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A whole cabinet of items to pique your curiosity; Richard Edmonds enjoys a page-turning rummage through the treasure rooms of an 18th century country house.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

FOR centuries people have collected the strange and the curious. The Greeks and Romans in the centuries before Christ, purchased fine jewellery in silver and gold, which they wore at banquets and on important social occasions.

Such objects were also regarded as an inflation hedge when the economy began to slide.

Nero had statuettes made from solid gold, and took them with him as a form of currency exchange on his flight from Rome when the city set on fire.

Later, the establishing of the printing press in the 15th century, gave access to the materials of scholarship, books made from paper and ink - rather than the hand-written books of previous centuries - which was a godsend to those with financial means and an enquiring mind.

Thus, by the early 1500s, workable libraries were established in private households, alongside cabinets which reflected the natural world: shells, rocks, dried flowers, birds' eggs, small metal objects or animal bones, this was the schatzkammer (treasure room) or cabinet of curiosities.

There was a certain snobbery in all this, since visitors could see at first hand, that a man (less often a woman) had scholarly inclinations and an interest in the whole sweep of creation.

It was a form of showing off extraordinary things to impress the neighbours and visiting dignitaries.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, cabinets of curiosities had moved from glazed wooden boxes fixed to the wall in the parlour, "to whole suites of specially furnished rooms, depending on the means and ambitions of the owner", as Arthur MacGregor notes in his magnificent book, The Cobbe Cabinet of Curiosities.

This particular cabinet of curiosities (actually, not a cabinet at all but several rooms of remarkable items) was established in 1750 by the affluent Cobbe family in Ireland and added to during most of the 19th century, as members of the family sent home particular items from whichever remote part of the world they found themselves in.

Such large country houses would have had a great deal in the way of family portraits and table silver and quantities of porcelain and glass, not to mention private jewellery along with furniture by the best craftsmen of the day, classical marble statuary imported from Italy, lavish wallpapers and much else besides.

But the Cobbe cabinet, with its custom made 18th century cabinets, drew doctors of medicine, astronomers and geologists to Ireland to view it.

Such collections did not reach out to fine art collectors in particular, rather their aim was educational, teaching those who viewed it about the natural sciences and the world around them, paving the way for such rooms to be introduced into museums when these places were finally established serving a public need.

Throughout this book are astonishing pictures of minerals, rocks, fossils, dried plants, oriental treasures and much more, listed and catalogued and discussed in chapter after chapter in a way which leaves you so richly informed that your head goes round.

You cannot leave the fine full-page illustration of a noble-looking ostrich egg cup set in brass, or the American Indian birch bark canoe, without wondering at the amazing breadth of the Cobbe family's collecting zeal.

The pictures of the hundreds and hundreds of shells from all parts of the world, would leave you amazed.

Many of these cases contain little trays made from old playing cards, each containing shell types labelled in fading ink.

Some are from Gloucester, along with corals from Capri. Others are from Iceland or the Mississippi, not just one shell but hundreds of examples.

They sit there, alongside the Japanese moon shell, and the red-rayed keyhole limpet which hails from the Caribbean, brought back by the naval and military members of the family travelling the world as part and parcel of their careers.

The nineteenth century was a time when the Egyptian government had no worries about its treasures being sold on the open market.

Thus it would have been much easier to bring back to the Cobbe collection the mummified human hand or the equally mummified ear of an Apis bull (sacred to the Ancient Egyptians) seen here.

Coins and medals from the ancient world have held a place in collections since they first appeared, but here they join Roman glass tear drop bottles, 5th century clay oil lamps made from Nile silt, wonderful painted portraits from the Fayum area of Roman-Egypt, showing the face of the person beneath the mummy wrappings, collections of North American sharp-pointed projectile tips, chipped from flint by hunter-gatherers roughly 10,000 years old and post-dating the last Ice Age.

They are here in a suite of rooms which, as a member of the household noted (in the 19th century) "could smell of mildew and damp layered dust and cobwebs, with a flaky snakeskin hanging on either side of the shuttered windows.

If my mother were to go in, she would say: "Ughh"'.

But in this unique book you can wander - without the smell - wherever your own special taste takes you.

View the tiny silk shoes, worn by 19th century Chinese concubines whose feet were bound at birth and consequently never grew larger than an infant's; or look at the strange lacquered statuette of a Chinese thief with plump belly and a worried look, made at Canton around 1790/1800 - items which bring an immediacy to MacGregor's finely-written narrative which makes compulsive reading.

T | | The Cobbe Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Arthur MacGregor (Yale: PS75


Modern glass topped display table, containing shells from the Cobbe collection of curiosities

Cabinet XXIII (foreground), with three-tier stand (XXVI) of the Cobbe collection. All pictures from The Cobbe Cabinet of Curiosities by Arthur MacGregor, far left

Examples of embroidered silk shoes for women in the 19th century

FIGURE of a thief or beggar, late eighteenth-early nineteenth century, painted and gilded unfired clay, probably made at Canton
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 20, 2015
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