Lane Fox and RUSI

The RUSI came into existence in 1831 at the instigation of the Duke of Wellington, and was originally known as the Naval and Military Library and Museum. This was changed three years later to United Service Museum, and in 1839 to United Service Institution. It received its Royal Charter in 1860.  The museum ‘was established, as a central repository for objects of professional art, science and natural history; and for books and documents relative to those studies, or of general information’. Indeed the collections included almost anything from historical and ethnographic objects to zoological and botanical specimens. Various descriptions of the museum and its exhibits during the nineteenth century can be found here, which includes an account of it from Charles Dickens’ London dictionary and guide book for 1879,by which time the museum seems to have been devoted mainly to the exhibition of military and naval objects.

Pitt-Rivers was a member of the RUSI as were many officers in the armed forces. He joined in 1857-8 and played an active role in the organization. He served on its Council in 1860-1 and in 1862 he helped with its contribution to the International Exhibition by selecting a display of small arms. He also presented papers at its meeting. The first of these was ‘The Improvement of the rifle as a weapon for general use’, given in 1858 at the time he was involved with the development of the rifle. Three years later, in 1861, he gave a talk entitled 'On a Model illustrating the parabolic theory of projection for ranges in vacuo'. Closer to his interests in later life were his three lectures on ‘Primitive Warfare’ in 1867-8 which were illustrated with objects from the museum. All these papers were published in the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution.

Pitt-Rivers’ Founding Collection contains 101 items (composing 122 objects) from the RUSI which from an early date made a practice of weeding out its collections (although it is not clear on what principle). Pitt-Rivers does not appear to have acquired the items directly from the RUSI but through auction houses, such as Sotheby’s. The great majority of items (71) had been collected by Edward Belcher, and in turn most of them (55 items) were of Inuit origin. The remaining items were from the Pacific, including American NW Coast, California, Vanuatu, New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pitcairn. There are a further six Inuit pieces in the founding collection which are listed as collected by Belcher and a Mr Robert Dunn; there is no reference to their having been in the RUSI museum. The objects form a varied collection but with hunting and fishing equipment dominating.  Belcher was a naval officer and hydrographer, and with the exception of the pieces jointly collected with Dunn, the Inuit material was almost certainly obtained by him whilst serving as lieutenant and assistant surveyor on HMS Blossom during an exploration of Alaska and the Bering Straits under the command of Captain Frederick Beechey in 1825-28. The other objects were probably collected at a later date as Belcher served in the Pacific, first on HMS Sulphur and then HMS Samarang, almost continuously from 1836 to 1847. In 1852 he was appointed to command an expedition to search for Sir John Franklin. The expedition was a failure, mainly because of decisions made by Belcher. Although as a result of this he was not employed again, he ended up as Admiral Sir Edward Belcher.  Robert Dunn was a Royal Navy steward who appears to have served on HMS Assistance during the ill-fated expedition to rescue Franklin. As well as the six items that he collected jointly with Belcher, there are six further Inuit pieces in the Founding Collection for which he alone is listed as collector and which do not appear to have been in the RUSI museum. Dunn served for a period as secretary of the Ethnological Society of London.

Frederick William Beechey, who had commanded HMS Blossom during her explorations in 1825-28, also collected material that passed through the RUSI’s museum before reaching the Founding Collection. In his case it was a Japanese toy bow, quiver and seven arrows. It is not clear when Beechey collected these objects, because he spent 1825-28 and 1835 back in the Pacific. As well as a naval officer he was an artist and in 1855, at the very end of his life, became President of the Royal Geographical Society.

There are six objects collected by John Petherick in the Sudan where he was British consul for many years in the middle of the century. These represent only a small proportion of the 137 objects collected by Petherick which are in the Founding Collection. The vast majority of these objects were probably obtained by Pitt-Rivers at an auction held by Edward Bullock in 1862 (see here).

There is a Bronze Age axe from Worstead, Norfolk, collected by Thomas Bayfield in 1832. Bayfield was an ironmonger in Norwich who had a great interest in geology and antiquities. A quilted helmet from the Indian sub-continent had been presented to the RUSI by Sir Vincent Eyre, an army officer in the East India Company, before it came into Pitt-Rivers’ possession. Then there are 13 items of which the field collector is unrecorded. Nine of these consist of a set of assorted musical bells and their stands from Myanmar; there are two xylophones, one from Java and one from Africa; a zither from Madagascar; and a Japanese bow.

In the Second Collection, there are just 14 items which had belonged to the RUSI museum. Two of them, both knives, were collected by John Petherick in the Sudan; they were in Pitt-Rivers’ possession in the 1870s, and were displayed at South Kensington, but for some unknown reason were not included in the Founding Collection. The other 12 items, which cost him £21 (£1,258), were all bought at Sotheby’s in 1895 and consist of 10 pieces of assorted pottery, mainly of unknown provenance; a French Empire ormolu figure of dancing girls; and a badge from Cambridge University’s Pitt Club that had belonged to a Thomas Dawes, Esq.

Peter Rivière

A list of items acquired by Lane Fox at an auction of RUSI objects by Sotheby's on 24 July 1861, see here

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