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Thursday, 13 September 2018

Review: Jacqueline Yallop, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves




This is an interesting, well-written book about top end collecting in Victorian England, nicely presented with big print and proper spacing. The arguments are developed through case studies of five wealthy and determined collectors and particular emphasis is given to the developing relationships between private collectors and public collecting institutions (museums, art galleries). Two of Yallop’s collectors double as public servants and one as a dealer. The chapter on Charlotte Schreiber is the most interesting, especially when it develops a modest but well-grounded account  of how and why some forms of collecting were consistently regarded as the preserve of men but some niches were offered to female collectors in areas like chinaware. I would have thought a monograph could be made out of this chapter. There is no discussion of lower forms of collecting and though this is a book about Victorian England, the words “stamp collecting" nowhere appear.

The title is misleading. All of her subjects move away from magpie collecting towards a more informed and structured approach. None are hoarders in any pathological sense. Though they benefit from the proceeds of Imperial looting expeditions, they generally display a high degree of probity in their actions.

There is one puzzling discussion of fakes in chapter 17 where the example chosen (a bust of Flora attributed to da Vinci) is not in any obvious sense a fake or a forgery, just work someone has done to amuse himself; no one appears to pass it off as a da Vinci. The narrative offered supports only the conclusion that the work was misattributed; no one seems to have had any intent to defraud. Indeed, the principal victim is the expert who attributed it in the first place.

I noticed a couple of mistakes. At page 264, “George III” should read “George IV”. At page 281 a mid-century transatlantic crossing time of fifty days is given. With the introduction and development of steamships, crossing time dropped from about ten days in the 1850s to about seven days in the 1880s.

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