afternoon, v4

Hans Sloane the art collector

A huge thank you to Isabel at the British Museum Department of Prints & Drawings for hosting a visit today. George II, Harriet and I were very lucky to see some pieces from Hans Sloane’s own collection and it was magic.

Sloane wasn’t just a natural history collector, but had quite the eye for art as well. Apparently there were some 144 Albrecht Dürer prints in that first bequest. We saw one of his drawings today, a study for his later Adam and Eve.

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Isabel is pointing at a set of three different cataloguing systems’ marks in that picture. And each work’s mount is also embossed with the Sloane mark and catalogue reference.

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We were also very excited to see a bound folio of natural history prints, some (if not all?) printed on vellum, and they were so colourful and detailed. Also noted the little British Museum stamps on each one which, while somewhat understandable, seems a bit cheeky.

The space itself, the Prints & Drawings Study Room is beautiful. No pens allowed, and lots of people looking at interesting things. Anyone can do this, provided you have something specific you’d like to see and have made an appointment.

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We’re circling our next few visits to try to see more of Sloane’s collection, and also to hopefully start to trace what he might have acquired as he lived at 4 Bloomsbury Place. It would be brilliant if the display might reflect that sort of history. Could we show things that crossed the threshold in something like the order they actually might have?

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afternoon, v4

Proper Historians

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting two Proper Historians, Ian Foster and Lisa Smith. They both came for a visit to Bloomsbury Place, and it was brilliant to listen to them and bat about ideas for the Small Museum of Hans Sloane.

Ian’s knowledge about Hans Sloane is deep and broad. After studying Sloane for about 12 years, his acumen reaches from Sloane to Jamaica to the Royal Society to London of the period generally to Chelsea to Bloomsbury and back around again. Sloane is such a multi-faceted character, you turn over one leaf and you find ten years of research to do!

Lisa has focussed on Sloane’s medical correspondence primarily and for even longer (since the 90s), but it’s obvious that this work also reveals endless stories about who Sloane met and when, and his position and networks in London and further afield. We wandered upstairs at Bloomsbury Place and were chatting about how there were probably live exotic animals like Arctic Foxes wandering about!

I’m very curious to see how we might be able to paint a picture of what the house was like when Sloane and his family (and his massive collection!) lived here. We had the idea that the Small Museum could respond or echo the actual chronology we might be able to reconstruct. So, in April 2017, you might see who visited or what was brought in in 1697, two years after he moved in.

The other thing I learned meeting Ian and Lisa was that there is SHEDLOADS of material to work with, and that could possibly translate to something completely untenable! But, there was great excitement and interest, so that’s enough energy to keep moving with for now.

Next steps:

  1. Make a simple proposal for Bedford Estates
  2. Go and visit Prints and Drawings at the British Museum to view some Sloane bits
  3. Say hello at the British Library to find out about their Sloane-related activities
  4. Move heaven and earth to visit the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum
  5. Take a field trip to the Chelsea Physick Garden
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afternoon, start, v4

The Small Museum V4

Perhaps if I start writing about it, it will happen.

As you may have heard, my company has found a great little studio in Bloomsbury. The crazy part is that it’s at 4 Bloomsbury Place. That address is significant because it was owned at one time by Sir Hans Sloane, whose brilliant library and natural history collection was bequeathed to the British Museum upon his death in 1753.

I find this hugely inspiring.

Today, the foyer is the epitome of 80s utility, replete with terrible hotel-style art, and if you look closely you can see that the “art” is two copies of the same two terrible pieces.

Imagine the walls covered with things from Sloane’s collections, or letters he may have written here, or specimens from his amazing natural history bits and pieces. That would be better. If you have a look at the things he bequeathed to the British Museum, it’s a rich, colourful, informative, beautiful selection of all sorts of things.

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I love that he let people come to visit, and have enjoyed reading various accounts in a handy book called The British Museum: a case-study in architectural politics.

Sloane’s private museum began as a collection of botanical specimens which he brought back from France and the West Indies. John Evelyn noted in his Diary for 16 April 1691:

I went to see Dr. Sloane’s curiosities, being an universal collection of the natural productions of Jamaica, consisting of plants, fruits, corals, minerals, stones, earth, animals and insects, collected with great judgement; several folios of dried plants, and one which had about eighty, several sorts of ferns, and another of grasses; the Jamaican pepper, in branch, leaves, flower, fruit etc.

Even though the idea has been floating about since we moved here in March, I’m calling yesterday Day 1. I went to the National Archives in Kew to start my search to find records about him, and found an ‘office copy’ of Sloane’s will. It’s a bit hard to read, but I’m looking forward to ‘getting my eye in’ as the enquiry desk helper assured me I’ll be able to. I’ll post a transcript if/when I have one. My quick searches there suggest I should go to the London Metropolitan Archives, the Historic England Archive, and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

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Another interesting element about Sloane’s collection is that it’s now dispersed across London. There are bits in the British Museum, the British Library, Natural History Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, and places I haven’t discovered yet. I’d love it if our foyer could bring some of those bits and pieces back to where they were together, once.

I’ve also discovered that, of course, someone else is interested in Sloane, and has been researching him deeply for years. Lisa Smith, a historian, has been documenting and writing about him on Sloan Letters for some time, focused around his correspondence with his patients. It’ll be good to meet, and hopefully, collaborate.

Does this sound interesting? How could we do it well? Would you like to help?

I guess I should ask the landlord, whose ancestor Bedford probably knew Mr. Sloane.

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