I am grateful for Felicity Wood, Chair of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum (who was in contact with Michael Pitt-Rivers, the author of the following piece, whilst arranging the original Friends of the PRM visit to the Larmer Tree Gardens) who found a photocopy of the following review. Several sections of it are most interesting as they record at first-hand the Pitt-Rivers' remembrances of the general and also give an insight into one of his great-grandson's attitudes to him and his collection. It is therefore of interest as showing a particular time, place and attitude.

Pitt-Rivers, Michael ‘Cultural General’ in Books and bookmen, vol. 22, no. 9, issue no. 261 (June 1977) pages 23-5. 

Cultural general Michael Pitt-Rivers

M W Thompson / General Pitt-Rivers, Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth-Century 164 pp illus Moonraker Press £4.95 [1]

It may come as a surprise to those interested in archaeology to learn that no biography has yet been written about one of the great pioneers of scientific excavation, a figure who virtually founded modern techniques in field-work, and who changed the face of the antiquarian collector into that of the modern pre-historian. [2] General Pitt-Rivers died in 1900. He was a man with a mission in life: to unveil the laws of cultural evolution. He saw the facts of human remains as a continuous process of growth and decay, and just as Darwin applied these two component elements to his theory of continuity in nature, Pitt-Rivers applied them to the material arts. Only by the study of these arts and by the psychology that produced them, could, he maintained, human culture be traced to its germs and understood. Indeed, human culture followed the same pattern of development as that evident in the lives of animals and plants:

Human ideas, as represented by the various products of human industry, are capable of classification into genera, species, and varieties, in the same manner as the products of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and in their development from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous they obey the same laws.

Pitt-Rivers started collecting common types of objects from the primitive and the pre-historic past in 1852. He decided to arrange them in sequence ... [the author gives an overview of Pitt-Rivers career and collection, including his post as Inspector of Ancient Monuments]

The lack of a biographer has evidently not been due to failure on the General's part to arouse sufficient interest. Quite apart from his scientific achievements, he was a flamboyant character and a unique product of his class and times. To some, he merely appeared eccentric, to some he was a genius and to others, mad. He came from an old family and inherited large estates in Dorset and Wiltshire; he was a Victorian paternalist who believed in education for the masses for whose benefit he founded museums and opened exotic parks. His military career was characterised by rows with his superior officers, but he nonetheless attained the rank of Honorary Lieutenant-General on finally retiring at the age of fifty-four to dedicate himself exclusively to his land, his excavations and his new science. His life is obviously 'biographical material', but no book has appeared till now. [linked in original to title of MW Thompson's book]

It has not been for want of willing publishers nor authors that his life was never written. The late Mortimer Wheeler who named him 'the father of English archaeology' wanted to write his life, as did Jacquetta Hawkes and a number of other distinguished archaeologists, but the General's grandson [3] had determined to undertake the task himself as a work of grand-filial piety. I am referring to my father, who was ten years old at the time of his grandfather's death. As he was totally antipathetic to his parents, the General (as he was always known at Rushmore) became for him the idealised father-figure throughout his life. My father kept all the letters and the museum papers to himself; and of course never wrote a word. The only documentation publicly available remained a series of notebooks compiled for the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments and held by the Public Record Office. Before his death in 1966, my father formed a secret trust which his family imagined was designed to safe-guard the future of the museum at Farnham (Dorset), together with the General's papers. This important but disparate collection alone had remained in private hands. However, it soon transpired that the new trustees had no intention of preserving the museum and they continued to keep a close guard on the papers while they set about dispersing the collection in the interests of a beneficiary concerned mainly with the produce from the sales. The family brought what pressure they could to rescue at least part of the collection, and finally the archaeological section and the papers found their way to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Then, in 1975, Dr MW Thompson was invited to catalogue the Pitt-Rivers papers so recently deposited in Salisbury. As a result he expanded this work into his subject's first biography. Dr Thompson tells us in his preface that his official duties in Wales ... precluded him from the possibility of an exhaustive or definitive work, a project towards which he was not attracted and to which in any case the available material did not easily lend itself. He avoided any attempt to cover more than superficially the studies of Pitt-Rivers on material culture or his excavations, which would have required a work of quite a different format and character, and one which he modestly asserts would require a different kind of author. He refers to his present work as 'an essay'.

Some years ago, I was shown a notebook written in the General's hand in which he said he was going to put down everything he could about himself for the sake of his descendants so that they could trace those characteristics of their own which they might have inherited from him. [4] This tantalizing project, doubtless inspired by Galton's work on heredity, abruptly stops after declaring its intention. In the event, the General appears never to have written about himself. But tales still abound in the locality of Rushmore where he lived his final twenty years, and there still lingers the impact of his powerful personality; cold, impersonal and serious, but never very human. He evidently inspired respect rather than affection: loyalty but not love. ... [In Thompson's biography] [m]otivation is described only in the context of his subject's published works and this does not allow a real appraisal of his background, tastes and character. He claims Pitt-Rivers has tended to be regarded either as a figure of fun, so shrouded in seriosity as not to be taken seriously or quite the reverse, as a self-evident genius whom it would be sacrilegious to criticise. He tries to steer a middle course and succeeds only in establishing the importance of Pitt-Rivers's work and the originality of his mind. We are left wondering if as a collector he had 'taste', whether he really liked the objects he exhibited, whether the Italian primitives meant intrinsically more to him than the Neolithic arrowheads or the bronzes from Benin. When one looks at the avenues and clumps of trees he planted, at the park he laid out, at the classical temples he designed, it is hard to reconcile the hand of the author of On the Development and Distribution of Primitive Locks and Keys with the aesthetics of the grand design. I am inclined to think that his sense of beauty was a sense of order, and that scale and purpose overrode all other subjective judgement. I do not believe St George Gray, the General's chief assistant quoted by Dr Thompson, in thinking the Larmer Grounds pleasure park was laid out and opened to the general public as a means of sharing the good fortune of a surprise inheritance. (The General was born the second son of a second son). The author is nearer the mark when he quotes Pitt-Rivers himself.

I hold that the great desideratum of our day is an educational museum in which visitors may instruct themselves ... The knowledge of the facts of evolution and of the process of gradual development, is the one great knowledge that we have to inculcate ... The working classes have but little time.

In other words, they must be coaxed by pleasure grounds. Enquiry, then, was his motive, but education was its end. He directed himself to everyone through various means, to the agricultural worker and to the learned. To this day I have on the Rushmore Estate an old man of ninety-four who started life working for the General on his excavations in winter and on his farm-work during the summer months. 'E'd a bin always lookin vur King John's treasure', says old Tom, the last of the diggers, and he was fond of the association although he failed to benefit from the experience as no doubt did the four hundred and seventy-seven soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Surrey Militia when they had their skulls measured with the General's patent craniometer. Some of his experiments were not passed on. The public were not invited into Rushmore Park, as the author claims, to witness his attempts to acclimatise the reindeer, llamas, zebus, yaks, kangaroos and bower birds there, nor were his efforts to produce sheep and cattle to reflect the size of those used in Romano-British times as conscientiously written up as most of his other records. Perhaps they were not entirely successful. I do not agree with the author's contention that the motive behind the erection of Indian houses in the pleasure park was but a patriotic imitation of the Oriental additions to Osborn at the time of the Diamond Jubilee, although doubtless it made them more acceptable at the time. But it is hardly consistent with the aims of the protagonist of mass education that he has described already. Nor do I subscribe to the idea that reference to a Supreme Power diminishes the probability that the General was agnostic, if not frankly atheist. Certainly many of his friends and correspondents, as Thompson points out, were clerics but this could merely reflect the large number of country parsons who were also antiquarians. he was a conscientious patron of his livings but he was much abused by churchmen and had an acrimonious correspondence with the Bishop. Sunday entertainment in the Larmer Grounds and the weeding of the Cerne Giant's genitals were both considered positively satanic by those already incensed against the apostles of continuity. Within the family, he was always thought to have been atheist and the main target of his new scientific vision was Christian education. The author says he was cremated while his wife and children are buried in the churchyard ... The Bronze Age excavations had led him to look favourably upon this form of committal. He provided a chapel in the park for estate employees but he seldom went to church himself except on such occasions as tenants' funerals. He was a dutiful squire. On one visit his wife was heard to say she wanted to be buried at Tollard. 'Damn it, woman, you shall burn'. The General died first and was burned. Mrs Pitt-Rivers lies buried in Tollard churchyard.

... This is an original and valuable book and will, one would hope, lead to a more comprehensive study. Now that much of the spade-work has been done on the General's scientific papers by so skilled and experienced a practitioner as Dr Thompson, the way is open for a more personal biography setting him firmly in historical perspective among the thinkers of his time. Perhaps it remains to find more documentation from contemporary sources and in private correspondence.

... In his autobiography, [Bertram] Russell says little more of staying at Rushmore in his youth than that 'the Pitt-Rivers's were mad', but at the age of ninety when I last saw my 'twice-remove' cousin, he recalled much of his youthful visits. 'Your family was really quite eccentric', he told me. I could not help thinking there were people who found the great philosopher himself eccentric. Among his memories, was one of his Aunt Alice attempting to hold some function in the house. None of the guests arrived. Her husband, considering purely social activities to be frivolous, had, unknown to her, ordered all the park gates locked that day. Alice fought back and gave as good as she got. However, the stormy marriage was blessed with nine surviving children, at least one of them more eccentric than either of their parents. A few years ago, I was going to London airport with some cousins. A woman was complaining about the impossible behaviour of her teenage daughter. 'But', she said, 'one must remember that double dose of Stanley blood'. We all remembered it. When we got out at the terminal, the taxi driver eyed us suspiciously: 'I don't know what Stanley blood is', he said, 'but I hoep to Gawd I haven't caught it'.

Notes added by transcriber

[1] The Thompson biography was first published in 1977. The transcriber owns a paperback copy, inherited from her father, which is priced at £2.50 (and says 'first published 1977' but was published later one would presume), the price therefore suggests that this is a review of the original hard copy so this review must date from 1977.

[2] This review was therefore published before 1991 when Mark Bowden published his biography

[3] George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966).

[4] Note that Michael Pitt-Rivers is referring to this document.

Transcribed by AP June 2013.

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