ANTIQUES & COLLECTING: The Passions of a Curious Duchess; Sally Hoban Looks at the Life of Margaret Cavendish, One of the 18th Century's Greatest Collectors, as a New Exhibition of Some of Her Remaining Pieces Goes on Show to the Public

The Birmingham Post (England), April 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

ANTIQUES & COLLECTING: The Passions of a Curious Duchess; Sally Hoban Looks at the Life of Margaret Cavendish, One of the 18th Century's Greatest Collectors, as a New Exhibition of Some of Her Remaining Pieces Goes on Show to the Public


Byline: Sally Hoban

What links a dagger reputed to have belonged to Henry VIII and scent bottles that once belonged to the infamous Nell Gwyn?

They were all part of one of the most impressive but now largely forgotten British collections of curiosities and antiques, which is now the subject of a dedicated exhibition in Nottinghamshire.

This unique collection was put together by Margaret Cavendish (1715-1785), Duchess of Portland, who was one of the 18th century's greatest collectors.

What is left of her enormous collection (many pieces were sold after her death) are on show at the Harley Gallery in Worksop.

The exhibition, which is the first dedicated to this amazing woman and her unique curios, is open for the next two years.

Margaret Cavendish, described by the gallery as "a woman of science before her time", assembled the world-famous Portland Museum and was owner of one of the largest natural history collections in 18th century Britain.

She also created lost gardens, a menagerie and an aviary at her country estate.

She came from a family of connoisseurs, being the daughter and grand-daughter of collectors.

As if this wasn't enough of a pedigree she was a patron of Captain Cook on some of his early expeditions and was brought up and associated with royalty and some of the most radical intellectual and creative writers and artists of the time.

These included Alexander Pope, Jonathon Swift, Joshua Reynolds, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Garrick and Samuel Johnson.

This inspiring circle no doubt spurred her on and her intellectual and artistic curiosity manifested itself in her spectacular collection which included Old Master drawings as well as jewels, fossils and paintings.

Horace Walpole said: "Few men have rivalled Margaret Cavendish in the mania of collecting, and perhaps no woman. In an age of great collectors she rivalled the greatest."

Margaret was heiress to a family collection that stretched back to the Earl of Arundel - not a bad start for a young connoisseur.

But her love of fine and rare objects wasn't the only passion in her life, as she was the mother of six children and devoted wife to "Sweet William", the 2nd Duke of Portland, whom she married when she was 20 years old.

This remarkable lady was born in 1715 to Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, the richest woman in England at the time and Edward Harley, the 2nd Duke of Oxford, who was a bibliophile, collector and patron of the arts.

Margaret grew up at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire surrounded by books, paintings, and sculpture.

On her mother's death in 1755, Margaret inherited the estates of Welbeck in Nottinghamshire.

She was encouraged by her father and grandfather to collect from an early age.

Her childhood curiosity for natural history specimens, in particular shells, grew into a serious and philosophical desire to understand the natural world.

After her marriage to William, Margaret began collecting in earnest, both natural history specimens and fine and decorative arts.

Her home, Bulstrode House in Buckinghamshire, became her museum.

This was in the second half of the 18th century, a time of the great private collectors and the birth of Britain's national museums.

It was also the Enlightenment, a period when the brightest minds were challenging traditional belief systems and women were striving for intellectual equality. …

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ANTIQUES & COLLECTING: The Passions of a Curious Duchess; Sally Hoban Looks at the Life of Margaret Cavendish, One of the 18th Century's Greatest Collectors, as a New Exhibition of Some of Her Remaining Pieces Goes on Show to the Public
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