Rob Hardy: 'An Infinity of Things'

January 20, 2010 12:42:00 PM



Collecting things is a human trait that almost anyone participates in, whether it is a formal hobby like stamp collecting or just accumulating books or Toby jugs.  


Every now and then we hear about some poor fellow who has filled his house with a collection, usually of worthless stuff, so that he can do nothing but tunnel through the mass. This would have been the fate of Henry Wellcome, who collected a huge amount of valuable ethnographic and historically important items, but he had the money to keep the collection from impinging, much, upon his living quarters.  


Wellcome was obsessed with collecting all of human history, and this resulted in huge warehouses filled with crates jammed with a jumble of fetish items, spears, masks, tools, paintings, pestles, whole shopfronts and the shops behind them, walking sticks and more.  


The mass of the collection can never be fully appreciated (and was not, even by him) when it was disbursed in the 1940s. There was, for example, an embarrassingly large number of weapons, so many that along with the good stuff there were six tons of swords, guns, cannon, helmets, and shields that were suitable only for scrap. 


Wellcome was sure his collection would prove to be a beacon of research, but in the fascinating An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World (Oxford University Press), anthropologist and historian Frances Larson shows how Wellcome''s pathological acquisitiveness doomed itself into making a collection so huge it was unusable, and how his great ambition blighted his life. It is a story of genuine tragedy. 


Wellcome was to become a British subject, but he was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin in 1853. He had little education initially, quitting school at age 13 so he could work for his uncle, a doctor who ran a pharmacy. He had to prepare medicines in this job, and eventually he enrolled in a Chicago pharmacy college.  


It was sales he was good at. He had an acute sense of design, and could make, for instance, beautiful medicine chests that physicians would carry on their visits, filled with small, colorful pills that resembled candies rather than liquids or pastes. By the time he joined his American friend Silas Burroughs in London, he was adept at advertising, and his displays at pharmaceutical shows were stocked with the sort of medical curiosities that he would go on to collect.  


"He looked at objects to help him think," writes Larson, "to refine his vision of the world and how it worked; and to communicate effectively with others."  


The verve of the two American entrepreneurs within England and Wellcome''s fetching presentations of the products were to bring him incalculable wealth. 


The wealth he employed in building his collection; this, rather than running his pharmaceutical firm, was to be his lifetime employment. It was not a one-man operation; given the scope of his purchases, the wide regions from which they were obtained, and the need to store and preserve them, Wellcome required an army of helpers including trusted first officers with whom he did not always get along.  


A great problem was his need for secrecy, ostensibly for the purpose of keeping auctioneers from gouging him. Bidding at auction houses, for instance, was done under pseudonyms, not just that of Wellcome himself, but that of delivery men or caretakers who would act as bidders, taking a small fee for the job of exchanging much larger amounts.  


His need for secrecy became pathological. Wellcome aspired to an academic appreciation for his collection (although he wrote only two papers about items within it). This would have meant that scholars would obtain access to the items in the collection, a simple requirement that he had difficulty accepting.  


Proposals for collaborating with academic institutions were met with a cool postponement; there would be plenty of time for such work when the collection was complete, and making it complete was his all-consuming goal. Given his widespread range of acquisitiveness in so many fields, however, the goal was illusory. The collection could never be complete because there was always more to add.  


There was so much in the collection that no one, Wellcome on down, knew what it contained. Acquisition and the thrill of the chase for a purchase was what kept him going, not such niceties as making a rational catalogue of the items.  


One assistant remembered a familiar pattern. He''d inform Wellcome that he was pretty sure that a certain item was already held within the collection (there was no way to check a catalogue to make sure), and that there was no need to buy another. Wellcome would respond, "Better buy it again to make certain."  


The secrecy extended even to the exhibit of the items. Not all the collection could be put on show, of course, but Wellcome did create his Historical Medical Museum to show off a small portion of it.  


Wellcome wanted only doctors and other professionals to visit. Sometimes organized groups might apply, but individuals who were not doctors were told to provide a doctor''s letter to verify that they ought to see the exhibits.  


Wellcome wrote, "Many people visit museums simply as stragglers. It is necessary to take precautions to safeguard the exhibits. Many objects are liable to be taken unless under lock and key, especially valuable things."  


That other museums successfully met such challenges seems not to have interested him at all. He was happy to have professionals as visitors, and happy, too, to have to put up with few other interlopers. When a visitor asked how a particular part of the collection was amassed, Wellcome instructed his assistant, "Our methods and sources must never be published as that would assist our rivals who would follow up and take advantage of any information." 


The stance of mistrust may have poisoned his marriage, to a much younger woman whom he divorced in 1916. Wellcome suspected that she was having an affair. The collecting mania, however, certainly had worsened any romance between them.  


She was to write of their travels, "the greatest part of our time has been spent, as he well knows, in places I detested collecting curios."  


He was, for those who worked with him, a difficult taskmaster, insisting on secrecy and on driving hard bargains. Other tycoons spent their fortunes on, say, paintings that cost thousands of pounds; most of the items in Wellcome''s collection cost only a few pounds, and if he could get a relic for shillings, he was thrilled. He never settled down from buying and storing, and the warehouses filled up with exhibits that would be exhibited to no one.  


He wanted to show every bit of human history with artifacts that pertained to all societies and endeavors, and surely he accumulated more towards that goal than anyone else ever could. Larson, however, has produced a sad picture of an unlikeable but driven man, whose unremitting goal of collecting precluded any usefulness of his collection.