How Sir Ashton Lever Curated The World—Then Lost It All
His obsession with collecting artifacts and specimens would eventually lead to his financial ruin. But first he amassed an impressive collection of curiosities.
For 11 years starting in 1768, Captain James Cook sailed the Pacific, exploring new lands, encountering new peoples, and reporting his finds back to mother Britain.
But Cook was not just interested in charting new lands and racking up the gold star “firsts” that have been prized by discoverers the centuries over; he also collected specimens and ethnographic treasures from the people, places, and startling new creatures he met along the way.
At about the same time that Cook was first setting sail in the HMS Endeavor, a wealthy coal mining and real estate mogul near Manchester was beginning to focus his full attention on his passion for all things pertaining to natural history and ethnography.
Sir Ashton Lever’s obsession with collecting artifacts and specimens would eventually lead to his financial ruin. But first he amassed an impressive collection of curiosities, including many objects brought back from Cook’s final two expeditions. In a radical move, he opened his treasures to the public before he was forced to sell.
Born in 1726, Lever had a passion for collecting that was evident from an early age. His interests at first tended toward the living, leading Lever to establish a private aviary that no fewer than 4,000 birds called home. But slowly, his obsession moved to the inanimate. Scholar Claire Haynes has suggested that the key to this shift was the sale of several barrels of shells in Dunkirk. Naturally, Lever just couldn’t resist snapping them up.
The shells proved to be his “gateway drug.” Soon, Lever was acquiring every natural history item of wonder that he could get his hands on, even selling his personal property when he needed some quick cash.
Haynes says that Lever began collecting “on a scale and of such energy likely to breach the standards of gentlemanly decorum” of his day. But he couldn’t care less about what his posh neighbors thought; he was on a mission.
If his obsession with collecting wasn’t indication enough, by all accounts, Lever was a bona fide eccentric. In addition to being a member of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, Lever was also the founding president of the Toxophilite Society, which advocated for archery to be considered a legitimate sport. On at least one occasion, a visitor to his museum reported that the proprietor “accoutred as a forester, he pranced about.”
In all, Lever amassed some 27,000 treasures ranging from fossils and shells to stuffed birds and animals, and cultural treasures acquired from explorers who were “discovering” new civilizations around the world.
Adrienne Kaeppler, whose decades-long project following the trail of Lever’s dispersed collection resulted in her 2011 book Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum, said in a video that many of the fossils in the Leverian collection are “the type specimens on which we build our scientific terminology of today” and the objects from far-flung cultures “are now the important objects of cultural identity of the people from the areas in which they were collected.”
Lever has been criticized for his unscientific approach to displaying his collection—they were neatly organized and labelled but not necessarily displayed by taxonomy or any other sort of official organization.
A watercolor painting of Lever’s London Museum shows something of a matryoshka doll of galleries—one arched doorway after another leading down a long hall, each surrounded by walls packed with fossils, specimens, and other exhibits of natural history.
But where Lever failed to arrange his curiosities by official classification, he succeeded in taking a revolutionary approach to what to do with the spoils of his passion: he opened a public museum.
Private collections were not unusual in Lever’s day. But what was unusual was allowing anybody off the street who wanted to take a look to come right in.
In 1771, Lever opened his first museum in Alkrington Hall which was part of his property in Rochdale, on the outskirts of Manchester. He called his collection the Holophusicon, which roughly translated from Greek means “embracing all of nature.” It was a distinguished name, but also a declaration of Lever’s life philosophy.
“You didn’t have to be a scientifically important person, you didn’t have to be one of the leisurely people who knew all the other scientists and could go to their private collections in their homes,” Kaeppler says. “You could go to satisfy your curiosity, you could go because there were things there that were objects of wonder. You could go because you simply were interested in bows and arrows for whatever reason…this was a very important place that was known not only to the scientists, but to everyone.”
In 1774, the newly minted museum proprietor decided to move his collection to Leicester House in London so it would be accessible to more people. With the Holophusicon now settled into a new home (a former palace), Lever began to charge a small admission fee to help defray his costs. Initially, things seemed to be going well and, in 1777, Lever was knighted.
Londoners flocked to Leicester House and were treated to walls full of foreign weapons, stuffed animals including crocodiles and an elephant, and specimens of other exotic animal parts.
There were seeds and shells and fossils. There was a room called the Wardrobe, where garments from around the world were on display. And there were examples of fascinating cultural items from the far reaches of the world, including Tongan baskets, Maori clubs, and Nootka masks.
Three entire rooms at Leicester House were dedicated solely to the spoils of Cook and his crew. In 1780, a prominent English lawyer and naturalist requested that everything collected on Cook’s final voyage be entrusted to Lever because “[they] can no where receive such complete justice as at Leicester House, which from the vast additions lately made, may be truly said to be a national honour.”
Haynes writes that contemporaneous reports of the museum “imply that Lever represented nature inside the museum as it was outside it: full of wonder, all-encompassing, engulfing, dazzling and confusing, but ultimately something from which understanding could be generated.”
But all the curiosities in the world couldn’t save Lever from what was quickly becoming apparent—the museum was bleeding money. In 1786, he faced reality and surrendered to his financial situation, disposing of his life’s work by a lottery—8,000 tickets were sold at one guinea each.
Detailed records of Lever’s collection are hard to find, if they ever existed, but he made one decision that has helped researchers like Kaeppler identify and track down its original pieces.
Before he disposed of his prized possessions, Lever commissioned prominent watercolorist Sarah Stone to paint the treasures. The resulting illustrations are not just important historical documents, they are themselves important works of art.
Lever only made a pittance on the lottery, which was won by James Parkinson, who at least shared his passion for the collection. Parkinson moved the museum to a different part of London and renamed it the Leverian Museum, but he, too, failed to achieve financial solvency.
In 1806, during a 65-day public auction, Lever’s cabinet of curiosities was disbanded and sold in 7,000 separate lots to buyers ranging from representatives of the Austrian crown to private collectors in England and America.
During the tail end of the Age of Exploration, Lever brought the wonders of the new lands and new people being discovered by the likes of Captain Cook to the ordinary citizens of Manchester and London. But by the beginning of the 19th century, those finds were once again on a journey, this time to new museums and collections around the world.