Cultures of Collecting Study Day Review:

Study Day review: Cultures of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland

Friday 17th February 2017

Alice Little

RECSO’s event for Hilary Term 2017 was a study day on the history of collecting. Though organised and chaired by a musician (myself) the kinds of collections discussed by the four speakers ranged from libraries to country houses, from folk airs to furniture, and collectors from church organist to chatelaine.

The event was open to all, and participants travelled from across the British Isles to attend: institutions in London, Manchester and Carlow (Ireland) were represented; and of course we also welcomed a number of undergraduate and graduate students, and staff members, from Oxford itself, as well as interested members of the public.

Dr Karen McAulay (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow) kicked off the afternoon with a paper reflecting upon different kinds of collecting, titled ‘Towards a Taxonomy of Collecting?’ Using as case studies the collections of James Simpson, Cam Douglass, and the Maclean-Clephane sisters, Dr McAulay examined the motivations and priorities of these collectors, the reception of their publications, and the assimilation of their collections into larger libraries. To all these collectors it was implicit that the age of a piece of music was what made it valuable to the collector and therefore worthy of preservation.

Dr Tim Eggington (Queens’ College Library, Cambridge) discussed a similar assumption in the collection of what we would today call classical (as opposed to folk) music, in his paper, ‘Collecting the musical past and present at the Academy of Ancient Music in C18th London’. Dr Eggington’s presentation explored the distinctive collecting habits of the Academy’s collections and placed these in the context of the eighteenth-century writings of Charles Burney and John Hawkins, and the collecting of Thomas Tudway, William Boyce, and Benjamin Cooke.

Dr Arthur MacGregor (formerly Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) spoke after the break, and marked the shift of the afternoon from music to country houses with his paper, ‘An Anglo-Irish cabinet of curiosities of the Enlightenment period: the Cobbe collection at Newbridge’. Dr MacGregor reminded us that there is no such thing as a single-subject cabinet of curiosities, and he explained the difficulties he and his necessarily numerous collaborators faced when preparing a catalogue of the collection.

Lizzie Rogers (University of Hull) gave the last paper for the day: ‘Chatelaine, Shopper, Heiress: Female Collecting as Preserving Heritage in the Country House’. Describing the collection and collecting habits of Lady Sabine Winn, Lizzie Rogers took as her focus the female experience in the English country house, for example, the use of gender as a marketing tool in eighteenth-century furniture catalogues; and the corresponding use of the catalogue by Sabine, putting it on display in her house to show that she exercised power in the household equal to that of her husband.

Each paper was followed by questions for the speaker, and at the end of the programme we had a discussion segment in which participants reflected on the questions raised and common themes: the significant role of women in the history of collecting was discussed, and the varying value of the age of an object: contrasting musicians’ focus on the oldest versions they could find with the curiosity seeker and householder searching for or buying the newest and most fashionable items to add to domestic displays.

Discussion continued in the pub and many participants emailed subsequently to ask to be kept informed of future developments and follow-up events.

By way of feedback, one participant communicated that the event was simply “a most interesting day which I very much enjoyed”, while another wrote to say, “I just wanted to thank you for a really excellent afternoon yesterday. The subjects were fascinating, the speakers excellent and the organisation impeccable. I’m so pleased to have been part of it.”


We are in the planning stages of a collections-focused seminar series for Michaelmas Term 2017 to be held at the Bate Collection in Oxford, and news of this and similar events will be announced on this page and disseminated through the usual mailing lists. If you would like to be added to the Cultures of Collecting mailing list for events specifically relating to the history of collecting please email [email protected].

RECSO’s Trinity Term 2017 event will be our annual conference. Women, Authorship, and Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century: New Methodologies will take place on Saturday 17 June.

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