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Mrs. Bligh and her shells

In the Artists room there is a case filled with shells of species which we know were in the collection made by Betsy Bligh, wife of the infamous William. How should we think about these shells?  As a museum we normally focus first on provenance – who collected an object, from whom and when.  Then it is normal to add a descriptive account – what is it, what were its uses, how is it classified? That is particularly important when it is a natural history object such as a shell, where there are many examples of the same types.  


This piece however takes a slightly different approach which might be termed ‘biographical’.  It does not ignore provenance and description, but focuses on what people thought about the object at different times. Did its status change, what characterised its passage through history to our cabinet here today?  In other words, what is its life story?


The above example, chosen for a brief ‘biography’ is the magnificent imperial volute shell, or to give it is scientific classification, Voluta imperialis (Lightfoot, J. in Solander, 1786). 

There is an example in Mrs. Bligh’s shell case.  We cannot of course say that this was the one which Mrs. Bligh had – it is certainly not - but it serves to bring out some of the links between people, knowledge and exploration in the 18th century.


The imperial volute is common in the southern Philippines and the Moluccas, places to which neither Cook nor Bligh sailed.  In scientific terms, it belongs to the class of ‘gastropoda’, of the family of ‘volutidae’.  It was once alive, living in deep water, propelling itself along the ocean floor, carnivorous, producing offspring, larvae which survived in egg capsules and then emerged as tiny, complete molluscs which crawled away. 


How did it die? Perhaps it was eaten by another fish or sea creature, or died of old age, washed up on the currents or caught in a fisherman’s net, or, if in 19th century, it might have got stuck on the tar of a submarine telegraph cable. It left the deep sea for land, where its shell, rather than the living animal, became the great interest.


These shells were highly valued by Europeans.  Abby Jane Morrell, who visited the Philippines in 1830, wrote that the Spanish ladies kept decorative cabinets full of shells alongside the feathers of exotic native birds. So the shell, the carapace of a dead mollusc, acquired value in the Philippine or Moluccan community. It might also have had food value. At some moment however it was brought back to Britain by a merchant or a sailor. This began a new chapter in its biography.


Here we can note some features of the wider background.  There were already many noted shell collectors in the 18th century, of whom Betsy Bligh was one.  The exploration of the Pacific meant the discovery of many new species.  Cook’s voyages broke the previous Dutch monopoly in the shell trade, and new species appeared frequently in the salerooms of dealers.  There was a growing literature on shells - in English, German, French and Latin.  These were beautifully illustrated books to complement beautiful objects, and Betsy had several.


In Europe the volute was identified and named, according to the Linnean system, by none other than Dr. Daniel Solander, Joseph Banks’ companion botanist on Cook’s first voyage.  Hence the designation (Lightfoot, J. in Solander, 1786).  We can now unravel that designation.  Solander spent a great deal of time when he returned from the 1st Voyage cataloguing the shell collection of the Duchess of Portland.  Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, was rich, attractive, loved gardening, painting, entertaining and talking with the learned men of her time, and she was a fanatical shell collector. Her collection was the largest in the country. In 1778 she employed Solander to catalogue it.  For the next three years, Solander spent every Tuesday working from 11.00am to 6.00pm on the collection.  Then in 1781 he stopped work, and died the following year, leaving the catalogue incomplete and unpublished.


The Duchess herself died in 1785, heavily in debt.  Her collection was sold at auction to satisfy her creditors.  The sale catalogue was drawn up by Rev. John Lightfoot, the Duchess’s librarian.  It contained 4156 lots, the majority shells, though Portland vase should not be forgotten. The sale took 38 days!  One fine Imperial Volute fetched £24.3s. (£24.15) – an enormous price.  The auction catalogue remains the only published record of the collection.  It described many new species and fortunately Lightfoot followed Solander’s names.  The slips of paper on which Solander recorded his findings were acquired by Joseph Banks and are now in the Natural History Museum.  Solander’s contributions to the science of conchology survived, though his name was not on the catalogue.


Solander had his own shell collection too and when he died in 1782, it had to be sold. He was something of a bon viveur, and died owing money to his tailor, his servants, shoemakers, hosiers and more.  This created problems. The auctioneer, a man named Patterson, made off with the proceeds of the sale (some £200+), and it was left to the pastor of the Swedish Church in London, where Solander was buried, to try and recover the proceeds.  


The shells from collections were scattered, and our Imperial Volute probably passed through many dealers and collectors hands.  And what of Elizabeth Bligh?   A friend of Joseph Banks, she was cultured and built up her collection through purchases from dealers, and no doubt through commissions to her husband.  She had an Imperial Volute (‘a most richly coloured and magnificent specimen’), which sold for £8.15s (£8.75) when her collection was in turn dispersed.  She also had a magnificent cabinet made for them, lined with wood from Botany Bay, where William Bligh was Governor from 1805-1810. What happened to it is not known.


Thus a shell’s life story can be a way of giving us some insight into how objects were viewed in a very different age.  It shows past landmarks in learning, and links people that we are interested in, to many others, including an absconding auctioneer and a Duchess in debt.


SF January 2024 

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