This article argues that the shifts in the reputation of Sir Hans Sloane, the foremost British collector of the eighteenth century, reflect the changing reputation of collecting itself from the Restoration to the Regency. By examining the literary representations of Sloane in genres ranging from poetry to memoirs, it traces Sloane’s reputation in literary culture from that of a model physician and benefactor, to a charlatan, to a toyman, and finally, to an entrepreneur. These shifts reflect the challenges that collecting presented to culture: on the one hand, it threatened conventional valuations, and on the other, offered rich opportunities both for both self-advancement and the advancement of learning. Writers show that Sloane’s activities recast the natural world as a storehouse stuffed with collectibles and collecting as an ambiguous but national practice of imperialistic acquisition. At the same time, they find in Sloane and the fashion for collecting several dangers: it reflected the increasing power of objects to oust abstract concepts as the subjects of literary description, presented new modes of self-definition and sociability, and, above all, led to a transition from an idea of nature as full of wonders to one in which nature is a treasure-house of loot and knowledge. Whereas the Restoration had embraced the new definition of a scholar-collector as a gentleman who contributed to the public good, by the midcentury, collectors seemed self-absorbed and deluded. Yet, by the end of the century, collecting was considered laudable self-advancement. Things had changed, so that on 15 January 1759, when the British Museum opened for “study and public inspection,” Sloane, formerly a charlatan and a toyman, stood as the noble exemplar of the collector and the father of a new British identity.
Research Article|April 01 2012
Barbara M. Benedict; Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 April 2012; 36 (2): 111–142. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-1548054
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