There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Butterflies, unicorn horns, Anchor Hocking green glass, seashells, Pucci dresses—in a world of wonders, it’s no wonder that people have been gathering things from time immemorial. To Have and to Hold, Philipp Blom’s courtly and wildly entertaining survey of the modern history of collecting, covers much psychological, cultural, and political ground as it sniffs out the trails of emperors, scientists, and weirdos who surrounded themselves with stuff. The book is far-ranging and as intimate as the title promises, for even as Blom depicts the history of collection unfolding in tune with Western approaches to acquisition and display—from exploration to conservation to private delectation—he acknowledges the urge to acquire as a deeply personal, trickily idiosyncratic one.
Taste plays no part in this history—the desire to surround oneself with stuff is an end in itself, and that urge makes a more interesting subject than would the fragile complexities of sensibility. Blom is as gracious toward William Randolph Hearst’s abominable heap of heavily carved, pre-owned, historically random auction purchases (Hearst was a compulsive buyer) as he is toward the career of Dominique Vivant Denon, the almost accidental curator of the world’s first great public museum, the Louvre. To Have and to Hold is as much about portraiture as it is about the philosophy of acquisition; the parade of mad kings, con men, meek naturalists, and pompous ravagers of the Earth’s treasures makes up a grand composite face of both Earth-conquering and private amusement.
Denon is one of many fascinating characters, a “wit and socialite” who slithered through France’s political upheavals with unparalleled composure, working for Louis XV, consulted by Robespierre, and appointed by Napoleon to be director general of museums. He populated the Louvre with the finest collection of paintings, antiquities, relics, and curiosities in the history of display, and he systematically arranged works of art with a taxonomic clarity fitting the ideals of the neo-classical age, an aestheticism of nobility and reason. The famous Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is the legacy of a heartbreaking betrayal—the lawyer Elias Ashmole conned the family of landscape architect and early collector John Tradescant the Elder out of his magnificent “ark” museum, the product of a commission by his master to amass “Any thing that Is strang.” Ashmole not only tricked the Tradescants into signing over the staggering collection, but used his status to sue Mrs. Tradescant the Younger, bring a case of libel against her and forcing her to publicly apologize for pursuing the matter in court before she ended up drowned.
The medium of display has been the message for collections ever since humans began to amass objects. The grand cullings of kings hidden hodgepodge in lavishly tricked-out novelty cabinets, or stuffed into aristocrats’ crowded libraries, made for delightfully naive jumbles that acknowledged the constant surprise of a largely unexplored Earth. Blom’s recurring theme in these pages is one of transformation and illusion—from collectors’ cabinets themselves to the Seychelles nut carved like a ship but designed as a wine container to the hidden virginal that plays a tune for the unsuspecting drawer-opener, nothing is what it seems.
Later, the fruits of eccentric explorations and monarch-sanctioned pirate pillages, which sometimes included pirates themselves (as in the theatrum anatomicum at Leiden University, where a labeled skeleton of an English pirate is one of many reminders of fleeting mortality that ring the dissection area), fell under the professional administration and direction of scientists of the Age of Enlightenment. These worthies devised rational taxonomies that contributed to sophisticated theories of natural science—the flamboyant mathematician and naturalist George Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, for example, not only developed the binomial theorem but posited an “instability of species” that predated Charles Darwin’s work by half a century. And as museums became public destinations and exemplars not just of empire but of national taste and reach, the way was paved for the contemporary private collector with his cherished hoard of Pez dispensers or vintage soda bottles or Fire King china or Eames chairs.
What human beings have the technology to gather, the cultural convention to cherish, and the psychology to believe in may change, but the mindset of the collector does not. Thus could such a scrupulous eye as J. Pierpont Morgan’s overlook the reality of coveted objects amid the clamor of acquisition. Morgan once sent a note to his librarian asking the whereabouts of an admired $10,000 sculpture, to which the librarian responded with acid aplomb: “This bronze Bust is in your Library and faces you when sitting in your chair. It has been there for about a year.”
Blom approaches his topic with unhurried grace, remarking extensively on the impressive oddities of 15th- and 16th-century cabinets of wonders—and the eccentricities of their proprietors—before the subject begins to feel familiar. It isn’t until Blom has steeped us in a brew of acquisition, curiosity, and gullibility that the power of thing-lust is fully established. With the stakes raised ever so slightly, the charge to hoard suddenly feels inevitable when Anglo-American painter and thing-hunter Charles Willson Peale is announced to have been on the trail of a mastodon skeleton. That beats Tradescant the Elder’s “golden apricot,” a purported Algerian rarity of such succulence that the 50-ish Tradescant petitioned to sail with a British mission charged with hunting down the notorious Corsairs of Barbary—pirates again!—in hopes of finding it.
The chapter on Peale is particularly poignant—Blom sees in Peale’s painting as well as his personal museum a vain and noble effort to stop time, to capture memory in a vitrine. This is the same impulse—not quite nostalgia, not quite self-expression, but composed of both—that drives modern-day bidders to scoop up the friable detritus of their youth via eBay or hipsters to decorate in the vintage-atomic style that poses as retro cynicism while looking to the future with hope and sincerity. It’s reductivist to say that those who amass the bottle caps of yesteryear yearn for a simpler time; the desire to preserve rapidly disappearing cultural artifacts speaks to a kind of American sentimentality that finds value in every relic produced by our young nation, a defiance of time’s breath-winching clutches—not This piece of exotica can be found over there but This was, is, ours.
Blom ends the book, fittingly, with a bizarre epilogue in which a drunk seats himself next to the author in a Vienna cafe and proceeds to ramble magnificently while Blom takes notes. Let’s hope that the notes are as close to word-perfect as can be under such circumstances; the drunk is an intelligent, flawed crackpot worthy of entry in this rogues’ gallery. In between ordering more wine—which happens, it seems, every 30 seconds—he monologues mellifluously upon the light (“undifferentiated, inhuman, chatting light”), the local newspapers, the aesthetically offensive way the cafe has hung its pictures, and his recent divestment of his entire library. To Blom’s continued astonishment, his uninvited guest discourses about the “cabinets in Berlin” (“I salute the philatelists”) and various collections, from the Queen of Sheba’s gift to King Solomon to his own row of humble plastic cups, all the while commenting on the author’s state of mind and the probability that he will age beautifully. It’s a splendid performance, all the more precious because it was serendipity that led this particular butterfly to land on Blom’s examination table while he researched this book. And that, Blom implies, is the essence of collecting’s allure: the specificity of time married to the poignancy of memory. CP