20. Horace Walpole’s annotated copy of “A Catalogue of the Portland Museum”

20. Horace Walpole’s annotated copy of A Catalogue of the Portland Museum

By Madeleine Pelling, Travel Grant Recipient, PhD Candidate, History of Art Department, University of York


In 1786, Horace Walpole attended a vast, thirty eight-day auction that dismantled the collection of the recently deceased Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715-1785). Over a lifetime of voracious collecting, the duchess had assembled a largely unrivalled collection of natural history specimens alongside art works and antiquities, including the now famous Portland Vase. Walpole’s surviving and heavily-annotated copy of the accompanying sale catalogue, titled A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, reveals a fascinating insight into Walpole’s experiences of a sale that saw one of the most significant collections of the eighteenth century dismantled forever. Formed of a twenty-six centimetre quarto, with title page, frontispiece, preface and instructions for the conditions of sale, the catalogue contained the descriptions of over four thousand lots. It was available for purchase at the site of the exhibition, as well as at the auctioneer Thomas Skinner’s offices in Aldersgate Street, London. Each copy was given a unique number upon printing, adding to the culture of exclusivity being cultivated by Skinner both prior to and during the auction. Portable, the text could be carried around by its purchaser and displayed on their person; it marked participation in a closed and fashionable community that was swiftly building around the sale and reflective of the wider relationship between consumerism and sociability.

The duchess of Portland was a member of the group of intellectual and creative women known collectively as the Bluestockings. However, unlike so many of her contemporaries like Elizabeth Montagu, Anna Barbauld, Hannah Moore or Elizabeth Carter, her activities were, during her lifetime, rarely reported in the public sphere, her portrait rarely circulated and her curatorial activities confined to a closed circle of elite friends.[1] Following her death, the main portion of her museum was removed from her home at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire to London and repositioned within the urban marketplace where fictionalised narratives of her celebrity, cultivated post-mortem, helped drive the commercial success of its auction. Gossip grew in the weeks preceding the sale, which began on 24 April 1786. Topics of both public and private speculation including the reasons for the auction itself, what would be sold there, and who would buy what. As Beth Fowkes Tobin has previously revealed, “When the news soon spread that all would be sold at auction, rumors circulated about her having bankrupted herself purchasing natural history specimens and objets d’art and the need for an auction to refill the ducal coffers.”[2] In a letter to his friend Lady Ossory, Walpole captured the tone of uncertainty, as well as the wider public interest in the fate of the collection in the days after the duchess’s death;

Mr Horace Walpole (not myself) called on me yesterday morning, when no will of the Duchess of Portland has been found. He thinks the bulk of the collection will be sold, but that the Duke[3] will reserve the principal curiosities – I hope so, for I should long for some of them, and am become too poor to afford them.[4]

It was within this context that the duchess’s identity as a private collector and curator, extinguished by her death, was subsequently reinvented, positioning her instead as a curiosity to be bought and sold. As Cynthia Wall has suggested, “the first fiction of an auction is often about what is (or is not) really there; the second is about what might (or might not) be acquired.”[5] At auction, narratives of death went hand in hand with those of celebrity and desirability. Increasingly, auctions were inevitably associated with the undertaking trade.[6] Furthermore, auctioneers often doubled as cabinet and coffin makers, with their cabinets housing the goods of the dead and their coffins, the bodies; suggesting a physical as well as economic connection between death and the auction. Skinner’s trade card, made in the earlier stages of his career prior to 1786, advertises his skills as a “Sworn Appraiser Who Buys and Sells all sorts of Houshold [sic] Goods. Also Cabinet Maker & Undertaker…N. B. Coffins & Shrouds Ready Made”, revealing that he too dealt in the complex administration of both the belongings and bodies of the dead.

Image of Thomas Skinner’s Trade Card, date unknown.

Fig. 1 Thomas Skinner’s Trade Card, date unknown. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Coinciding with the increase in shopping as habitual Georgian behavior, was the explosion in the production and availability in print media; at the auction, these two aspects of urban life combined in the form of the catalogue to drive profit and reposition previously private property as public inheritance. The sale, which was preceded by a public exhibition, took place in the duchess’s townhouse in Privy Gardens, Whitehall and was widely reported in daily newspapers and periodicals alike. As early as  11 February 1786, the Morning Post intrigued its readers with promises of a “most copious and splendid collection” which, the paper touted, contained amongst its legions of specimens “insects”, “corallines”, “petrifactions”, “snuff boxes”, “pictures and prints”, “old china” and Greek and Roman sculptures including the head of Jupiter Serapis and the widely celebrated Barberini, later Portland, vase.[7] The sale text functioned as a point of contact between the duchess post-death and a culturally literate consumer community; one whose perceptions of celebrity and buying habits were informed by the catalogue and other printed ephemera associated with the sale. The sociability and adaptability of the catalogue, which was subjected to processes of marginal annotation and extra-illustration, enabled the creation of a fiction that proposed the duchess as both the purveyor of commodity and as commodity herself. The objects, spaces and assemblages of her museum were rearranged and laid out in the text for a paying public, reflecting back to the consumer notions of celebrity; of a duchess ubiquitous throughout and, yet, tantalizingly obscured.

Image of Fig. 2 Charles Grignion after E. F. Burney, frontispiece to A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, London 1786. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Fig. 2 Charles Grignion after E. F. Burney, frontispiece to “A Catalogue of the Portland Museum,” London 1786. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

The frontispiece of the Catalogue is the only surviving visual record of the collection prior to its dismantling at auction and was engraved by Charles Grignion after the artist Edward Francis Burney. Its absence from many of the surviving copies of the text (it is unusually preserved in Walpole’s) suggests its agency as a separately collectible item which could be removed and treasured, shared and traded by any catalogue owner. Far from an accurate representation of the collection as it would have appeared in Whitehall following the duchess’s death, it serves instead as an advertisement. It is rich in its texturing; layers of objects and materials are piled before the viewer’s eyes, with shells creeping out of exposed drawers, corallines perched atop cabinets and ornate porcelain gathered on the floor amongst leather-bound albums. Tobin has previously suggested that historians, “mistakenly assuming” that Burney’s illustration depicted the true aesthetic arrangement of the museum, “have portrayed the duchess’s collection as being in a constant state of disorder.”[8]

On 25 April 1786, The Morning Herald advertised “A Portrait of the late Dutchess Dowager of Portland, from a Marble Bust, executed by Rysbrack.”[9]  Sold by the print maker George Humphrey at a cost of 1s 6d, this engraving was produced in quarto, matching the size and shape of the catalogue suggesting that, despite being made and sold separately from the sale text, it was intended to speak to and even be inserted inside it (as Walpole did).[10] This image was quickly circulated amongst those interested in the sale – despite the fact that the bust itself was sculpted in 1727 and depicted the duchess at the age of twelve, it served to inform an eager public previously unfamiliar with her appearance.

Image of Fig. 3 – Rysbrack’s bust of the duchess of Portland, engraved by Humphreys and inserted into Walpole’s copy of the Catalogue

Fig. 3 – Rysbrack’s bust of the duchess of Portland, engraved by Humphreys and inserted into Walpole’s copy of the Catalogue


Walpole’s surviving copy can be read as an interactive, rather than static text – through marginal annotation and extra-illustration, he incorporated his own voice into that of the printed catalogue, revealing his experience within the unfolding action. Bound in his extra-illustrated volume between marbled boards, Walpole’s copy of the catalogue is arranged alongside additional texts and handwritten notes, augmenting the original both textually and physically. A handwritten account of the duchess’s life and collecting, written over four sides of a quarto and functioning as a personalised preface, was inserted into the catalogue by Walpole and later published by W. S. Lewis as The Duchess of Portland’s Museum. In it, he gives a survey of the types of objects collected: “At first her Taste was chiefly confined to Shells, Japan & old China, particularly of the blue & white with a brown Edge, of which last sort She formed a large Closet at Bulstrode.”

Image of Fig. 3 – Rysbrack’s bust of the duchess of Portland, engraved by Humphreys and inserted into Walpole’s copy of the Catalogue

Fig. 4 – Page from Walpole’s handwritten account of the duchess of Portland and her museum, inserted into the front of the Catalogue.

Elsewhere, he condemns her methods of acquiring art works, and her apparent lack of financial restraint, describing how “Prints of Hollar, to compleat his work, She bought at any price. On the death or Sr Luke Schaub the Duchess began to buy pictures, which She did not understand, & there & in other instances paid extravagantly, as well as for other articles to her taste. Latterly She went deeply into natural history, & her Collection in that Walk was supposed to have cost her fifteen thousand pounds.” Certainly, Walpole’s vocabulary in depicting the duchess’s collecting practices is one concerned with monetary value and the duchess’s own seemingly insatiable lust for objects whose real, artistic or historical worth which, according to Walpole, she did not know.

After the sale, he wrote; “The Collection was accordingly sold in May & June 1786, in a Sale of thirty-eight days …the Produce of the Auction was Ten thousand nine hundred sixty five pounds ten shillings & six pence.” Continuing, he noted “the disproportion between the large Sum which the Duchess had expended, and the produce of the Sale was not near so great as it seemed. Several of the most valuable articles in her Collection were not exposed for Sale.” Here, his choice of “exposed” touches on contemporary anxieties about the public and potentially embarrassing, revealing nature of the auction.


This research was conducted thanks to Lewis Walpole Library’s Travel Grant Award and would not have been possible without the kind and generous support of its staff. This short article is born from part of my ongoing doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Bluestocking Antiquarianism: Collecting, Craft and Conversation in the Duchess of Portland’s Museum’.

[1] For more on public perceptions of the bluestockings, see Elizabeth Eger, Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[2] Beth Fowkes Tobin, “Virtuoso or Naturalist? Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland”, in Women and Curiosity in Early Modern England and France, Line Cottegnies, Sandrine Parageau and John J. Thompson  eds., (Brill Books: Boston, 2016); 216-232, 217. See also Fowkes Tobin, The Duchess’s Shells (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 220-221.

[3] William Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1738-1809), was the duchess’s eldest son.

[4] Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory, 23 July 1793, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-1983), 33: 484.

[5] Cynthia Wall, “The English Auction: Narratives of Dismantlings”,  Eighteenth-Century Studies 31, 1 (Fall, 1997): 1-25, 14.

[6] Troy Bickham, Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 45.

[7]  11 May, 1786. The Morning Post.

[8] Tobin, The Duchess’s Shells, 55.

[9] 25 April 1786, The Morning Herald.

[10] Tobin, The Duchess’s Shells, 230-231.

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