Collecting the World by James Delbourgo
Hans Sloane is little known today, said Noel Malcolm in The Daily Telegraph, yet in his time he was “immensely famous”. Born in Ulster in 1660, he rose from humble origins to become a celebrity of “early Georgian England”– not only a “prominent scientist” but also “the most successful doctor of the age”, whose patients included Queen Anne, George I and John Locke. His most enduring legacy, however, was as a collector.A man with an “insatiable” appetite for objects, Sloane amassed a “colossal” array of animal and vegetable specimens, drawings,coins, medals and manuscripts. After his death, in 1753, in accordance with his wishes this collection was purchased by the government and, in 1759, formed the nucleus of the newly established British Museum. “Beautifully illustrated” and “enjoyably written”, James Delbourgo’s biography of Sloane –the first in more than 60 years – is a “superb” achievement.
Writing an “admiring biography” of such a man is a “brave step”, said John Carey in The Sunday Times, for by today’s standards, Sloane was a “monster”. He acquired the collecting habit in his late 20s while working as a physician to the governor of Jamaica,one of his duties being to “maintain the profitability of slavery” by ensuring that slaves stayed healthy. He devoted himself to this with gusto, proudly recording how he persuaded one“lusty negro” to return to work by“threatening to put a pan of burning coals against his head”. In 1695,Sloane married the widow of a leading Jamaican sugar planter, whose income– the equivalent of £600,000 today –helped fund his collecting. Delbourgo’s“enthralling” book captures the “bitter irony” that an institution now regarded as a bulwark of democracy, the British Museum, should “owe its inception” to slavery.
Sloane “nabbed everything that crossed his sight line”, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. Nothing was “too small, too big or too odd”. He packed his cabinets “with gnats’ blood, Inuit sun visors, a stick to put down your throat to make yourself sick, a cyclops pig and a silver penis protector”. As a child of the Enlightenment, he thought it possible to sample and classify the world; and as a committed Protestant, he hoped gathering up “the planet’s stranger bits and pieces” would help people under-stand “God’s intentions and design”. Sadly for Sloane, many of his contemporaries (including Jonathan Swift) regarded him as no more than a flashy collector of knick-knacks. This “excellent” biography allows us to assess this complex figure with fresh eyes.