On this page...
One of the Australian Museum's most treasured books is a folio of watercolours by the 18th century museum artist Sarah Stone. More than just a skilful depiction of curiosities from early voyages, this unique work is a tangible reminder of fortunes won and lost.
And the winner is …
Sir Ashton Lever’s growing sense of hope was about to be dashed.
It had been almost five weeks since the lottery had been drawn – on 24 March 1786 – to decide the fate of the museum he’d built up over 12 years or more.
Known as the Holophusikon (or Leverian Museum), it held thousands of artefacts, including a sizeable lot acquired just five years previously from his friend Captain James Cook’s second and third voyages.
This was a golden age of scientific discovery. Public curiosity was high and Sir Ashton’s museum in London drew large audiences willing to pay the hefty entrance fee of five shillings and threepence, or two guineas for an annual ticket. There were regular advertisements advising the public of new acquisitions and the museum was used by natural historians such as John Latham, Gilbert White and Thomas Pennant.
But in the early 1880s Sir Ashton’s financial situation was worsening and he needed to sell the collection, preferably to a single large institutional buyer. His luck ran out when, despite holding more than three-quarters of the tickets in his own lottery, another’s had somehow come out of the hat first.
Yet why had the winner not come forward to claim their prize, one of England’s finest private museums? Perhaps they had left the country, or lost the ticket, or …?
The lottery itself was no chook raffle. Two years previously, Sir Ashton had obtained an Act of Parliament to allow the lottery to go ahead; 36,000 tickets had been printed, priced at one guinea apiece, but only 8000 had been sold – hardly a decent return for a collection valued at £53,000.
If only the British Museum had not been so truculent about taking the collection off his hands when he’d offered it to them in 1783. Had Sir Joseph Banks really opposed the acquisition? Or did they simply not have the space for his collection, which occupied 16 rooms in Leicester House in London’s West End?
Unbeknown to Sir Ashton, the owner of the winning ticket had also experienced a change of luck. Mrs James Parkinson had died some time before the draw, and the winning ticket was found among her papers. Her widower eventually claimed the prize five weeks after the draw and went on to manage the museum for 20 years before his fortunes, too, were to change.
Sir Ashton died on 28 January 1788, just two years after finally handing over his museum to Parkinson, and two days after Captain Arthur Phillip set foot at Sydney Cove with a small group of marines and convicts.
Bound in crimson Morocco
Sarah Stone’s work captures a time of journeys to new lands bringing back previously unseen animals, plants and ethnographic items. Her drawings are the last visual record of Sir Ashton Lever’s important collection.
The Museum’s folio contains 132 of Sarah Stone’s paintings. It was acquired by the publisher and bookseller George Roberston (of Angus & Robertson Ltd) who generously donated it to the Australian Museum.
Writing about the new acquisition in the Australian Museum Magazine in 1928, Museum Director Charles Anderson said, ‘Comparison with our collection of material collected by Captain James Cook …reveals a number of pieces identical with these pictures of Lever’s treasures’.
There are just two other volumes of Stone’s work. Both are held by the Bishop Museum in Hawaii and described in the book Art and artifacts of the 18th century.
The authors, Roland and Maryanne Force, mention a third volume of Stone’s work, bound in crimson morocco and containing 132 drawings, that had sold at auction to an unknown collector and effectively disappeared.
The emergence of the missing volume at the Australian Museum created great excitement among researchers working on Cook’s collection.
The beginning of the end
James Parkinson managed the Leverian Museum from 1786 to 1806, and Sarah Stone continued her work at the Museum under the new owner.
Parkinson commissioned a number of publications including A companion to the Museum (1790) and George Shaw’s Museum Leverianum (1796), for which Shaw wrote the text and leading artists – including Stone – provided the illustrations.
Eventually, like Sir Ashton before him, Parkinson began losing money. Faced with mounting financial losses, he finally arranged an auction to dispose of the entire collection in lots. A sale catalogue of the Leverian Museum’s contents was drawn up with the assistance of entomologist Edward Donovan.
In a mammoth auction spanning 60 days in 1806, Lever’s museum was finally dispersed. More than 26,000 objects were snapped up by museums large and small, and individuals.
A few copies of the sale catalogue have survived with (incomplete) annotations of the buyers’ names and prices paid. According to these notes, the three main bidders were Edward Donovan, collector Leopold von Fichtel and William Bullock, owner of the Bullock Museum which exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in London.
And so 1806 marked the passing of one of the great collections of curiosities in Georgian England and, by no coincidence, is the last year we see a dated work by Sarah Stone.
Leoné Lemmer and Brendan Atkins.
Leoné is manager of the Australian Museum Research Library.
First published in Explore 32(1).