The Museum of the Senses by Constance Classen

The Museum of the Senses by Constance Classen

Author:Constance Classen
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Bloomsbury


A Trail of Scent: The Afterlife of Collections

Visitors to Knole, a country house in Kent, might notice an old-fashioned fragrance pervading the rooms. Long before hotels thought of branding themselves with signature scents, Knole had its own unique fragrance, emanating from bowls of dried flowers and spices. It was the creation of Lady Betty Germaine, heiress to part of the Arundel collection in the eighteenth century and a frequent visitor at Knole House. The author Vita Sackville-West, who grew up at Knole at the turn of the twentieth century, remembered the bowls of potpourri well: ‘if you stir them up you get the quintessence of the smell, a sort of dusty fragrance, sweeter in the under layers where it has held the damp of the spices’ (1923: 12). This description serves as a good metaphor for the process undertaken in this chapter: burrowing into old histories to raise a cloud of narratives concerning the afterlife of the Arundel collection – the first major art collection in England. Exploring the fate of this collection reveals how ideas and experiences of art can shift within different social and material settings. It also serves to situate works of art within the context of the complex lives of the people who owned and lived with them, rather than in the seemingly timeless and impersonal setting of the museum.

Old Arts and New Sciences

That part of the Earl of Arundel’s collection which remained at Arundel House was still being visited in the mid-seventeenth century. An antiquarian of the day reported seeing the Mytens portrait of the Earl of Arundel in front of his sculpture gallery on a visit to the house: ‘In the long Gallery are divers Ritrattos & the Old Earl sitting, & his gallery of statues in prospect and he pointing you to it’ (Figure 4.1; cited in Hervey 1921: 522). One can see that by this point Thomas Howard, through his portrait, had become a distinguished piece in his own collection. One can also see by reading visitors’ accounts that the gallery tour retained its multisensory characteristics. Samuel Pepys, who visited in 1661, saw ‘some fine flowers in [the] garden, and all the fine statues in the gallery, which … is a brave sight’ and finished his tour with ‘two bottles of good ale’ in a ‘blind, dark cellar’ (1661: 30 May).

Henry Howard, sixth Duke of Norfolk and master of Arundel House, was attracted to the growing field of natural philosophy, and when he travelled he scouted out, not just masterpieces like his grandfather, but items of interest to the Royal Society (Peck 2005: 145–7). These items included something the members of that early science club dearly desired: an Egyptian mummy, which took pride of place in the Society’s catalogue of its museum when it was presented by the duke. (The catalogue entry begins with a minute description of the body and wrappings and ends with a consideration of the use of ‘mummy’ in medicine ‘against Contusions, clodded Blood, Hard Labour, &c’ [Grew 1681: 3].


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