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Guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article was first published in our Members’ Newsletter from February 2015.

In 1775 my ancestor went to Leicester Square to see an exhibition of natural curiosities at a museum recently opened by Ashton Lever. He wrote “Went with Wife, Daughter and Son Francis to see Sir Ashton Lever’s Collection of Natural Curiositiers, and curious they indeed are. Din’d at a beefstake house.”

Lever, who went on to be knighted by George III, had been a remarkable magpie of a collector of everything from stuffed birds, historical artefacts, fossils, shells and other natural history items. For a number of years in the early 1770’s he had exhibited them to casual callers at his home at Alkrington House near Manchester. He was used to getting more than 1000 visitors in a single year, scrambling to inspect his vast collection which filled over 1300 glass display cabinets. Running an open house with that number of visitors cannot have been easy. He hit on the idea of bringing the collection to a wider audience – and that meant opening a museum in London. He chose Leicester House, and took a lease of the premises in 1774. He then spent time and a considerable amount of money, in adapting it as a suite of display rooms, twelve in all, leading off a staircase in one long gallery. Walls were knocked down, doorways opened into wide archways, so that visitors could walk through from one room to the next without hindrance, looking at the 24,000 exhibits, mostly displayed in glass cabinets.

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View of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, 1785.

He opened to the public in February 1775, giving it the name ‘Holophusicon’ (a made-up word from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’ and ‘phusikon’ meaning ‘of nature’). It must have been an extraordinary sight, with stuffed animals such as elephants and monkeys, alongside fossils and shells, stuffed birds, and Oliver Cromwell’s armour. Captain James Cook was apparently an admirer of the erudite Sir Ashton, and gave him a considerable amount of material brought back from his first and second voyages. This helped fuel a mania for Oceania – the public were enthralled at the display of artefacts from Tahiti etc, all displayed in a special Otaheite Room. After Cook died on his third voyage, further items were purchased for display in a Sandwich Islands Room, with weapons such as clubs and spears, ceremonial robes, paddles, utensils and so on.

The public were required to pay a fee – either by taking out an annual membership at a cost of two guineas, or by paying a single entrance fee of a quarter of a guinea (5/3d). Sir Ashton was forced to reduce this to half a crown (2/6d) because of falling visitor numbers. Poor Sir Ashton, he spent more and more money on his exhibits until the obsession got quite out of hand – the exhibits were independently valued at over £50,000. Facing bankruptcy, Sir Ashton wanted to sell the collection to the British Museum, which had opened thirty years earlier, but the trustees declined. It was also offered to the Empress Catherine II of Russia but she too turned down the chance to acquire the display as a single collection. Following the example of the jeweller James Cox, who had tried to sell his exhibition of automata by private lottery, in 1784 Sir Ashton applied to Parliament for permission to “dispose of the contents of his Museum, as now exhibited at Leicester House, by Way of Chance.”

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Sir Ashton Lever.

Parliament approved the scheme but only eight thousand tickets were sold, at a guinea each, out of a planned figure of 36,000. It was a pretty poor return for a man who had laid out thousands of pounds over many years. The lottery prize was drawn in March 1786 and went to a Law Stationer called James Parkinson, who got some 26,600 exhibits including over 1850 ethnographic items from the Pacific. After a year at Leicester House, where the entrance fee was dropped to one shilling a head, Parkinson decided to relocate the collection to the Rotunda in Albion Street, on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. He dropped the name ‘Holophusicon’ and called it the Leverian Museum. By then Sir Ashton had died, and had nothing further to do with the museum which bore his name. For twenty years the exhibition continued to amuse and amaze the public at 3 Blackfriars Road, but in declining numbers. In 1806 the decision was made to sell the entire collection by auction. Once again the British Museum declined to have anything to do with it, and instead this remarkable collection was spread to all corners of the globe, furnishing many important museums with the cornerstone of important collections. These include Museums in Vienna, Honolulu, Berlin, Wellington and Sydney. The auction lasted a full 65 days, with the collection divided into 7879 lots. It raised a mere £ 6,642 13s 6d. For anyone wanting more information about the collection and the way it was divided up, have a look at Adrienne L. Kaeppler’s book Holophusicon, the Leverian Museum which came out in 2011. She is Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and she has put together a remarkable detective work in establishing ‘what went where’.

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