Monday, 11 January 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 5 : Papyri and Plants, two Victorian Ladies

In 1896 Bernard Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt began excavating a rubbish dump outside the ancient 'City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish', or Oxyrhynchus.  The  thousands of papyri fragments they rescued, from everyday trivia to lost  Greek texts, are still being conserved, catalogued and studied today. [see] 

An invitation to dinner, c. 2nd-3rd century AD 
© Imaging Papyri Project

Grenfell and Hunt's expedition was funded through the legacy of Amelia B. Edwards, who established
the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1880, and put Egyptology on the map.  

An established novelist and travel writer, holidaying in Egypt in 1873, she was captivated by her first experience of digging at Abu Simbel.  Determined to save the sites and artefacts from destruction through careless digging and thefts, for the rest of her life she campaigned in Europe and the United States for properly controlled and recorded excavations.  

Published in 1877, her account was illustrated with her own watercolours.

She describes her own collection, saying "dearer to me than all the rest of my curios are my Egyptian antiquities: and of these, strange to say, though none of them are in sight, I have enough to stock a modest little museum..  Stowed away in all kinds of nooks and corners, in upstairs cupboards, in boxes, drawers and cases innumerable, behind books, and invading the sanctity of glass closets and wardrobes, are hundreds, nay thousands, of those fascinating objects in bronze and glazed ware, in carved wood and ivory, in glass, and pottery, and sculptured stone, which are the delight of archaeologists and collectors." 
 Even given a writer's artistic licence, who can resist this description of an archetypal collector at home? 

Out of the wardrobe: 
this married couple (1479-1490BC) was photographed on display in her home c. 1891

When Amelia Edwards died in 1892, she left her 'modest little museum' to University College, London, together with, crucially, the endowment of the first Chair in Egyptian Archaeology and Philology in Britain.  Excluding the British Museum curators, where she was never given the respect she deserved, she ensured the Chair went to young Matthew Flinders Petrie, and it is now as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL, opened in 1915, that it is known.  She chose UCL because it was the only English university which awarded degrees to women equally with men:  she was also a vice-president of the Society for Promoting Women's Suffrage.
[Images and content: see UCL, the Petrie Collection]

Another Victorian lady who had means to pursue her independent lifestyle was Marianne North (1830-1892).  She "collected" plants across the globe, or rather recorded them in glowing oil paintings.  The gallery she had built showing all 832 of them is now one of the treasures of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

The Marianne North Gallery, designed by Jas. Fergusson in 1880-81

She shared her MP. father's passion for botany and travel, and after he died, she set out on journeys across several continents, from the Americas to Japan.  She was encouraged by Charles Darwin and had letters of introduction to influential figures from her father's political circle, but she travelled to very remote areas mostly unaccompanied.  

Flower and fruit of W. Australian gum tree with honeysuckers
Importantly, she showed the plants in their natural habitats, travelling from Borneo to Brazil,  with her no doubt stout boots, and beloved oil paints.

Forest scene, Sarawak, Borneo

Yellow bignonia and swallowtail butterflies, with a view of Congonhas, Brazil

Donating her collection to the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1880, she paid for its purpose-built gallery and spent a year preparing and arranging the paintings.  She wanted to provided "tea or coffee and biscuits  (but nothing else)" for the visiting public, but Kew's Director, Sir Joseph Hooker vetoed this, as detracting from the scholarly importance of the Gardens.  Only slightly deterred, she painted tea and coffee plants above the entrance doors.  (Did she sometimes long for a cup of tea or coffee while on her exhausting expeditions?)  Today you can view all her paintings individually online (at but nothing can match the experience of her glowing paintings surrounding you on every side in Marianne North's Gallery.

Images © Royal Botanical Gardens


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