I blame my grandmother. She was a great beach walker, scouring the coast for seashells thrown up by the Indian Ocean. She had eyes like a hawk, even at 60, finely tuned to any hint of a polished cowrie or the bright edge of a fan-shaped scallop half buried in the sand. And she was wonderfully generous, seeding our dawn searches with rare specimens left invitingly in my path.
This is how it begins – with an acquired awareness of the variety of things, and a desire to bring some sort of orderliness to rich tropical diversity. By the time I was bundled off to boarding school at the age of 8, I had a modest but serious collection in a glass-fronted cabinet, together with an assortment of fossils, sun-bleached bones, birds’ eggs, stone tools, old coins and other unidentified odds and ends that appealed to my curiosity.
I had, unwittingly, created the sort of ‘cabinet of wonder’ that decorated the salons of seventeenth-century Europe and paved the way for the more acquisitive museum collections of the Victorians. Francis Bacon called my kind of assemblage ‘broken knowledge’, a repository of disparate objects without real meaning. He was right to do so: random oddities and treasures are incomplete and have little scientific or artistic significance. But they can be very potent in their way, triggering memories and sparking connections that lead to insights unavailable to grand museums with all their zeal for completeness.
Real collectors know that no serious collection worth its name can ever be complete. There is always an elusive variant of the penny-black postage stamp, a lost Rembrandt, a preciously unpaired Ming vase, or an almost extinct ivory-billed woodpecker waiting in the wings. There has to be. Without that, the chase is over, the hunt brought to a triumphant, but ultimately empty, conclusion. No collector truly wants to know that every last Vermeer painting or Mozart composition has been catalogued and accounted for.
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in