Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers' purchases of English artefacts

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

In my paper, 'Chance and certitude: Pitt Rivers and his first collection' in the Journal of the History of Collections [OUP] vol. 18 no. 2 (2006) pp 257-266 I looked at the way that Pitt Rivers' acquired the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. This page is based on that paper.

As we have seen some of the items in his collection were made in England. These items were acquired in the same way as items from other parts of the world, either he excavated them himself (such English archaeological items are discussed here) or he acquired them at third hand. It is the latter category of objects that will be discussed here:

Pitt Rivers collected a small number of objects himself, either in the field during holidays abroad, or during the excavations he carried out before 1884: there are 4,625 such objects.10 The vast majority (98.5 per cent) of his field-collected pieces are archaeological in character, obtained from the various excavations he undertook after 1860. The remaining 1.5 per cent are ethnographic items that were mostly acquired during holidays in Austria, Germany, France, Sweden and Egypt, and whilst in Ireland, North America, Malta and the Crimea on active service.11
Pitt Rivers purchased or otherwise obtained objects from a variety of sources including dealers (both national and international), auctioneers and auction houses (both local and national, such as Sotheby's), named individuals and institutions. [Petch, 2006: 259]

One of the most important sources for Pitt Rivers were dealers and auction rooms:

Given that the vast bulk of the collection was obtained at second-hand, either from the field collector or from a third party, it was important for Pitt Rivers to maintain good relationships with collectors and dealers at home and abroad.13 A detailed examination of the extensive catalogues of his second collection makes it clear that he visited many dealers on a regular basis and he also attended sales at auction rooms (or employed others to act on his behalf).
Pitt Rivers patronized a large number of dealers: his letters, held at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, make it clear that many dealers and auction houses considered him a sufficiently regular client for them to write directly to solicit interest in particular sales.14 For example, Bryce Wright wrote to Pitt Rivers on 7 March 1889, telling him that he had 'a good armlet and a good hair ornament you might like to see'.15 In addition, it is clear that he sought specific pieces from dealers, contacting Eva Cutter in his search for an Iban shield, for example. Dealers also acted on occasion as his agent, purchasing items on his behalf: Fenton obtained an iron casket and bedstead for him in this way, in 1888. They also sent details speculatively, as when George Fabian Lawrence wrote to him in 1897:
Your favour to hand. I send herewith the flints you have selected and am obliged to your selection. I trust that you will think the price reasonable. I also send a few more things I have come across for your approval ... I am collecting a highly interesting and most curious collection of tools etc from an old piece of ground at the mouth of the Wandle - 12 feet from the surface - covered by an old mill for a least 150 years. I have 98 already, chisels hones gouges etc etc. I will send a full list when I can get no more.16
Pitt Rivers was not above using his favoured client status to obtain discounts from dealers, although most resisted this if they could. W.D. Webster, for example, offered a 5 per cent discount for cash in 1896, but in 1898 wrote again to complain about Pitt Rivers's high-handed attitude:
I beg to acknowledge your letter but must say I do not like the tone of it. You get the first offer of all my things that I think likely to suit you—at 5 per cent less than I ask anyone else—then you doubt my having buyers abroad for the same prices ... I am perfectly willing to support my statement by sending you letters from continental museums up till the present time I have sold £821 worth of Benin specimens to 3 continental museums and £217 to English museums and to yourself at the time of writing £175.5.7. I quite admit I get good profits on some things else I could not live as many of my things do not pay me except by having the name of getting all the best things that come into the market which I intend to keep up. Buyers like Mr Read and Partington I would not take the trouble to write to as I would give four times what they would give myself. Many a time I have bought a quantity of specimens just to secure one good one. All the others are left on my hands. As a matter of fact I do not feel a bit better off than when I started except that my collection has increased, and if I could afford it I certainly would not part with anything. Being just as much collector at heart as you are and as a matter of fact I fell out with all my relations in taking my hobby up as a business and giving up my proper work as an Ecclesiastical designer.17
In addition, Pitt Rivers was prepared - even before he inherited a fortune - to purchase items from private individuals. [Petch, 2006: 259-260]

Pitt Rivers' annual income increased markedly in 1880 when he inherited a large estate from his uncle but he was not poor before then. his annual income has been estimated at around £1,000 per annum when he was not working. Pitt Rivers estimated his annual spend on objects: 'I can ... say that my museum was formed at a time when my means of collecting were very small, and that it never cost me more than £300 a year at most'. [Pitt Rivers, Address delivered at the Opening of the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester January 7 1884 (Dorchester, 1884), p. 8] £300 had the equivalent purchasing power in 2002 of £14,151 (if the base year is 1860) or £15,847 (if the base year is 1880). Even at today’s inflated art market prices, £15,000 would buy a great deal and is significantly more than the Pitt Rivers Museum’s annual purchasing budget today. Pitt Rivers himself suggested that he preferred to get ‘good value for money’ by purchasing low-cost utilitarian objects: ‘I have confined myself mainly to common forms in which chiefly continuity can be traced, and have avoided giving large sums for rare things because such things do not fit into my series generally'. [Pitt Rivers to A.W. Franks, letter dated 27 June 1880, PRM ms collections]

Another source for Pitt Rivers were private individuals who could be persuaded to sell or give their collections to him. He met many of them whilst serving on various committees and societies like the Royal Anthropological Institute (and its forebears); the Royal United Services Institute, which gave ready access to collections made by military men; the Society of Antiquaries, a good hunting ground for archaeological collections but also for ethnographic specimens; and the Royal Geographical Society, a meeting place for travellers of all types. A further institution was the Athenaeum, which was a fruitful source of donors to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and which, at this time, evidently included many members with interests similar to his own.

Through the regular meetings of these bodies in London and the displays of objects that often complemented the papers presented, Pitt Rivers was given access to perfect shopping opportunities. Not only could he purchase objects with no more than a single link between him and the original makers or owners, but he could also view the objects before the process of purchase began. In addition, of course, this allowed him easier access to people who might know about the artefacts and it does seem that Pitt Rivers took advantage of this. The societies to which he belonged were therefore important in the growth of his collection.

Pitt Rivers never discussed at length or reflected in print upon his methods of acquisition. Indeed, he very rarely did more than note the source of an artefact, and occasionally its price. In general, the standard of documentation for this first collection is very poor. The random character is apparent in the manner in which Pitt Rivers acquired his collection, depending to a large degree on availability within the UK rather than on direct contact with the manufacturers and users, as might be considered more appropriate for a collector so interested in so-called scientific ‘series’. Often he was content to acquire pieces for which the provenance was uncertain due to its second-hand nature. As Chapman points out, 'the many unattributed pieces in his catalogue alone give some indication of the extent of [Pitt Rivers’s] practice.’ [Chapman, 1981: p. 191]

Further Reading

Bowden, Mark 1984 [reprinted 1990] General Pitt Rivers" the father of scientific archaeology Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

... 1991. Pitt Rivers - The life and archaeological work of Lt. General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers DCL FRS FSA . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Chapman, William R. 1981. Ethnology in the Museum. Unpublished D. Phil thesis, vols I and II, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

.... 1984. 'Pitt Rivers and his collection, 1874 - 1883: The chronicle of a gift horse' in Cranstone and Seidenberg 1984

.... 1985. 'Arranging Ethnology' in Objects and Others, History of Anthropology Series ed G. Stocking, University of Wisconsin Press

.... 1989. The organisational context in the history of archaeology - Pitt Rivers and other British archaeologists in the 1860s Antiquaries Journal 69 23-42

.... 1991. Like a Game of Dominoes: Augustus Pitt Rivers and the Typological Museum Idea' in S. Pearce Museum Economics and the Community vol 2 New Research in Museum Studies Athlone London

Cranstone, B.A.L. and S. Seidenberg. 1984. The General's Gift - A celebration of the Pitt Rivers Museum Centenary 1884-1984 . JASO Occasional Paper, Oxford, UK

Gray, H. St. G. 1905. 'A Memoir of Lt-General Pitt-Rivers' [sic] in Excavations in Cranborne Chase vol V. Somerset [privately published]

Oxford University Anthropological Society. 1953. Anthropology at Oxford: The Proceedings of the Five-hundredth meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological Society Oxford

Petch, Alison 1996. 'Weapons and the 'Museum of Museums' Journal of Museum Ethnography , vol. 8 May 1996: 11 - 22

.... 1996. [editor] Collectors and Collecting Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

.... 1997. The early history of Lieutenant-General Pitt Rivers's collection and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford [PRM booklet]

.... 1998. [editor] Collectors and Collecting Volume 2 Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

.... 1998. 'Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection'. Journal of Museum Ethnography

.... 1998. ''Man as he was and Man as he is': General Pitt Rivers' collections' Journal of the History of Collections 10 no. 1 (1998) pp 75 - 85 Oxford University Press

.... 1999 Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection. Journal of Museum Ethnography 11 1999 pp 95 - 104

.... 2000 Coote, Jeremy; Chantal Knowles, Nicolette Meister, and Alison Petch 'Computerizing the Forster ('Cook'), Arawe, and Founding Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum', Pacific Arts , nos. 19/20 (July), pp. 48-80.

.... 2002. ' Assembling and Arranging: Pitt Rivers' collections from 1850 to now' in 'Collectors: Expressions of Self and Othe r Occasional Papers Series: Horniman Museum and Museu Antropologico of the University of Coimbra

.... 2003 'Documentation in the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography , No. 15 pp 109-114

.... 2006 'Chance and certitude: Pitt Rivers and his first collection' in the Journal of the History of Collections vol. 18 no. 2 (2006) pp 257-266

Pitt Rivers, Augustus Henry Lane Fox. 'Primitive Warfare. Parts I - III'. JRUSI 11 [1867] 612-43 and JRUSI 12 [1868] 399-439 and JRUSI 13 [1868] 509-39 [repeated in 'The Evolution of Culture']

.... 'On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum.' JAI 4 [1874] 293-308

.... 1874. Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection lent by Colonel Lane Fox for exhibition in the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum June 1874 Parts I and II . London, Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education HMSO [Re-issued 1879]

.... 1906 [ed. J.L. Myers, introduction by Henry Balfour] The Evolution of Culture and other essays Clarendon Press Oxford UK

Thompson, M.W. 1976 Catalogue of the correspondence and papers of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt -Rivers (1827 - 1900) Royal Commission on Historical MSS List 76/75

... 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century. Moonraker Press, Bradford-on-Avon UK

Thompson, M. and C. Renfrew. 1999. 'The catalogues of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset' Antiquity 73 pp 377 - 392

To find out more about Pitt Rivers and his collections go to here.