Omnia Castor emit, sic fiet ut omnia vendat.
Mart. Ep. xcviii.
Who buys without discretion, buys to sell.
TO THE RAMBLER.
It will not be necessary to solicit your good-will by any formal preface, when I have informed you, that I have long been known as the most laborious and zealous virtuoso that the present age has had the honour of producing, and that inconveniencies have been brought upon me by an unextinguishable ardour of curiosity, and an unshaken perseverance in the acquisition of the productions of art and nature.
It was observed, from my entrance into the world, that I had something uncommon in my disposition, and that there appeared in me very early tokens of superior genius. I was always an enemy to trifles; the playthings which my mother bestowed upon me I immediately broke, that I might discover the method of their structure, and the causes of their motions; of all the toys with which children are delighted I valued only my coral, and as soon as I could speak, asked, like Peiresc, innumerable questions which the maids about me could not resolve. As I grew older I was more thoughtful and serious, and instead of amusing myself with puerile diversions, made collections of natural rarities, and never walked into the fields without bringing home stones of remarkable forms, or insects of some uncommon species. I never entered an old house, from which I did not take away the painted glass, and often lamented that I was not one of that happy generation who demolished the convents and monasteries, and broke windows by law.
Being thus early possessed by a taste for solid knowledge, I passed my youth with very little disturbance from passions and appetites; and having no pleasure in the company of boys and girls, who talked of plays, politicks, fashions, or love, I carried on my inquiries with incessant diligence, and had amassed more stones, mosses, and shells, than are to be found in many celebrated collections, at an age in which the greatest part of young men are studying under tutors, or endeavouring to recommend themselves to notice by their dress, their air, and their levities.
When I was two and twenty years old, I became, by the death of my father, possessed of a small estate in land, with a very large sum of money in the publick funds, and must confess that I did not much lament him, for he was a man of mean parts, bent rather upon growing rich than wise. He once fretted at the expense of only ten shillings, which he happened to overhear me offering for the sting of a hornet, though it was a cold moist summer, in which very few hornets had been seen. He often recommended to me the study of physick, in which, said he, you may at once gratify your curiosity after natural history, and increase your fortune by benefiting mankind. I heard him, Mr. Rambler, with pity, and as there was no prospect of elevating a mind formed to grovel, suffered him to please himself with hoping that I should some time follow his advice. For you know that there are men, with whom, when they have once settled a notion in their head, is to very little purpose to dispute.
Being now left wholly to my own inclinations, I very soon enlarged the bounds of my curiosity, and contented myself no longer with such rarities as required only judgment and industry, and when once found might be had for nothing. I now turned my thoughts to exoticks and antiques, and became so well known for my generous patronage of ingenious men, that my levee was crowded with visitants, some to see my museum, and others to increase its treasures, by selling me whatever they had brought from other countries.
I had always a contempt for that narrowness of conception, which contents itself with cultivating some single corner of the field of science; I took the whole region into my view, and wished it of yet greater extent. But no man’s power can be equal to his will. I was forced to proceed by slow degrees, and to purchase what chance or kindness happened to present. I did not, however, proceed without some design, or imitate the indiscretion of those, who begin a thousand collections, and finish none. Having been always a lover of geography, I determined to collect the maps drawn in the rude and barbarous times, before any regular surveys, or just observations; and have, at a great expense, brought together a volume, in which, perhaps, not a single country is laid down according to its true situation, and by which he that desires to know the errours of the ancient geographers may be amply informed.
But my ruling passion is patriotism: my chief care has been to procure the products of our own country; and as Alfred received the tribute of the Welsh in wolves’ heads, I allowed my tenants to pay their rents in butterflies, till I had exhausted the papilionaceous tribe. I then directed them to the pursuit of other animals, and obtained, by this easy method, most of the grubs and insects, which land, air, or water, can supply. I have three species of earth-worms not known to the naturalists, have discovered a new ephemera, and can show four wasps that were taken torpid in their winter quarters. I have, from my own ground, the longest blade of grass upon record, and once accepted, as a half-year’s rent for a field of wheat, an ear containing more grains than had been seen before upon a single stem.
One of my tenants so much neglected his own interest, as to supply me, in a whole summer, with only two horse-flies, and those of little more than the common size; and I was upon the brink of seizing for arrears, when his good fortune threw a white mole in his way, for which he was not only forgiven, but rewarded.
These, however, were petty acquisitions, and made at small expense; nor should I have ventured to rank myself among the virtuosi without better claims. I have suffered nothing worthy the regard of a wise man to escape my notice. I have ransacked the old and the new world, and been equally attentive to past ages and the present. For the illustration of ancient history, I can show a marble, of which the inscription, though it is not now legible, appears, from some broken remains of the letters, to have been Tuscan, and, therefore, probably engraved before the foundation of Rome. I have two pieces of porphyry found among the ruins of Ephesus, and three letters broken off by a learned traveller from the monuments of Persepolis; a piece of stone which paved the Areopagus of Athens, and a plate without figures or characters, which was found at Corinth, and which I, therefore, believe to be that metal which was once valued before gold. I have sand gathered out of the Granicus; a fragment of Trajan’s bridge over the Danube; some of the mortar which cemented the watercourse of Tarquin; a horseshoe broken on the Flaminian way; and a turf with five daisies dug from the field of Pharsalia.
I do not wish to raise the envy of unsuccessful collectors, by too pompous a display of my scientifick wealth, but cannot forbear to observe, that there are few regions of the globe which are not honoured with some memorial in my cabinets. The Persian monarchs are said to have boasted the greatness of their empire, by being served at their tables with drink from the Ganges and the Danube. I can show one vial, of which the water was formerly an icicle on the crags of Caucasus, and another that contains what once was snow on the top of Atlas; in a third is dew brushed from a banana in the gardens of Ispahan; and, in another, brine that has rolled in the Pacifick ocean. I flatter myself that I am writing to a man who will rejoice at the honour which my labours have procured to my country; and therefore I shall tell you that Britain can, by my care, boast of a snail that has crawled upon the wall of China; a humming bird which an American princess wore in her ear; the tooth of an elephant which carried the queen of Siam; the skin of an ape that was kept in the palace of the great mogul; a riband that adorned one of the maids of a Turkish sultana; and a cimeter once wielded by a soldier of Abas the great.
In collecting antiquities of every country, I have been careful to choose only by intrinsick worth, and real usefulness, without regard to party or opinions. I have therefore a lock of Cromwell’s hair in a box turned from a piece of the royal oak; and keep in the same drawers, sand scraped from the coffin of king Richard, and a commission signed by Henry the Seventh. I have equal veneration for the ruff of Elizabeth and the shoe of Mary of Scotland; and should lose, with like regret, a tobacco-pipe of Raleigh, and a stirrup of king James. I have paid the same price for a glove of Lewis, and a thimble of queen Mary; for a fur cap of the Czar, and a boot of Charles of Sweden.
You will easily imagine that these accumulations were not made without some diminution of my fortune, for I was so well known to spare no cost, that at every sale some bid against me for hire, some for sport, and some for malice; and if I asked the price of any thing, it was sufficient to double the demand. For curiosity, trafficking thus with avarice, the wealth of India had not been enough; and I, by little and little, transferred all my money from the funds to my closet: here I was inclined to stop, and live upon my estate in literary leisure, but the sale of the Harleian collection shook my resolution: I mortgaged my land, and purchased thirty medals, which I could never find before. I have at length bought till I can buy no longer, and the cruelty of my creditors has seized my repository; I am therefore condemned to disperse what the labour of an age will not re-assemble. I submit to that which cannot be opposed, and shall, in a short time, declare a sale. I have, while it is yet in my power, sent you a pebble, picked up by Tavernier on the banks of the Ganges; for which I desire no other recompense than that you will recommend my catalogue to the publick.