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Feathers of the Gods: The Art of the Collection

By: Emma Gray, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 20 Dec 2013

One of our Research Library's greatest treasures is a sketchbook containing original drawings by 18th century English artist Sarah Stone.

Feathers of the Gods: The Art of the Collection

Sarah Stone © Australian Museum

This story is an extract from our new book, Feathers of the Gods and Other Stories from the Australian Museum, in which scientists, collection managers, coordinators, conservators, archivists and volunteers share their favourite tales inspired by our collections.

The sketches depict both natural history specimens and ethnographic objects from the Leverian Museum, a London institution created by Sir Ashton Lever.

Lever was a dedicated collector and passionate amateur naturalist. From his earliest forays into bird-keeping and shell-collecting, his hobbies developed into a lifelong obsession with curious and exotic cultural objects, natural history specimens and live animals.

By 1775 his collection was so large (and his personal income so depleted) that he decided to open it to the public, charging an entry fee of five shillings and threepence per visitor. He moved the collection from Alkrington in Lancashire, to the expansive Leicester House, London, where it also became known as the Holophusicon – a word fashioned by Lever from two Greek words holo, meaning ‘whole’, and phusikon, ‘natural’.

After the museum moved to London, Lever continued to add to its treasures. Among the new acquisitions were artefacts collected by Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages of discovery through the Pacific.

In less than a decade, however, Lever’s financial situation had reached a point where he was forced to sell off his vast collection. A lottery was held and won by James Parkinson, who took over the museum in 1786, running it for the next 20 years.

Eventually, finances also forced Parkinson to dispose of the collection, and he put it up for auction in 1806. Over 7000 lots of natural history and ethnographic material were sold and dispersed into various public and private collections.

In the mid-1770s artist Sarah Stone had made a series of beautiful watercolour sketches of objects in the Leverian Museum. Not much is known about the life of Sarah Stone or how she came to the attention of Ashton Lever, although it is possible that they were acquainted in Lancashire.

Nevertheless, this talented young woman’s loose drawings and four bound sketchbooks provide us with the most complete visual record of the material in the Holophusicon. Two of Stone’s four known sketchbooks are held by the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, one is in the British Museum, and the fourth is the crimson volume in the Australian Museum.

The Research Library’s Sarah Stone sketchbook – A collection of drawings by Sarah Stone of the principal objects of curiosity in Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum, consisting of natural history, the arms ornaments and dresses of the inhabitants of New Zealand and other countries discover’d by Capt. Cook – was a generous donation by George Robertson (of publishing firm Angus & Robertson) in 1928. Robertson acquired the book at auction for 35 pounds.

Of particular interest are Stone’s depictions of items from the Pacific. They are almost all from the areas visited by Cook on his second voyage and are likely to be items collected on that journey.

An article in the Australian Museum Magazine in 1928 claimed that the sketches ‘are identical with’ the objects collected by Cook that are held in the Australian Museum collections, but research by Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian Institute has shown that this is not the case and that the Australian Museum’s Cook material was never part of the Leverian collection.

Sarah Stone’s sketchbook is an invaluable resource not only to researchers interested in the objects depicted in the artworks, but also to those interested in the history of Ashton Lever’s Holophusicon and its collections, and in the 18th century culture of collecting. It complements the Australian Museum’s own natural and cultural collections.

Above all, Sarah Stone’s drawings bring to life the range and diversity of the Leverian Museum and Sir Lever’s drive and passion for his collections.

Emma Gray
Acting Manager
Research Library

For more stories like this see our Feathers of the Gods page.