Search Results for: felicity roberts

Making Sense of Hans Sloane’s Collections

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British nation purchased his collection and established the British Museum. Over the next two centuries, the collection was dispersed as new institutions were formed. The Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, acquired Sloane’s plant and animal collections. The British Library, established in 1973, laid claim to the manuscripts and printed books. If this sounds orderly, it wasn’t!

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Just to give a hint of the complexity, it’s worth noting that bits of Sloane’s correspondence appear on the backs of natural history drawings that are held in the British Museum and some of his reading notes appear in printed catalogues at the Natural History Museum.

Considering the scope of Sloane’s collections, it is surprising that relatively little scholarly work has been done on them. But the three institutions are trying to bring Sloane’s collections back together virtually in a fascinating project, Reconstructing Sloane. The first step was The Sloane Printed Books Project, a catalogue that allows researchers to get a sense of what Sloane’s original library looked like and how it changed over time. The second step is a grant that has allowed the institutions to partner with Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London to fund three collaborative doctoral awards. Alice Marples, Felicity Roberts and Victoria Pickering have all taken on the challenge of reconstructing parts of Sloane’s vast collections. To my delight, they will be occasionally sharing the fruits of their research on The Sloane Letters Blog.

Alice (KCL ), who has a background in Enlightenment coffee-houses, is researching Sloane’s correspondence and manuscripts at the British Library. In particular, she is looking at Sloane’s network of colleagues, commercial traders and contributors to understand Sloane’s public persona. Through his correspondence, he was able to construct a space for material exchange, scientific endeavour and social interaction.

Felicity (KCL) has degrees in English and eighteenth-century studies. She is looking at Sloane’s natural history drawings, primarily held at the British Museum, to discover how Sloane interpreted and visualized the natural world. Her study is situated within London’s wider philosophical and literary culture, which disucssed concepts of nature, natural order, truth, beauty and authenticity.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Victoria (QMUL) previously studied the early modern transatlantic slave trade. Her project, “Putting Nature in a Box” examines Sloane’s collection of 12000 small boxes of vegetable substances, which included seeds, bark and curios. Using Sloane’s hand-written, three volume catalogue, she is tracing who sent what items, the origins of the substances, and Sloane’s intended uses for the objects.

What is, perhaps, most exciting about these projects is that they are not undertaken in isolation. The students and their supervisors at all six institutions (and occasionally, me!) have regular seminars. Along the way, seminars have included discussions about readings, visits to the collections or guest speakers. The interdisciplinary collaboration is providing us with an appreciation of the sheer size of Sloane’s collections and how each part fits together.  The students’ individual projects are enhanced by a wider understanding of curation, cataloguing and collecting: how Sloane’s collection has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time. With a collection so large and dispersed, collaboration is also the only way scholars will ever make sense of Sloane’s complete collections.

There are other advantages, too. “Working collaboratively”, writes Victoria, “provides a wonderful support network” and is “an interesting and exciting opportunity”—and besides, there is “nothing quite like being able to talk to another PhD student about your work and for them to know exactly what you’re talking about.” It is also, perhaps, the best way of studying a man who was a super-mediator in his own life, and one who valued the sharing of knowledge. As Alice puts it, this “collective engagement with knowledge production and diffusion is something that Sloane himself would no doubt appreciate!” 

No doubt.

News

Found 94 Results
Page 1 of 10

Looking to the Edge, or Networking Early Modern Women

to -




It all started when someone noticed a blog post on Anglo-Saxonist Allen J Frantzen’s website titled “How to Fight Your Way Out of a Feminist Fog”…

January 31, 2016


Grading Sir Hans Sloane’s Research Paper

to -




It’s that time of year when grading is on an academic’s mind. With first-year assignments still fresh in my head, I recently found myself frustrated by Sir Hans Sloane’s “Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane” (Philosophical Transactions, volume 38, 1733-4). Letters by Sir Hans rarely feature on this blog—and that’s for… Read more »

December 3, 2015


Sloane becomes a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero

to -




By Victoria Pickering On Monday 28th September at 1:45pm, BBC Radio 4 aired the first segment of their ten-part series about Natural History Heroes and what would be my very first foray into sharing my research on national radio. It was a lot more nerve-racking than I expected, but also an interesting learning experience. In… Read more »

November 10, 2015


Beginnings and Endings: History Carnival 150

to -




It’s been one month since I started my new job at the University of Essex. Settling in has been a busy and fun process. The moving company now tells me that my boxes should be in England by the weekend. One month and a new start in life has simply become life… Being in a… Read more »

October 1, 2015


A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

to -




By James Hawkes Saving lives may have been Sir Hans Sloane’s day job as a physician, but in one case he even saved a friend from the hangman: Patrick Blair, who had been sentenced to death for high treason. A Scottish surgeon and botanist, Blair had known Sloane since 1705 after persuading a fellow Scotsmen… Read more »

September 19, 2015


Changes… and a History Carnival!

to -




If you’re still around, dear readers, then you will have noticed that the blog has remained quiet–despite the end of my maternity leave. There is a reason for this: I have been caught up in a flurry of paperclips and packing. At the start of September, I began a new job as Lecturer in Digital… Read more »

September 18, 2015


Public and Private Gardens in the Eighteenth Century

to -




By Chelsea Clark Sloane was unique in his collecting habits and connections to gardens. He was passionate about obtaining plant specimens and discovering their various medical uses, however, appeared to be less interested in being personally involved in gardening. This is apparent when comparing his practices to those of his friend and colleague, Richard Richardson. Despite… Read more »

August 3, 2015


Eighteenth-Century English Gardens and the Exchange with Europe

to -




By Chelsea Clark The Sloane Correspondence is a rich source of information about gardening in the eighteenth century. The science of gardening at this time was a shared experience between friends and colleagues who traded specimens and cultivated their collections with great curiosity. Although gardens could be either privately or publicly managed, the collaborative aspect of gardening served many… Read more »

July 27, 2015


Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

to -




By Jacqeuline Schoenfeld Like Lisa Smith, I am a sucker for animal stories. As a child (and young adult) some of my favorite movies included Homeward Bound, Babe and George of the Jungle. There is something irresistible about an American Bulldog, a Golden Retriever and a Himalayan cat that are best friends. And really, a… Read more »

July 21, 2015


On Hans Sloane’s Copies of De Humani Corporis Fabrica

to -




Thanks to Felicity Roberts, I’ve learned that a copy of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome (Basel, 1543) once owned by Hans Sloane went up for auction at Christie’s on 15 July.  Although the list price was a £70,000-£100,000, the book ended up going for £60,000. Christie’s has just started a Discovery series of… Read more »

July 16, 2015


Page 1 of 10

On Hans Sloane’s Copies of De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Thanks to Felicity Roberts, I’ve learned that a copy of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome (Basel, 1543) once owned by Hans Sloane went up for auction at Christie’s on 15 July.  Although the list price was a £70,000-£100,000, the book ended up going for £60,000.

Christie’s has just started a Discovery series of short videos to highlight pieces with particularly interesting histories. First up: Sloane’s book! Go take a look at “The ‘Google Maps’ of the Human Body” now.

What I love about this video and post is how well it captures Sven Becker’s enthusiasm when it came to finding something unexpected in the course of researching the book’s provenance. The sale also caused some excitement on the C-18L listserv, with some contributors wondering whether the book had been stolen or its notes forged.

Alison Walker, who leads the British Library’s Sloane Printed Books Project, attended the auction and has been tracing the book’s provenance in more detail. This has required a bit of digging, but the process involved in uncovering a book’s history is fascinating. It’s worth quoting Alison’s findings (which she shared in an email to me) at length. She reports that the book, which was from the Duke of Westminster’s collection,

seems to have been sold as a duplicate by the British Museum in 1769, and appears as lot 336 on p. 12 of S. Baker and G. Leigh, A Catalogue of the Duplicates of the British Museum which will be sold by auction… April 4 1769 and nine following days, London, 1769. Normally one would expect to see a British Museum duplicate sale stamp on the book, but it seems to have been omitted in this case. It is listed on p. 54v of the interleaved copy of J.A. van der Linden, Lindenius renovatus, 1686, which Sloane used as his catalogue of Latin medical books. The book may have been acquired by Sloane in the 1720s or 1730s, though there is no precise acquisition date in his catalogue, and no indication of its previous provenance.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

She has now included the book in the Sloane Printed Books database–a useful tool for suggesting the comings and goings of books in Sloane’s library over the years. (And, believe me, it is easy to lose track of time when playing with the database.)

The British Library still holds several other versions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica once owned by Sloane, including an especially fancy Epitome printed on vellum. And along the way, the British Library has sold off other copies from Sloane’s collection. For example, one 1555 edition of the book now at the Royal Society library was purchased during a duplicate sale in 1830.

Although there was a bit of excited speculation about fraud or theft surrounding this sale, a bit of historical detective work can uncover a much more prosaic explanation. Records do sometimes get lost–or never created, as in this case.

The featured image: putti killing a dog, from book 7 of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1555). Credit: Wellcome Library, London. I’ve always hated putti.

An early eighteenth-century ghost

By Felicity Roberts

One of the most entertaining set of letters in Sir Hans Sloane’s correspondence was written by William Derham (1657-1735), the rector at Upminster in Essex and an enthusiastic member of the Royal Society.  Derham’s letters to him are so lively that you get a good impression of their shared business and scientific interests–including, it seems, ghosts.

Sloane and Derham began to correspond around 1698 and continued until shortly before Derham’s death in 1735.  Since Derham’s clerical duties frequently prevented him from attending Royal Society meetings, Derham sent his natural history observations to Sloane to be read at Society meetings (Lisa Smith has discussed Derham’s activities in not one but two previous posts). This is especially true for the period during which Sloane was Secretary of the Society, between 1693 and 1713.  Derham wrote to Sloane with observations of the weather; details of his experiments on the speed of sound; and astronomical observations.

Perhaps the living of Upminster did not pay well, or perhaps Derham was just happy to do his friend a favour, but in 1705 it appears that alongside his clerical duties Derham also agreed to be an agent for Sloane in the purchase and management of a farm in a village Derham calls “Orset” (present-day Orsett, south east of Upminster).

The details of the property management letters are fascinating, not only because it shows the social and business connections forged between members of the Royal Society, but also because it suggests how Sloane increased his estate by investing in land.  Exactly how Sloane financed his museum is still not known–his medical practice, sugar plantation, hot chocolate recipe, eye remedy, and property buying must all have contributed.

But my favourite Derham letter is that of 13 December 1708. Derham wrote excitedly to Sloane with an “odd story” concerning Sloane’s farm tenants who:

[R]eceive disturbances constantly every night by great rumbling in the chambers, dashing the Doors open, & shutting them wth [damaged], that the woman’s Spinning-wheel (standing by her [bed]-side in the room they ly) is whirled about as if they spun, yt the warming-pan hanging by her bed-side is rattled & rung, that a woman who lay in one of the Chambres lately had the clothes pulled off her bed perpetually, & putting out her hand to pull them on, she felt a cold hand take her by her hand.

Richard Newton and John Hassell after George Woodward, The Haunted Cellar. Credit: The British Museum.

Derham’s story, which he has had second-hand from a neighbour, is rather breathlessly related.  And indeed, the details of the spinning-wheel operating of its own accord, and of the bed clothes being pulled off by a cold hand during the night, are pretty spooky.  But it seems that Derham’s curiosity has been aroused rather than his fear.  He encouraged Sloane:

 “You being a curious man, I wish you would come, & we would go, & ly there a night.”

True to their Royal Society philosophy, Derham proposes that they spend the night in the farm so that they might observe the events and collect evidence.  It is a delightful suggestion from Derham, but we do not know whether Sloane ever took him up on his offer!

Mary Davis, the horned woman

By Felicity Roberts

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

At the British Museum, near the centre of the Enlightenment Gallery in wall press 156, there is a portrait in oils of a woman with what appear to be horn-like growths coming from the side of her head.  The woman has an arresting, impassive facial expression.  She wears no cap, so her head is exposed to the viewer, but she is demurely dressed, with her left arm drawn up and across her body so that her hand rests firmly on her collar. She seems to wait patiently for our observation of her to end.

The inscription on the painting reads:

“This is the portraiture of Mary Davis, an inhabitant of Great Saughall near Ches[ter.]  Was taken Ano. Dom. 1668, Aetatis 74 when she was 28 years old an excrescence rose uppon her head which continued thirty years like to a wen then grew into two hornes after 5 years she cast them then grew 2 more after 5 years she cast them. These uppon her head have grown 4 years and are to be seen […cropped]”.

Today we would say that Mary Davis had developed cutaneous horns.  It is a relatively rare condition in which a lesion or lesions develop on the skin, usually around the face or neck, sometimes protruding several centimetres.  Such lesions occur more frequently in older people and on commonly exposed parts of the body. Although their cause has been linked with sun exposure, underlying skin tumours has also been suggested.  Even with these medical explanations, a person who develops cutaneous horns today may still be the subject of news reports likening their appearance to that of the devil.

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, such persons were treated as both wonders and anomalies of nature [1].  That is to say, their condition was interpreted as both a religious portent and a natural phenomenon.  Davis herself was, as an aging widow, exhibited at the Swan pub on the Strand where members of the public could come to see “such a Wonder in Nature, as hath neither been read nor heard of […] since the Creation” [2].  Yet her portrait was also collected by natural philosophers, and the horns she shed entered various cabinets of curiosity, including, it seems, the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum. Both these specimens are now lost [3].  The interest shown in Davis’ condition is a good example of the overlap that existed between popular and scientific culture in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Sir Hans Sloane certainly had an interest in curious objects, especially ones which seemed to transgress the boundaries between human and animal, natural and monstrous.  He owned a horn shed by a Mrs French of Tenterden which he entered as specimen 519 in his Humana MS catalogue [4].  He also apparently owned the Mary Davis portrait.  In a letter of August 1709 Sloane’s friend Dr Richard Middleton Massey wrote:

“I have been in Cheshire & Lancashire, where I think I have mett with a curiosity, tis an originall picture in oil paint of Mary Davis the Horned Woman of Saughall in Cheshire”

Sloane must have indicated an interest in the portrait to Massey, because in a follow up letter of October 1709 Massey wrote:

“I will send up ye picture the first opportunity if you please call upon Mr Dixon at the Greyhound in Cornhill”

This must be the portrait which now hangs in the Enlightenment Gallery.  Did Sloane also own Mary Davis’ horn, which also entered the British Museum but was subsequently lost?  I have found no evidence for this in the letters as yet!

The provenance of the British Museum’s painting of Davis has long been shrouded in mystery.  Its Collection Online entry states it could have come from either Dr Richard Mead or Sloane.  But I think these Sloane letters suggest that the painting was Sloane’s before it became the Museum’s.

 

[1] For further information, see Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the order of nature 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001).

[2] J. Morgan (ed.), Phoenix Britannicus: being a miscellaneous collection of scarce and curious tracts […] collected by J Morgan, Gent (London, 1732), 248-250.

[3] Jan Bondeson, ‘Everard Home, John Hunter and cutaneous horns: a historical review’, American Journal of Dermatopathology 23 (2001), 362-369.

[4] Natural History Museum, Sloane MS Catalogue of Fossils, 6 vols. Vol 1, f. 344r.