Category Archives: Science

London curiosities, from Don Saltero to Viktor Wynd

This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth –  but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”

These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]

Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.

poo

London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some  relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”

 

Saltero’s collection included such marvels as  a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and  a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”

Well then!

Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’  to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.

Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”

“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.

He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”

The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.

London’s new invasive species, and how the Daily Mail has welcomed them to the city

This piece first featured in the April issue of Metropolitan. Interestingly, the Daily Mail had not discovered the aesculapian snakes when I wrote this piece but did so very shortly afterwards. I sincerely hope my article was not what alerted them to this harmless colony.

When workers began clearing the Hackney site that was to become the 2012 Olympic Park, one of the biggest problems they faced amid polluted soil and world war explosives came from a plant. Japanese knotweed is a scarily resilient and fast-growing weed that infested the waterway and removing it was a laborious process that began with chemical treatment before the dense root structure was dug out. Next came cutting, hand-sorting, incineration and burial of the remains inside a welded physical membrane on landfill sites in five-metre pits. Only after this was the plant, introduced by Victorians because it looked pretty, deemed safe. It cost £70m.

London is home to around 76 such ‘invasive species’, leading to the creation of the London Invasive Species Initiative, which monitors those alien invaders that have found a predator-free London life to their liking, causing serious damage to the city’s ecosystem even if they add an exotic splash to the urban landscape. Many, like the knotweed, arrived in the 19th century. “There was a flowering of ‘acclimatisation societies’, which were specifically set up to introduce new species,” says Tim Blackburn of the Zoological Society of London. “The Zoological Society envisioned a golden age where we would have herds of elands [African antelopes] roaming the south of England. But the impacts are pervasive and affect so many aspects of life.’

But not every alien species is dangerous and London is home to hundreds of non-native species that merrily co-habit with London’s longer-term residents. “There are many species we think of as part of our national heritage that were originally non-native,” points out Alex Robb, a London Wildlife Trust warden, in defence of the ring-necked parakeet, which has adapted to London life so successfully it has been adopted as the country’s first naturalised parrot. It is unlikely, however, that Japanese knotweed will ever be regarded so warmly.

Muntjac deers
Originally from: China.
Now found: Mill Hill, Barnet, Enfield, Edgware and Bethnal Green.
Daily Mail headline: Two-Foot Muntjac Deer Cause Thousands Of Crashes Every Year, Sept 2011.

bambi

For centuries, London parks have contained red and fallow deer, generally doing little other than giving dogs something to bark at. Now there’s also the muntjac deer, introduced to Britain in the 19th century. As muntjac began escaping from zoos or were deliberately released, the population expanded to today’s 2 million. The muntjac is small and shy, with stubby antlers and an unappealing call that sounds like a smoker’s cough. It can usually be seen in north London suburbs munching roses, but some have been spotted as centrally as Bethnal Green and they have an annoying habit of running into the road, causing accidents.

Japanese knotweed
Originally from: Japanese volcanoes.
Now found: Everywhere, especially alongside railways.
Daily Mail headline: The Dreaded Alien Eating Your Garden And Home, July 2013

knotwwed

Japanese knotweed was introduced by Victorians as an ornamental plant. Big mistake. The bamboo-like plant is one of the country’s most invasive species with a frightening rate of growth – up to 10cm a day to a height of three metres and with a root system (rhizome) that can expand seven metres in all directions. It’s persistent too. It can push through cracks in cement and tarmac, and has been known to grow through floorboards, wrecking houses. Knotweed is devilish to remove, requiring intensive herbicide treatment and even then, freakishly, a new plant can spring from a fragment of rhizome the size of a fingernail that’s lain dormant for 20 years. The problem is so great some banks refuse to give mortgages to properties that have knotweed within sight of the walls. The good news? A predatory insect has been shipped in from Japan that’s meant to control the triffid. Another alien species introduced from overseas – what could possibly go wrong?

Red-eared terrapins
Originally from: The Americas
Now found: Regent’s Canal and other waterways.
Daily Mail headline (after related scare in Lake District): Terrapins That Can Bite A Child’s Finger Off Are Being Dumped By Owners, August 2013

terrapins

Terrapins arrived during the brief but annoying Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle craze of the 1990s when parents bought baby terrapins for demanding children but then dumped the creatures in the nearest pond when playground tastes turned to Pokemon. These red-eared terrapins love London lakes, with meals of fish and ducklings helping them grow to around 30cm. Terrapins can live for 40 years and while it was believed London would prove too cold for them to breed, a baby terrapin was spotted in Regent’s Canal in 2013. Will warm summers may see a generation of even tougher, London-born terrapins take over our waterways? Worse still is the American signal crayfish, an armour-plated monstrosity that was introduced in the 1970s, escaped and set about annihilating the native white claw crayfish. Fortunately, the signal crayfish has one predator, “Crayfish Bob”, who has turned the epidemic into an opportunity, serving Thames-caught crustaceans at pop-up restaurants around London.

What the terrapins may look like if they discovered martial arts and were fans of the Beatles

Ring-necked parakeets
Originally from: Afro-Asian.
Now found: Originally south-west London, now widespread.
Daily Mail headline: Native British Birds Are So Scared Of Invading Parakeets That It’s Putting Them Off Their Food, April 2014.

parakeets

There are several legends about how shrieking flocks of green parakeets came to colonise south-west London. The most popular is that they are descendants of a pair released by Jimi Hendrix while he lived in Notting Hill. Another is they escaped from Shepperton while The African Queen was being filmed in 1951. Or maybe they fled from exiled King Manuel II of Portugal’s Fulwell aviary in the 1920s. The population has rocketed since the 1990s, when flocks were concentrated around Esher, Richmond and Twickenham. Mobs of noisy parakeets are everywhere, and the splendid ease with which this hardy, convivial, colourful bird has adapted to London life has made it increasingly popular among Londoners.

Oak processionary moth
Originally from: central and southern Europe.
Now found: Kew and across south-west London.
Daily Mail headline: Rise Of Poisonous Caterpillar That Can Cause Lethal Asthma Attack Is Unstoppable, May 2012

moth

It’s the caterpillars you have to watch. These hairy toxic insects arrived in London in 2006 on imported oak trees and established colonies around Kew. While the caterpillars can damage oak bark, they are also a pain for humans thanks to 60,000 poisonous hairs that irritates skin, eyes and throats, or provoke allergic reactions. Fears were raised by newspaper that the caterpillar would cause carnage during the 2012 Olympics but fortunately this came to nothing. The pest has spread from Ealing, Richmond, Brent and Hounslow to Bromley and Croydon.

Aesculapian snake
Originally from: Former Yugoslavia, now found across mainland Europe
Now found: Regent’s Park.
Daily Mail headline: London Hit By Outbreak Of Eight-Foot SNAKES That Could Kill Cats Or Small Dogs, May 2014.

snakes

While the aesculapian snake is common in mainland Europe, London only discovered its colony in around 2007, when several were found in Regent’s Park alongside the canal near the zoo. Nobody knows how the snakes got there, but they are the first examples of non-native snakes breeding successfully in the wild in London. The snake can grow to 3-4 metres and is harmless to humans – although they can bite – developing instead a fondness for rats, of which London has plenty.

Panther
Originally from: Asia, Africa, Americas
Now found: Sydenham
Daily Mail headline: The Night I Was Mauled By London’s Black Panther, March 2005

panther

Police with taser guns were called to south-east London in March 2005 when a man was attacked by a huge black beast. ‘I could see these huge teeth and the whites of its eyes just inches from my face,’ he said. ‘I believed it was trying to do some serious damage.’ The “Beast of Sydenham” was seen again in 2009, chasing a jogger through Dulwich Woods, but has since gone quiet. While such stories often turn out to be nonsense – the Essex Lion of 2012 was a large ginger cat – strange mammals, escaped from zoos, farms and private menageries, do turn up in London, most recently two wallabies in Highgate Cemetery and an American mink in Thamesmead.

Opium pipes in London

brochure; pamphlet - Opium Smoking Parlour

In 1899, Earl’s Court offered interested Londoners the chance to pay 6d to see a Hong Kong ‘opium smoking parlour’, filled with ‘living Chinaman’ and ‘true to every detail’. This reflected an ongoing fascination for the Chinese habit of smoking opium – a habit that had been partly encouraged by the British East India Company and then condemned by British missionaries – and merrily ignored the fact the British themselves had been consuming opium for decades.

The Chinese tradition of smoking looked and felt very different though, and that’s partly because it was so deeply ingrained into society, a ritual to be enjoyed alongside tea and nicotine with a rich material culture, lavish paraphernalia and its own customs, traditions and symbolic meaning. This is explored in an extraordinary exhibition of Chinese opium pipes at Maggs Bros bookshop in Berkeley Square, which I have written about for the Independent on Sunday.

It features a unique collection of 19th-century Chinese pipes and related material that demonstrate the full complexity of the Chinese relationship with opium, as can be seen in some of the following images – and these barely scratch the surface of the incredible collection that can be seen at Berkeley Square from June 5 to the end of July.

Field of opium poppies

Field of opium poppies

Jar for storing opium

Jar for storing opium

Chinese opium smoker

Chinese opium smoker

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Smoker with pipe and tools Smoker with pipe and tools

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

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Pipes being burnt by anti-opium reformers

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Tray for carrying opium tools

Tray for carrying opium tools

Pink pills for pale people - opium cure

Pink pills for pale people – opium cure

Box for storing opium with erotic carving - opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Box for storing opium with erotic carving – opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Preparing a pipe

Preparing a pipe

Tools for preparing opium

Tools for preparing opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

 

Opium smoker with cat - pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

Opium smoker with cat – pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

Secret London: the Science Museum’s palace of pills

© Science Museum/SSPL

Time Out recently asked me to contribute to a piece on London’s 10 weirdest museum exhibits (something I’ve blogged about previously). My favourite previously overlooked discovery was the above ‘Palace Of Pills’ at the Science Museum.

This extraordinary sculpture, constructed from old pills, medicine bottles and syringes, was made for a campaign run by the East London Health Project between 1978 and 1980. The ELHP was a coalition of health worker unions and local Trades Councils who were campaigning against cuts to the NHS as well as highlighting other healthcare issues facing Londoners in the late-70s. This was the first time the NHS had really come under sustained attack from any political party since it was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Palace of Pills was created by artists Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, who built the sculpture in their studio using old pill bottles that they acquired from the ELHP’s partners working in the health service. They then photographed it for a poster that was displayed in waiting rooms and doctor surgeries.

‘We did eight posters,’ Leeson told me. ‘The Palace of Pills was made for a poster that talked about how the drug companies were dominating what was happening in health, and for reasons of profit not health.’ The model was too big for the studio and already starting to deteriorate when the Science Museum asked if they could have it. ‘They saw it as a curiosity but I’m delighted it still exists,’ she says. Leeson and Dunn took the experience into creating posters for further pioneering campaigns against the redevelopment of Docklands.

Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley and the curse of Eddie And The Hot Rods

For the full story of the curse of “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, see my interview with the band in this month’s issue of Uncut magazine. 

It’s easy to turn your nose up at any mention of Aleister Crowley, especially if you have little interest in the occult and esoteric world in which he thrived. But to do so means ignoring the man’s often brilliant writing – his Diary of A Drug Fiend is a superior pulp classic, for instance – and also missing out on some of the greatest anecdotes of the 20th century.

For the uninitiated, Crowley (1875–1947) was a British writer who used sex, drugs and magic –often simultaneously – to try to attain altered states of mind and who achieved such a level of notoriety for his activities that he was brandished the ‘wickedest man in the world’. If not wicked, he was certainly a character. As well as signing his letters ‘666’ and conducting numerous affairs with lovers of both sexes, he climbed mountains, wrote pornographic poetry, fraternised with novelists, artists and spies and attempted to write a new American national anthem.

To give a flavour of Crowley’s often bizarre intersections with normal society, in the early days of the Second World War he was tapped up by British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who asked him to take part in an ‘occult disinformation plot’ against Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, a fervent believer in astrology and the occult. Crowley was keen, but the plot was ultimately shelved; Fleming, however, later used Crowley as the model for villain Le Chiffre in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Another fan of Crowley was Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. It is claimed Hubbard took part in ‘sexual magick’ (magick was a term favoured by Crowley) with a couple called Jack and Betty Parsons in an attempting to create a magical child, thus fulfilling a prophecy from Crowley’s The Book Of The Law. Crowley was not impressed, writing in one of his typically entertaining letters: ‘Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts.’

Crowley was bisexual and a heavy drug user, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. He also enjoyed peyote, handing it out at parties. On one occasion in New York he gave some to the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who became uncomfortable and asked if there was a doctor in the area. ‘I don’t know about a doctor,’ said Crowley, ‘But there’s a first-class undertaker on the corner of 33rd and 6th.’

This freeness with sex and drugs saw Crowley embraced by the rock and roll generation, particularly after he appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper. But the story behind another of Crowley’s cover appearances is not so well known. In 1977, Essex rockers Eddie And The Hot Rod wrote a song that was partly inspired by Crowley’s famous motto: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’. The band rewrote this as “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, a spirited ode to self-empowerment, and attached the lyrics to a perky pop tune that quickly reached the Top Ten. It was engineered by a young Steve Lillwhite, who recorded it at Island’s studio in Notting Hill.

In recognition of his contribution to the song’s genesis, the band decided to put Crowley on the cover of the single. But they also felt his glowering visage was not really in the spirit of the band, so manager Ed Hollis (brother of Talk Talk’s Mark) attached a slightly comical pair of Mickey Mouse ears to Crowley’s head.

Great cover, big mistake. According to rumour, this image soon came to the attention of Jimmy Page, a Crowley apostle who lived in the Crowley’s old house, had a vast collection of Crowley paraphernalia and was fascinated by the occult. Page had orchestrated the Crowley-influenced occult symbolism that adored Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which incidentally was also record at Island Studios.

The band were told that Page placed a curse upon Eddie And The Hot Rods for their disrespectful treatment of the Great Beast. From that moment, the band were plagued by problems. They were dropped by their label, their manager became hooked on heroin and they never bothered the higher reaches of the chart again. From behind his Mickey Mouse ears and with the help of satanic rock royalty, Crowley had got his revenge. As bassist Paul Gray told me, ‘Weird shit happened after that. A lot of people said we shouldn’t have fucked about with Crowley.’

Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? – but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month – however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

Henry Wellcome

Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

Turing at the Science Museum

There’s a rather fine exhibition at the Science Museum at the moment about Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist and philosopher who was born 100 years ago. What particularly appeals is that while there is only a limited number of objects, all of them matter.

This is hefty stuff, invaluable weighty objects that demand attention – so it’s blockbuster, but not in the usual way of throwing everything at a room in an attempt to wow the audience into submission at the sheer scale of things. Instead, the museum has cherry picked a dozen important objects that most reflect Turing’s life – the life of one of the most important figures of the 20th century – and let them tell the story. As the curator David Rooney told me, ‘A lot of what Turing did was very abstract. We wanted to show it had a real impact on the world.’

Featured items include an Enigma machine on loan from the secret staff-only museum at GCHQ, the Pilot ACE (one of the world’s first computers), a cybernetic tortoise, a 1930s differential machine made out of Meccano, Turing’s pathology report (which shows he drank a large amount of cyanide, more than you could consume by accident or put in an apple) and a section of a crashed Comet jet, which the Pilot ACE was used to analyse to see why it exploded in mid-air.

Enigma machine

Crashed Comet G-ALYP, 1954.

Pilot ACE

Meccano differential analyser

Here’s a film of the tortoise in action.

James Watt’s workshop at the Science Museum

This piece was originally published in World of Interiors in December 2011.

James Watt was not a tidy man. Inside the Scottish engineer’s eighteenth-century workshop, shelves are thick with dust and overlapping objects of marvellous obscurity. It’s chaotic, but it is the past, a life perfectly preserved. Almost 100 years ago, this attic room was moved from Birmingham and reconstructed at the Science Museum, but the public have only recently been readmitted. It’s a delightful and very human sight. Unlike the modern scientist’s sterile laboratory, items are stuck to wall and floor, or piled harum-scarum on shelves, desks, tables, lathes and huge wooden machines of curious design. There are 8,434 objects all told, each lovingly listed on an exterior wall. Pincers, mallets, drawer knobs, hacksaws, charcoal, ladles, a frying pan, washers, broken thermometers, bent wire, drills, bradawls (six without handles), packages of chemicals wrapped in yellow paper and tied with brittle string, lumps of metal, fossils, half-finished statues, cogs, pieces of wood, barrels full of plaster of Paris and a clock key. There’s even, or so it says, a sea horse tooth. Nothing thrown away. This is the testimony of a life in science, and it looks exactly as Watt left it almost 200 years ago.

Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1736. For several years, he quietly sold scientific instruments, musical instruments and toys from a shop in Glasgow but he had a curious mind and was an inveterate tinkerer. In 1776, he completed a steam engine that used a fifth of the coal of the existing engine. Factories and mines all over the country were soon powered by Watt engines as Britain surged into the steam-driven Industrial Revolution. Watt became a hero, as crucial to the national identity as Wellington and Nelson. On his death in 1819, he was the first engineer to have a statue in Westminster Abbey, although it was later removed as it was grotesquely large. His legend was international. In Japan, the state dispensed prints of Watt to promote the British values of industry, resilience and ingenuity that he embodied.

Watt began work on the steam engine in 1764 and moved to Birmingham ten years later taking with him the tools, fixtures and fittings he had accumulated in Glasgow. In 1790, he settled in Handsworth where he had his final workshop, a garret room where he could work undisturbed. In this dark space, Watt drilled, sawed and chiselled, experimented with chemicals, and developed a variety of extraordinary devices, including a perspective drawing machine, a letter-copying press and a sculpture-copying machine. He often had to make for himself the tools he needed for his inventions, including what Science Museum curators think is the oldest circular saw they’ve ever seen. The impression gained is of somebody who loved using his hands, and was always looking for ways to improve production, to make more things, and faster. He was a solitary soul. To ensure he could work without interference, Watt built a shelf outside the door on which the maid could leave his dinner. When he was ready, he would bring it inside and warm it on the stove. There’s a hint of sadness too. In one corner lies a chest full of things that belonged to his son Gregory, who died of tuberculosis in 1804. It seems Watt kept it here, close by, for 15 years until his own death.

At which point, the door was closed and the room left untouched. Even as the house was occupied by new families, the workshop was kept as Watt had left it for more than a century, with drawers full of half-made thermometers wrapped in wax paper and surfaces strewn with rusty hinges. It became a shrine. One visitor commented, ‘the dust lay so thick it was like walking in soft snow’. One pilgrim was Bennet Woodcroft, who ran the Patent Office Museum, part of the South Kensington Museum. Woodcroft was acquiring key artefacts from the Industrial Revolution and in the 1860s registered an interest in the room. However, it was not transferred until 1924, by which time Woodcroft was dead and the Patent Office Museum had become the Science Museum.

They took everything– not just the furniture and contents but the floorboards, door, window frames, fireplace, stove and flue – and reconstructed them on the ground floor of the museum. Workman even asked if they should remove the dust. The public would peer through a window above Watt’s workbench and observe a scene almost identical to the one painted by visiting artists in 1864 and 1889. But by the 1970s, it had become a museum relic. The room was moved to the mezzanine, where it was ignored for another couple of decades before being ignominiously boarded up. Staff could still reach it if they took the wrong door out of the admin office, but the public would never know it was there.

So it remained until earlier this year, when the room was returned to the ground floor and made the centrepiece of an exhibition that examined Watt’s life in the context of the Industrial Revolution. In an act of domestic archaeology, objects were removed from drawers where they had been invisible for centuries as curators resolved to explore every nook and cranny. These were then replaced exactly where Watt had left them.

The exhibition shows that Watt was a scientist but also a workman, constructing by hand the very machines that made mass production possible. Years later, William Morris would reject the industrialised world that Watt had created, but the two had something in common in their love of forming things by hand. However, Watt’s inventions meant things no longer had to be created at such labour and expense, and people could choose for themselves the design and furnishing of their home rather than rely on what was passed on to them by their forefathers. It was the start of the consumer age, making Watt was partly responsible for many of the decorative items that can be studied at length next door at the V&A Museum. When Woodcroft visited Watt’s workshop, this relationship between industry and design would have been more apparent. The South Kensington Museum was essentially the Science Museum and the V&A combined, and had been created partly to inspire the working class with technique as well as design, showing not just beautiful objects but also how they were made. Now cause and effect, science and art, are divided by the bustle of Exhibition Road. But enter Watt’s workshop, and just for a moment the two become one.