It seems extraordinary now, but if you had entered a lottery in 1786, you might have won a whole museum. The tickets were priced at one guinea each, and the museum up for grabs was that of Sir Ashton Lever, collector of natural history and ethnographical specimens.
The museum was based in Leicester Square, London, and contained approximately 27,000 items. Leicester House, a large mansion, cost Lever £600 a year to lease, and when it opened in February 1775 he charged visitors half a guinea to enter, a large sum at the time. Despite the cost, the Leverian Museum proved popular. Those who visited found sixteen rooms of specimens interspersed with corridors lined with cases containing even more items. One room was separate and was billed as containing “very curious monkies and monsters”; ladies were warned that they may not have wished to enter for fear of being disgusted. As well as the specimens, there was a library containing books on natural history. Interestingly, advertisements at the time specify that good fires were to be found in the galleries – not something that one would expect to find in museums now!
As well as the general public, artists and natural historians of the time came to draw and study the exhibitions. Lever added to the collections frequently, stocking the cases with zoological and ethnographical items brought back from expeditions such as those of Captain Cook, from exotic locations such as the Americas, Africa and the Far East.
[Image above] – “Bird display. A perspective view of the grand saloon and gallery [of the Leverian Museum] from A Companion to the [British] Museum (1790) by Sir Ashton Lever.” NHM Picture Library Ref 036756
Sarah Stone (ca.1760-1844), the daughter of a fan painter, began painting at the museum in the late 1770s. Her baptism certificate has not been found, so the precise date of her birth is unknown. She came to the attention of Lever and was commissioned by him to formally record specimens. Her artwork is considered of great importance as it gives some idea of the species collected by explorers and of the long-since demolished museum. Some of the animals she painted are now extinct, or have endangered populations.
The Library at the Natural History Museum has a large collection of Stone’s watercolours. Many of the known paintings and drawings in existence (over 900 in total) are of birds, such as the image above of a mandarin duck, Aix galericulata.
Stone’s use of colour and shadow, delicate brushwork and faithful representation of her subjects made her work distinctive and admirable at the time. Although these qualities are still prized, some of her drawings can look ‘stiff’ to modern eyes. In particular, the sloth on the left in the picture below looks incapable of climbing its branch. However, this may also be the fault of the taxidermy techniques of the period.
[Image on right] “Mandarin duck, Aix galericulata. Sarah Stone, 1788.” NHM Picture Library Ref 024290
So who did win the museum? For five weeks after the lottery, no-one knew. Finally James Parkinson, a barrister, came forward to claim his winnings. The chosen ticket had belonged to his late wife and he had only come across it when sorting through her estate.
He owned the museum for twenty years, though kept the ‘Leverian’ name, and oversaw a move to a different site in Albion Place, south of Blackfriars Bridge. Most of Stone’s drawings are dated to before Parkinson took over the museum. In 1806, the collections were broken up and sold at auctions lasting for sixty five days (excluding Sundays and the King’s birthday). Interestingly, two of the lots were Stone’s own watercolours of the specimens.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) webpage hosts some books which contain paintings by Sarah Stone. Some examples are here:
You can also see more of Sarah Stone’s artwork in the forthcoming Images of Nature Gallery exhibition on women artists, which will be on display the Museum from March 2014 and is accompanied by a book by Special Collections Librarian Andrea Hart. Keep a look out for forthcoming blogs providing more information about the new exhibition next month and then throughout 2014/2015.
Jackson, C.E. (1998). Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds. London: Merrell Publishers Ltd.
[Image below] – “Pale-throated three-toed sloth, Bradypus tridactylus. Sarah Stone, c. 1781-1785.” NHM Picture Library Ref 024334