By the end of Pitt-Rivers' life he had attracted a great deal of public attention. His death, for example, was reported in papers throughout the United Kingdom as were many of his activities. Much less public attention was paid to his earlier years and he did not keep a diary (so far as is known). It is clear from the research that I have carried out, and the two excellent biographies that have been published, that very little information indeed is known about his life before 1850.
We know very little about his life as a child other than the early death of his father, his move from Yorkshire to London and his short time spent at Sandhurst. At the age of 18 we know he was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards and began his professional life as a soldier.
More information has survived for his life after 1850 (when he was in his early twenties). It is this period that I am going to concentrate on in this paper. As you can see from these two sample years taken from the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers' website, not only were his two biographers able to find out quite a lot about what was happening year-by-year, but also the London Gazette and newspapers reported on his activities. Although we know more about what Lane Fox (as he was then) was doing year-by-year at this time we still know surprisingly little about one aspect of his life, perhaps the most important aspect of all, at least so far as I am concerned.
What most intrigues me about his early life is the beginnings of his vast collections: just exactly when did Lane Fox start collecting and why? Many collections start in a haphazard, un-thought-through way and this may have been true for Lane Fox, though his published accounts make it sound a great deal more organized.
There are no records of him collecting during boyhood, which is unusual as many inveterate collectors begin early and indiscriminately, only fining out their chief interest as they mature; both Evans and Lubbock, for instance, were collecting by the ages of fourteen and four respectively. If Lane Fox did collect during his boyhood he never discussed it publicly and did not keep a record of it.
However, he did publish several conflicting reports about when he did start collecting. It is clear from these accounts that it must have begun around 1851 or 1852. What is also clear about these accounts is that the collection began with weapons and then expanded to include other categories of material culture. It is generally accepted that as his 1891 account suggests, his professional interest in the development of the rifle led to an interest in the ways that other designs and technologies developed, leading eventually to his collections illustrating his beliefs in a Spencerian evolution of form progressing 'from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous.’ [Pitt Rivers, 1875 JAI, 4: 294]
One of the many interesting aspects of Pitt-Rivers' accounts of the beginnings of his collection, apart from its lack of specificity and the way it seems to confirm his interest in evolution pre-dating the publication of 'Origin of the Species', is the way that the accounts do not refer to the seemingly most obvious influence on a collection beginning at this period: the Great Exhibition of 1851.
This is even more curious when you think about what the Great Exhibition did. It showed the public a great range of different sorts of things, all arranged 'scientifically' so that people could 'read a message' as well as view. As Briggs put it in 1988, the Exhibition attempted to 'impose internal order on the multitude of exhibits on display, objects which were classified, catalogued, illustrated, commented upon (even by people who had not seen them) … Classifying, itself controversial, was a favourite as well as a necessary Victorian preoccupation, like naming and listing, if only because it made ‘general propositions possible’, and by identifying ‘grand divisions’ it drew attention to ‘gradations’ within them.' [Briggs, 1988: 54] This all seems strikingly familiar when one considers the many displays of Pitt-Rivers' collections both before 1880 and after.
So far as I am aware there are no first-hand accounts of Lane Fox attending the Great Exhibition that was open in Hyde Park from May until October 1851. He was certainly stationed in central London from September when his battalion was moved to the Tower of London from Windsor Castle and therefore could have visited it. There is one item in the founding collection that was said to have been displayed at the Great Exhibition and afterwards acquired by Lane Fox, 1884.27.72 was described in the so-called Black book as a ‘Prussian infantry Needle gun breech loader from the Great Exhibition of 1851 with bayonet’.
It is probable that the extent of the influence of the Great Exhibition (if any) on Pitt-Rivers will never be known but it seems curious to us, with hindsight, that he never mentioned it in his public accounts. The Great Exhibition seems an obvious influence upon him given its technological bias and also the number of ordinary every-day items which were exhibited during it. However, this does not mean that he was influenced directly by it, though its effect upon the zeitgeist must have been reflected in his sudden interest in collecting material culture.
One thing that this research project has set out to do is rethink Pitt-Rivers through his collections of objects and this seems an ideal opportunity to do so.
We have shown earlier how his first interests were in firearm development and you can see how this relates to his professional life through the early and mid 1850s with his involvement in musketry instruction. Before March 1854 he was stationed at the Hythe School of Musketry in Kent, here it is possible that he used his growing collection of weapons to illustrate his talks to his troops.
His interest in weapons must have been further stimulated by serving in the Crimean War between June and October 1854 where he came in contact with foreign troops like these and their weapons, several of which he collected. It seems that he took advantage of the battlefield to acquire some 21 items from friends and foe. He brought them back to London where he convalesced for four months before returning to duty in March 1855.
Both before and after he served on the battlefields of Crimea he was stationed in Malta. He first went there in March 1854, before transferring to the Crimea, he returned in May 1855 for a longer period, remaining on the island until the summer of 1857. His two oldest sons were born on the island during this latter period. He served in the School of Musketry, continuing to instruct on the use of firearms to troops. There are items from Malta in the founding collection. It is not definite that they were obtained during this period but it seems likely that they were. Interestingly the items show a widening of his interests as some could be classified as ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ whilst others are clearly archaeological. One item that definitely was collected during this period, but did not form part of his founding collection, was a painting which he believed to be of Prince Eugene. It is believed that it was purchased in 1856, it was later sold by Captain George Pitt-Rivers in 1929, and then re-sold in April 1998 which was when this information was compiled.
In August 1857 Lane Fox returned to England and moved to a succession of homes in London. The later third of the 1850s, after 1857, is linked by increasing involvement in intellectual life in London. He joined the United Services Institution, as well as the Royal Geographical Society. In June 1858 he lectured on the ‘Improvement of the Rifle’ at the United Services Institution. By the end of the decade like the rest of the country he was part of the great debate over the significance of evolution. Living in London gave him access to all of the learned societies, something that would mark his next decade of work.
It seems likely that other objects in the founding collection (and in his private collection) were obtained in the 1850s but evidence seems lacking. It is known that in 1857 he acquired some geological specimens [1884.120.1, 3-5 and 1884.140.974] from Bryce Wright. In 1859 there are two further dated artefacts, a Chinese harp and a set of arrowheads from T. Mouldins from North America [1884.113.37 and 1884.135.303]
In addition to these dated items, there are a small number of other objects that might have come to Lane Fox during this period. These include a sword collected in 1858 at Lucknow, which may have been collected by Lane Fox’s brother-in-law, Johnny Stanley, who was present at the time (if this is correct, then there are other items in the founding collection from Lucknow which might have come from the same source at the same time). There are also a series of items acquired by Robert Dunn from Icy Cape between 1852 and 1854 which might have been obtained then, and several archaeological items from Denmark, Scotland and Fiji dated to the 1850s which might have been passed to Lane Fox fairly soon after they were dug up (but this is not known for sure).
It is not clear what Lane Fox did with his collection during the 1850s. Chapman suggests it is clear that by 1858, Lane Fox had collected sufficient weapons to allow him to start arranging series of related artefacts. [Chapman, 1981: 36] In this he may have been influenced by the displays of arms and armour at the Tower of London where he had been stationed for at least part of each year during the first years of the 1850s. All of the objects listed in this talk were part of the original large set of objects loaned to the Bethnal Green Museum in 1874. It is safe to conclude, however, that during the 1850s any objects he owned were not on public display but were for private consumption and contemplation.
Chapman states that ‘Fox’s collection had been expanded considerably by the year 1860’. [1981: 93] I cannot wholeheartedly concur, as I hope the information above has shown there is in fact very little evidence about how his collection developed during the 1850s, or what it contained. It is clear, however, that conceptually it had grown, it was matched by a growing interest in the scientific evinced by Lane Fox and his growing involvement with learned societies and scientific endeavour. The pattern of his collecting appears to be established very early. He collected large number of related objects in order to create sequences that showed the evolution of form or technology. Lane Fox boasted that from the first his collection concerned itself mostly with the everyday rather than beautiful or unique works of art as can be seen from my earliest quotation from 1875. It seems clear that all the evidence suggests that throughout his collecting career Lane Fox (Pitt-Rivers) relied mostly on acquaintances, colleagues, dealers and auction houses to source his collection rather than collecting at first hand from source. This is discussed at greater length in Petch, 2006.
The other thing that is noticeable about his collection, but was not unique, was that he used ethnographic specimens (that is artefacts obtained in the recent past from current cultures from abroad, or at home in the British Isles) to illustrate the more distant past when such evidence was not available. Thus his collection from the first seems to have included both archaeological and ethnographic evidence in the form of material culture.
So, the early beginnings of Pitt-Rivers collections are unclear. The collection had almost definitely begun, and become a conscious collection, by around 1852. It now seems likely that he took advantage of serving in Malta and the Crimea to add to his collection and that he obtained other objects at this time from dealers, and friends. However, it was only at the very end of the decade that he started to engage in public debate and he had not yet engaged in any first-hand excavation or detailed archaeological, anthropological or antiquarian research.
In the 1860s his interest in these scholarly pursuits burgeoned and he became a vital part of several learned societies, actively engaging in their debates. The 1850s mark a slow development of the tools and thoughts that would allow him to become a force to be reckoned with in 1860s – 1870s Victorian scientific circles.
AP, March 2011
[Short presentation to the RPR Workshop March 2011]