Promoting Natural & Cultural History
In 1748 the naturalist Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) visited the famous collection of the elderly physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in Chelsea, London. Kalm’s journal observations reveal details of a very substantial collection, including the interest of other cultures via descriptions of clothing and natural dyes. It also has to be pointed out that the 18th century European travellers’ various ways of studying indigenous peoples have to be seen in the context of the time – slavery, women’s position in society, the Europeans versus people of other cultures and curiosity. This essay, as part of the ongoing project ‘Personal Belongings and Collections on 18th Century Travels’, will focus on such notes and images linked to Sloane. Foremost natural red dyes – like cochineal and madder – from his travel to Jamaica among other islands in his youth and the Chelsea Physic Garden, together with some thoughts on his global natural history network, female scientific illustrators and early museums.
The naturalist Pehr Kalm who stayed in London and the surrounding counties for circa half a year on his way to the North American colonies along the east coast, was one of many visitors to the well known collection of Hans Sloane in Chelsea. In April and May of 1748 he made several visits according to his travel journal and finally on May 26th he listed an extensive number of items from the Sloane collection; including descriptions of minerals, some ethnographical curiosities and natural history objects. The listing had few and brief details of a textile nature and may even be regarded as somewhat in the “outskirts of textiles”, occasionally only giving a hint about such materials.
Pehr Kalm was a former student of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in Uppsala, Sweden and was regarded as one of Linnaeus’ seventeen so-called Apostles who all travelled outside Europe for the purpose of science, collecting natural history specimens, discovering new plants from a European perspective etc. Except for Linnaeus, he was the only one in the group who met Hans Sloane in person. However, a few of the others – Pehr Osbeck (1723-1805), Anders Sparrman (1748-1820) and Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) – mentioned Sloane’s collection or referred to his work in their journals during the period 1750s-1770s.
Interestingly Pehr Kalm’s journal on April 28th in 1748 mentioned the significance of Sloane’s collection and gave some thoughts about its future destiny:
‘We were exhausted by looking at all these rarities and were obliged to acknowledge that up to the present day no private individual in the world, merely from what he has collected in his lifetime, is likely to more than half-way match what Sir Hans Sloane possesses, who, apart from what has been presented to him, has used more than 100,000 pounds sterling to buy these natural history specimens and rarities; and he is now said to wish to sell it to some public collection for 30,000 p. st., disregarding the fact that he would thereby lose 70,000 p. st., if only his collection may be kept together after his death.’
A few years later, after Sloane’s death, the continuing history and importance of the collection has been described as follows by the British Museum:
‘A physician by trade, Sir Hans Sloane was also a collector of objects from around the world. By his death in 1753 he had collected over 71,000 objects. Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will and it became the founding collection of the British Museum.’
Overall Hans Sloane had an extensive net of friends and colleagues during his long life, many associated to him via the natural sciences and some of these individuals are linked to my ongoing project; Kalm (1748) and Linnaeus (1736 & correspondence) were two of these naturalists, who both – with twelve years apart – had made visits to Sloane. Together with ten further individuals out of the hundred in the studied “Linnaean network”, which have been possible to trace to Sloane. Either via personal meetings/long-term professional contacts in London or via correspondence:
To what extent women took part in natural history work in the 18th century is often a debatable question, owing to a multitude of reasons at this time. Strictly limited access to education within this field was the main obstacle, with exception for botany – like collecting of plants, keeping a herbarium or being a botanical artist – which to some degree was accepted. Other limitations being pure social norms or moral traditions or motherhood over an extended period of time. Another aspect being, even if coming from a well-to-do background, women were less able to write than men, which further reduced the traces of any possible former involvement in natural science activities linked to letters, pamphlets or books of their hand. Even so, on some contemporary depictions of cabinets of curiosities, early museums or botanical gardens, wealthy female visitors visibly took an active interest in natural sciences from several perspectives, equally as women evidently worked as artists/scientific illustrators. Particularly notable was the botanical and zoological illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) – a predecessor to most naturalists in the Linnaean network – whose life and legacy frequently have been researched in recent decades. However, she was famous already during the 18th century for her skilfully made as well as minutely accurate drawings of plants and insects, which in this context is an interesting link to Hans Sloane, due to that his extensive collection included watercolour drawings of her hand. One of these large-size albums of Merian’s watercolour drawings is on display in The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum – together with other rare objects from Sloane’s original collection.
This essay is part of the ongoing textile and natural history project: 'Personal Belongings and Collections on 18th Century Travels’.