellent contribution to this volume by Yu-Ying Brown, defined for centuries European attitudes to the Japanese, and contributed, via a Dutch translation, to Japan’s own sense of its policy of national seclusion. As Brown points out, Scheuzer’s command of the Sloane holdings, allowing comparative research into material culture and documentation, was crucial to his success in producing this extraordinary work of scholarship.

Just as Sloane’s power-centre relied on the accumulation of objects and data, so it exploited an extended system of hundreds of travellers and informants. Knowing who to trust was just as important as what was reported. Sloane used social conventions inherited from previous virtuosi and collectors, many of them veterans of the Grand Tour, fellows of the Royal Society, or keen antiquarians, notably his aged patron, the great naturalist John Ray. Some of his informants – East India Company factors, missionaries in the colonies or Arctic whalers – supplied Sloane and his staff with individual curios or titbits of gossip: flamingo tongues ‘fit for a prince’s table’, a walrus head, maggots taken from a man’s ear, and animals, such as beavers and arctic foxes, which were kept alive in a veritable menagerie at Chelsea. But generous trust could easily be satirised as simple-minded credulity. James Salter, a fellow Ulsterman and one-time servant of Sloane, put objects such as ‘Pontius Pilate’s Wife’s Chambermaid’s Sister’s Hat’, allegedly acquired from his former master, on show at a coffee house in Cheyne Walk. It was thanks to Salter that the word ‘museum’ became common in London conversation. Pope, whose Twickenham grotto was furnished by Sloane with basalt from the Giant’s Causeway, was scathing in his verses about the passion for curiosity exhibited by his erstwhile benefactor.

The major group of Sloane’s contacts, however, were those whose collections he simply bought outright in often fiercely competitive bidding. These included the energetic London naturalists, such as the lawyer William Charleton, the apothecary James Petiver, the Queen’s botanist Leonard Plukenet and the silk-weaver Joseph Dandridge, whose collections of insects, plants and curiosities were purchased or inherited by Sloane and added to his own stock. Such holdings were easily seen as capital: ‘Sir Hans is ready to promote such designs, wallowing in his own money,’ moaned the naturalist William Sherard, while Sloane himself boasted that the Venetian Ambassador had once offered him £15,000 for the whole lot. Major sources for his assemblages of Roman vases, coins and statuary were Italian virtuosi: one of them, Sterbini, is here described as ‘something of a shark. It was no doubt in the spirit of a business transaction, rather than out of selfless interest in the Republic of Letters, that he acted as Sloane’s agent.’ In the rapidly growing system of salerooms and salons, Sloane’s power seems to have been overwhelming, though often contested by important rivals, notably his inveterate enemy, the irascible naturalist John Woodward, who carried his fight with the overweening Sloane into the rooms of the Royal Society and onto the London streets. It has been suggested by recent historians that objects of curiosity were means by which the distant, the exotic and the spiritually significant could be brought down to earth and made familiar. Sloane’s engagement in this process helped weld the taste of the connoisseur to the demands of the financial markets.

One way of understanding Sloane’s enterprise is thus to see it as an ingenious and potent combination of genteel distinction and commercially-minded power. Many of his curiosities helped reinforce the increasingly important contrast between what were coming to be seen as popular superstition and patrician science. What the plebs called ‘devil’s arrows’ and ‘druids’ beads’ were rather to be judged as mundane human artefacts, some of them, as Sloane’s friends at the Ashmolean told him, ‘made for the better imposing upon the vulgar’. On the way to Jamaica, he scotched the notion that barnacle-geese really grew from barnacle-shells. One of Sloane’s contributions to the Royal Society’s debates involved the notorious ‘Vegetable Lamb of Tartary’, widely reckoned to be the marvellously botanical production of a living sheep, but revealed by Sloane to be the rhizome of a large fern. As custom and folklore were teased apart from apparently genuine knowledge, so the authority of those who commanded the world’s resources was reinforced. The co-ordination of these widely distributed natural and artificial products was the key to Sloane’s system. Maps and travel books took pride of place in his library. He could compare current West Indian fauna with fossils collected in Britain, connect medical practices in North America and the Far East, and calculate the foreseeable returns of investments in Guinea or in China. Sloane imagined that nations may always have lived by such a commercial code. Siberian relics of mammoth tusks could not be Roman burials, he judged, because ‘no one would be so ridiculous as to bury their ivory teeth, which are of high price with all nations.’

Sloane’s ‘knick-knackatory’, as it was impiously called, was intimately connected with the emerging status of London as a world entrepôt. Mercantile credit and reputation were keys to public success, as much for Sloane’s astonishingly widespread medical practice as for his equally striking capacity to gather stock worldwide. However potent a resource, and however dependent on the serious business of accumulation, it suffered, inevitably, from the vagaries and absurdities of that market. Such primitive accumulation was not always an obviously rational activity. Sloane was forced to step in to defend the well-known butterfly collector Eleanor Glanvill, whose family wanted to have her committed as a lunatic. Swift and Pope wrote their satires against the mindless pettifogging of insect-gatherers and antiquaries. In the end, it was entirely fitting that his whole collection was only saved for this country in 1753 through the proceeds of a specially launched national lottery (Stephen Dorrell, please note). The lottery was a spectacular scandal run by a notorious swindler and barely realised the profit required by the state. Though undoubtedly ‘attended with numberless advantages to the public’, as Sloane’s first biographer put it, the process by which his collections became national property, like their origin and content, bears all the traces of the cut-throat world in which this great virtuoso once plied his trade.