On Collecting

To Have and to Hold : cover

This review of To Have and to Hold: An intimate history of collectors and collecting by Phillip Blom (pub. Allen Lane) first appeared in The Guardian 3rd August 2002

Name any object and it can be guaranteed that someone, somewhere, collects it. A fridge, a violin, a manhole cover, a baby's rattle, each has its Autolycus. Even barbed wire.

The collector is someone who, having found a second example of something, is condemned to seek a third. A stray find of a fragment of barbed wire differing only slightly from one in his possession leads to a local search. Soon, from national travels in pursuit of other variants, he graduates to a worldwide quest, and eventual inclusion in Who's Who in Barbed Wire, a book noted (by yet another kind of collector) in a compendium of literary oddities entitled Bizarre Books.

Freud summed it all up by calling the inanimate objects on to which we direct our surplus libido "erotic equivalents", designating every collector "a substitute for Don Juan". Next time I see Don Giovanni I shall try to imagine Don Elvira as a length of barbed wire. Freud had a perfect case to study at first hand: one glance at the curio-crowded rooms of the Freud museum will explain why he chose not to deal with the psychopathology of collecting at greater length.

Freud himself is collected in Phillip Blom's diverting anthology of exemplary figures in the history of chronic acquisitiveness. These range from the Old Testament to the present day. Noah, with the divine guidance that later collectors might envy, pioneered the method. His, perhaps, was the only fully achieved collection ever made: a pair of every type, all the surviving examples, and the whole gathered under one roof. Contemporary instances include Alberto Vilar, who, via his endless benefactions, can be said to collect operas.

Vilar exemplifies the potential influence of the modern collector. Charles Saatchi, who does not feature in Blom's survey, exerts a similar power over taste in the visual arts. His force field is great simply because he is the sole major collector of contemporary art in Britain. The presence of one other Maecenas with differing tastes would change the climate entirely.

Such patron/collectors are a different breed from the aristocratic or plutocratic hunter-gatherers of historic artefacts that dominate Blom's pages, in that they often support artists whose work is not yet (or may never be) endorsed by the market.

The state inherited from a dwindling aristocracy the role of collector-in-chief with its support of independent museums. But the present government, with its admirable sentiments about access and inclusion, presses the accelerator without fuelling the tank. Thus the British Museum (which has provided free access and universal education for 250 years) is starved of the exercise of its true skills and energies - its drives of acquisition and research - while being asked to serve an ever larger multitude.

Blom gives a timely reminder of how the great public collections grew from the obsessions of such cultural omnivores as the much-travelled physician Hans Sloane, whose collection both formed the 18th-century kernel of the British Museum and seeded the Natural History Museum.

Though the surviving elements of Sloane's bequest are now dispersed throughout these museums, the Ashmolean in Oxford still shows a cabinet of curiosities that formed its beginning. Like Sloane but 100 years earlier, John Tradescant started as a naturalist collecting specimens. It is to him that we owe the importation of the lilac, virginia creeper and trees such as larch, plane and horse chestnut.

Tradescant entreated merchant voyagers to bring back from "Turkye, Gine, Binne, Senego, Constantinoble, the Newfound Land, and the New Plantation towards the Amasonians, Anything that is strang". These went to fill what became known as Tradescant's Ark. Together with the trophies of nature came artefacts like "shoes to walk on snow without sinking", which marked the origin of that oddly Eurocentric discipline, ethnography - as if we were not ourselves "strang".

Tradescant's son continued the enterprise, leaving the treasure house to his widow Hester, who fell victim to the wiles of Elias Ashmole, a zealous visitor and adviser who turned out to have a terminal case of the collecting disease: he collected collections. The duped widow, failing to regain her title to the hoard, committed suicide. The museum's name celebrates Ashmole's coup.

Blom's text delights in extremists and obsessives, men (it is largely a male affliction) who would cheat, steal, kill or marry to feed or finance their habit. In the light of present-day political correctness, many who collected in good faith are tainted. No Sloane or Soane could now operate openly. Even the barbed-wire collector, once heritage has placed its gloomy stamp on his speciality, may become vilified.

Perhaps Robert Opie is safe. He collects commercial packaging. From one epiphanic moment, when he decided to save rather than discard a Munchie bar wrapper, he has amassed more than half a million items. These are often seen in TV dramas, where they lend authenticity to period backgrounds.

In the manner of one addressing the Peckham Lodge of Acquirers Anonymous, I have to confess that I read Blom's largely anecdotal survey with the morbid fascination that a hypochondriac brings to a medical handbook. It was only recently that the aesthetic and scholarly alibis fell away and my own addiction was pathetically revealed. Looking at my large collection of bronze Ashanti weights, all taxonomically arranged on mantelpieces and shelves, I suddenly realised that they were in size, order and organisation no more than replacements for the Dinky toys that had occupied the same spaces over 50 years ago. Repetitive acquisition syndrome knows no cure.