Thursday, 10 March 2016

Collectors: desks and other devices

The Month of March (Aries the Ram) - pruning the vines.  Luca Della Robbia 1450-56

Ceramic plaque by Luca della Robbia, Florence 1450-56  © V&A Museum

If you were a princely collector, like the Medici, you could have purpose-designed rooms in which to keep and display your treasures, like Piero de Medici's studietto.  He even commissioned the leading ceramic sculptor Luca della Robbia to decorate his ceiling with a monthly calendar.  Each plaque shows the appropriate  Labour of the Month with its sun and zodiac sign, as well as the average hours of daylight and the phase of the moon, all critical for successful cultivation of your estates.  These 12 roundels, glazed (with advanced techniques) in several shades of blue, covered the barrel-vaulted ceiling of Piero's private study, bringing a sense of the sky into its enclosed interior.

Wealthy Italians were able to have individual built-in writing desks and shelves for their studies, instead of a portable bookrest on a table, as we see in this painting of St. Jerome.

St Jerome in his Study,  Antonello da Messina, c.1475  © National Gallery London

It looks rather like modern flat-pack furniture, but a 1498 Medici inventory describes,  "a large writing desk with boards and a bookrest and with a cupboard with a cornice made of walnut, and compartments decorated with inlay.  Underneath the desk where one puts one's feet is a wooden platform raised up from the ground."*

A century and a half later, John Locke the philosopher customised his desk with ten small compartments four inches high and eleven inches deep, scaled to fit notebooks, papers and small volumes, which he called "pigeon-holes", a useful arrangement which his friends remarked on.

 By the seventeenth century books were more widely owned and collected, so a shelf or table, or a press might not be enough.   Samuel Pepys had his books all piled on chairs, so he called on a ships' carpenter from Woolwich dockyard to build the first known freestanding bookcases for his library, to his own design.  "And then comes Sympson the Joyner, and he and I with great pains contriving presses to put my books up in; they now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs, I lose the use, to avoid the trouble of removing them when I would open a book"  23 July 1666.       His twelve glazed bookcases, along with the books in them, were left to his old college, Magdalene, in Cambridge.

This bookcase in the V&A Museum is one of a pair made for William Blathwayt  around 1695, a nephew of Pepys' friend, Thomas Povey,  and copies Pepys' design.  With adjustable shelves, it can be dismantled for relocating.
The Dyrham bookcase, c. 1695  © V&A Museum

Glazing also became more affordable, and in the eighteenth century, the French goldsmiths and other shopkeepers really developed the vitrine, which earlier was mainly used for displaying holy relics and by scientists for their specimens.  More recently the collector's vitrine has been conceptualised by artists such as Joseph de Beuys  and Damien Hirst.

In the nineteenth century, it was the airtight sealed glazing of Nathaniel Ward's portable cases which enabled botanists such as Robert Fortune and Joseph Hooker to transplant exotic species successfully into other locations and to Britain.    And the special style of box designed by Daniel Solander at the British Museum is still in use today for storing delicate objects of various kinds.

So what will the digital future bring in storage solutions for collectors?  And will we still collect real objects?

*trans. D. Thornton, The Scholar in his Study, quoted in "Building the Picture, Architecture in Italian Painting, National Gallery, London 

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