David Hughes

Obsessive, compulsive behaviour

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.

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