I have just come across the Leverian Museum, which sadly was broken up, after about thirty years, in 1806. Sir Ashton Lever, its founder, was born in 1729 at Alkrington Hall, then near, now in, Manchester. His father, Sir James Darcy Lever, was a prosperous landowner who in in 1735 commissioned Giacomo Leoni (1686–1746), originally of Venice, to build him a new home in the Palladian style.
Sir Darcy Lever died in 1742, and young Ashton was sent by his mother to be educated at Manchester Grammar School, and then Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, though he did not take a degree. He returned to Manchester, and lived with his mother until moving back to Alkrington Hall. During this period he established a aviary, and his collection of live birds was thought to be the best in the country – he apparently bought exotic, foreign specimens from traders in London.
However, about 1760 he became entranced by shells and fossils (allegedly, he bought a barrel of shells, sight unseen, from Boulogne), and gave away or sold his birds to pay for his new hobby. He later returned to birds – though, this time, stuffed. The ODNB states that he was inspired by a collection displayed in Spring Gardens, near Trafalgar Square in London: I can’t find a specific reference to a taxidermy exhibition at this period, but Spring Gardens (mostly built over in the nineteenth century) was famous at the period as a leisure area which included displays of exotic animals.
As the reputation of the collection grew, Lever found himself inundated with visitors – not just the friends and acquaintances he was happy to host – and restricted public visiting to one day a week. (He also refused admission to anyone who arrived on foot, thus presumably excluding the lower orders.) Eventually, in 1773, he moved the whole collection down to London, and not just anywhere in London, but to Leicester House, Leicester Square, which he leased from George III himself.
Leicester House had been a home to minor and not so minor royalty since its construction in 1635 by the second earl of Leicester, in what was at the time open fields. In 1640, it was occupied for a few months by Thomas Wentworth, first earl of Strafford, who had just returned from his period as Charles I’s Lord Deputy of Ireland; later, Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia, the ‘Winter Queen’, moved into the house in January 1662, and died there on 13 February at the age of sixty-five.
More recently, its most distinguished occupant had been Frederick, Prince of Wales, who leased it in 1742. On his death in 1751, his widow, Augusta, Princess of Wales continued to live there, raising her nine children in relative seclusion as part of the obligatory generation-to-generation feud of the first four Georges.
George III, as inheritor of the lease, let Leicester House to Lever in 1773 (the year he was elected to the Royal Society), and he used sixteen connecting rooms on the first floor to exhibit his Holophusikon (‘Everything in Nature’).
By now, the collection consisted not merely of stuffed birds and animals, shells and fossils, but also of artefacts and what today would be called ethnographic material from around the world. (Lever displayed some antiquities, but these were mostly medals and casts.) One is reminded of the cabinets of curiosities, such as that of Ole Worm, from the previous century. Some of the material was very recently acquired from the voyages of James Cook.
The Leicester House Holophusikon, which consisted of about 25,000 items (a small fraction of Lever’s total collection) opened in February 1775 as a commercial enterprise: entry cost between 2s.6d. and 5s.3d, while a season ticket was available for two guineas. It became well known (and Lever was knighted in 1778 for his contribution to natural history), but it did not make money, and by 1783 Lever was deeply in debt and trying to sell the collection. Sadly, though he wanted it to go to the nation, the British Museum refused to buy it (in spite of Parliamentary support from the likes of Sir William Hamilton, and testimony to its value by Thomas Pennant).
Lever therefore obtained permission from the government to offer it as a first prize in a lottery, drawn in March 1786. Only 8,000 one-guinea tickets of the 36,000 printed were actually sold, and it is therefore very unlikely that Lever raised anything like the true value of the collection, estimated at the time as about £53,000. After its disposal, he returned to Alkrington, dying two years later of an apoplectic fit.
The winner of the lottery was one James Parkinson (1730–1813), a Shropshire land agent. Bizarrely the lucky ticket had been bought in December 1784 not by him, but by his wife Sarah, who had subsequently died: even more bizarrely, she had bought two and given one away … Parkinson was by all accounts a shrewd and honest businessman. He allowed Lever to keep the collection in Leicester House (where, predictably, attendance rocketed after the publicity gained by the lottery) for a further six months.
Meanwhile, Parkinson first attempted to sell the whole collection – Catherine the Great of Russia and the queen of Portugal were rumoured to have been potential buyers. But when no serious offer was forthcoming, he planned and built a new exhibition hall – the Blackfriars Rotunda – opened in 1787. This had the disadvantage of being south of the river, but it did attract naturalists and serious students as well as the wider public, and as an American visitor remarked, it was much easier to get into – tickets cost 2s.6d – than the British Museum, for which you had to acquire a timed ticket with your name on it.
Moreover, Parkinson continued to collection items for the exhibition, especially mineralogical specimens, but in spite of his efforts, the Rotunda Museum did not make enough money to cover the interest owing on the Blackfriars site. In 1798, therefore, he attempted to move closer to the centre of London, choosing a site in Bond Street, but this came to nothing.
He had apparently decided to sell in 1804, when he again offered the collection to the government, and was refused; a second approach in 1806 led to an offer of £20,000, but this was referred for approval to Sir Joseph Banks: according to the contemporary painter and diarist Joseph Farington, Parkinson claimed that ‘Sir Joseph hated Sir Ashton Lever, therefore hates the Collection’. (Was it opposition by Sir Joseph which had prevented Lever’s own attempt to sell to the government in 1783?) A sale therefore became inevitable, and was held over sixty-five days between May and July 1806.
The sale catalogue listed 8,000 lots, but the total amount raised was only £6,600. Many European buyers came over, either private collectors or the representatives of national museums, so that the collection was very widely dispersed. In addition to the sale catalogue and the guide, a more extensive record of it survives in the Musei Leveriani explicatio, written by Parkinson’s friend George Shaw and published at Parkinson’s expense, of which Volume 1 came out in 1792; Volume 2, of 1796, was left unfinished.
In English and Latin, and dedicated to George III and Queen Charlotte, Volume 1 is illustrated in colour, using engravings derived from drawings by a number of artists, including Philip Reinagle (1749–1833), Charles Reuben Ryley (c. 1755–98), and Sarah Smith (née Stone; c. 1760–1844).
Many of the original drawings and watercolours, including about 1,000 by Stone of specimens (often skinned) brought back from expeditions to Australasia and the Pacific, were commissioned by Lever himself, and were part of the 1806 sale: they are now scattered across the world, though an album of forty pictures is held in the British Museum.
It is sad that this remarkable collection was a commercial failure, and that (for whatever reason) it was not preserved for the nation. Possibly Sir Ashton Lever was simply too far ahead of his time?