David Hughes

Obsessive, compulsive behaviour

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Philipp Blom

Allen Lane, pp. 274, £

The young author of this survey of our childlike passion for grabbing a thing and shouting 'it's mine!' is good company, generating in easy-going prose the scholarly tensions of an auction room. He calls collecting 'Noah's task': things must not be allowed to perish. The inanimate and the humble are just as much in need of rescue as endangered species. Today Robert Opie has proved the point no less tellingly in his amassment of domestic ephemera in tin or cardboard than his parents Peter and Iona did in their collections of chapbooks, toys, rhymes. Preserving something 'beyond our random existences' is a labour of love, extending the life of the present and lending it depth. These pages examine the snapping-up of unconsidered trifles as man's (or a number of rich or good men's) fight against mortality.

Each of the 15 chapters gives a thumbnail portrait of one or two particular fanatics over the half millennium just past. In the early days every collector had his cabinet. Seventeenth-century Amsterdam had 100 of these 'microcosms behind doors'. Finely wrought pieces of furniture, they were meant to contain 'everything knowable'. Philip II of Spain despatched agents to plunder the world for the body parts of saints. Queen Christina of Sweden used her kunstschrank as a dressing-table. Drawers of seashells vied with spreads of butterflies, holy relics were nose to tail with erotica, jewels crowned many a collection, from sextants to distorting mirrors to engraved glass to exotic armour to instruments musical or surgical. Depressives like Rudolf of Habsburg, when Holy Roman Emperor, subjected their private repositories of knowledge to methodical if manic study. Such accumulations soon burgeoned into an encyclopaedia the size of a palace, still with us on the other side of turnstiles all over Europe. With equal zeal in England the Tradescants scoured the exotic world for the rare plants and trees that now look native. Our parks and gardens are permanent exhibitions of foreign parts.

Meanwhile in Holland the curious Dr Frederik Ruysch was assembling bodies to anatomise and embalm; he could transform a corpse into a moving work of art that had every human attribute except motion. Peter the Great, who fancied himself as a surgeon, declared war on evanescence by assembling armies of teeth, many extracted from a passing serf or noble, and to his collection belonged a pair of gloves into which you couldn't put your hands. Another pair of gloves made from the beards of mussels, among the thousands of specimens (including 7,000 fruits) donated to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane, makes crossing Sloane Square the richer when you think of his relish in collecting them.

Am I a glove fetishist or only a collector manquZ for picking on these items? Collecting is catching. Every reader will discover his own lures in the interminable catalogue of what notable collectors chose to turn into obsessions. Blom equates the mania with the creative act, 'a quest for meaning, a hope to be able to see a grammar if only enough words and phrases are brought together'. This perhaps puts it too high or at least too ponderous. To my relief (and Sloane's fury) Handel at the height of his powers suddenly puts a buttered bun on a mediaeval manuscript of untold worth. Handel's name is not in the index.

So the book sketches the origins of museums, or systems of classification, by enthusiasts as disparate as Linnaeus and Sir John Soane. It is also a picture of Philipp Blom's mind, one solemn enough to let the darker humour of his material speak for itself. He points out that the Narrenturm in Vienna, where deformed newborns with rickets or bulging eyes or swollen brains float before the visitor, 'is no place for women expecting children'. He favours an understated wisdom that hides an undercurrent of elation when his researches, as they do, support his thesis. As a novelist (The Simmons Papers, 1995) he revels in his characters and their rivalries, from Ashmole's efforts to do Tradescant down to William Randolph Hearst striving to import more antiquity than J. Pierpont Morgan.

The Viennese Dr Gall, studying brain function by collecting skulls in Paris, made wax models of the ravages caused by tumours and syphilis, a precursor of Mengele; Blom is not slow to tap home a modern reference. The global spread of Napoleon's remains is as dryly related as Jesus Christ's similar fate. 'What mattered,' Blom says, 'was the sheer wonder of each object in itself.' He is an accurate reporter who interprets well. He makes you rethink yourself in civilised style, if not comfortably unsettle your view of the world.