A wonderful new book has been published by author Jaqueline Yallop, entitled Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World.
Focusing on five famous and influential collectors from history, Yallop’s book tackles many of the good or bad things that have been said about collectors over the years.
In doing so, she reveals how collectors exemplified everything that we today admire about the Victorians – whether they were into amassing art, Oriental China or even celebrity hair.
Charles Darwin was among the Victorian era’s most famous and important collectors
Misunderstanding has always surrounded the collecting hobby. Just as today people bemoan the “fools and their money” who spend $106m on a Picasso painting, the Victorians too had their misgivings about those who hoard history’s treasures.
That collecting was “the mark of a man who had failed in other ways” was a common put-down.
While even Charles Dickens (whose collectibles today regularly sell for top prices at auction) once remarked that collectors “seem to crouch in odd corners… and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust.”
The Victorians pioneered celebrity hair collecting – these Charles Dickens hairs recently sold for £1,750
Well, collecting certainly attracts its fair share of eccentrics. Yet Dickens’ comments couldn’t be further from the truth. This is nicely demonstrated in Yallop’s book – including by John Charles Robinson, one of the book’s main five collectors.
Robinson collected 1,400 treasures in 1855 alone, not to hide his musty treasures but rather – along with his boss Henry Cole – to found the major educative institution we today know as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Likewise aristocrat Charlotte Schreiber, who caught the collecting bug late in life after decades of self-taught scholarly achievement (including writing the first full translation of the Welsh myth-hoard).
Schreiber duly applied this intensity and learning to her collecting, obsessively retrieving countless historic artefacts from China in 23 exhaustive journeys between 1869 and 1882. Elsewhere, doctor and collector Stephen Wootton Bushel became the West’s first serious expert in Chinese fine art.
The book also tells the story of Joseph Mayer. At first-glance, Mayer’s apparent ‘anything and everything’ approach to collecting could have him mistaken for one of the “fools and their money” that people often lament.
In fact, Mayer contributed his wealth to generously save other people’s collections for the nation, and went onto to found his own Egyptian museum to be visited by the public.
In Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves, Yallop shows how collectors in Victorian times were “as much an expression of the age as cotton mills or railways.”
What’s more, their tales of derring-do have much in common with what Jussi Pylkkanen, President of Christie’s auction houses in Europe, terms today’s “Medici” buyers.
Just as John Charles Robinson and Joseph Mayer devoted their collections to benefit of the public, many of today’s wealthy Medici buyers from Russia, China, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere are buying multi-million pound Picassos and other pieces to establish museums in their homelands.
I’d certainly recommend Jaqueline Yallop’s Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves for a perfect insight into the Victorians’ collecting past, the collectibles markets multi-million dollar present, and why you ought to consider starting your own collection in the future.