Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum.  Kaeppler, Adrienne. 2011

Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum. Kaeppler, Adrienne. 2011

Kaeppler, Adrienne L.  
Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum. An eighteenth-century English institution of science, curiosity, and art
ZKF Publishers. 
ISBN 978-3-9811620-4-2.

Mr Ashton Lever was wealthy enough to develop his interests in natural history and collecting, and so proud that he opened his collection to the public in 1771. Two years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The collection was kept in his house Alkrington Hall, Lancashire, where he conducted tours of "upwards of 1300 glass cases, containing curious subjects" and "a great number of antique Dresses and parts of dresses of our own and other nations". On 26 July 1774 there were 1,040 visitors, so he decided to move the collection to London to make it accessible to a wider public, which he did later that year.


The new home was in Leicester Square, London. Lever opened his new museum in February 1775, calling it Holophusicon, a name he invented to show it embraced all of nature (holo for whole; phusikon for natural). Walls were altered and doors removed to form "a continuous range of rooms divided by arches". To pay the rent, taxes and other expenses, he charged visitors admission to see the thirteen exhibition areas (twelve rooms and the staircase).

After the return of Adventure and then Resolution he acquired material from Captain Cook's Second Voyage and expanded the exhibition areas to include an Otaheite Room, and a Club Room. He was also knighted by George III. Following the death of Cook, he was one of the Royal Society members who ordered a silver commemorative medal.1 He also purchased many items brought back from Cook's Third Voyage, possibly including those sold by William Bayly.2 Lever opened the Sandwich Islands Room as "a continuation of the subjects in the Otaheite Room, being full of curious Indian dresses, idols, ornaments, bows, &c. &c. &c. which express very strongly the character of the people."

This book tells the story of how Sir Ashton Lever's Holophusicon came together, grew, was sold, moved, was auctioned, what was in it and what happened to (many of) the 7,000 lots.

I recommend the reader to start with the Foreword and the Preface for an understanding of why Adrienne Kaeppler's first trip to explore European museums led to a fascination with Ashton Lever and his collection that has lasted for forty years, and why the publication of this book kept being delayed, and is considered by Kaeppler to still be incomplete. She writes "Occasionally I thought I should publish an article or two on my work so far, but I avoided this with the feeling that all the information should be together in one publication."

Unfortunately for Lever, his expenses were greater than his income, despite selling his remaining properties in Manchester, so that by 1783 he was contemplating selling his collection, independently valued at £53,000. He made an unsuccessful appeal to Parliament to buy it for the British Museum, which had been founded only in 1753.3 He then petitioned for, and obtained, an Act of Parliament to allow him "to Dispose of his Museum, as now exhibited at Leicester House, by Way of Chance". By now there were 26,662 specimens, including 1,859 ethnographic items from the Pacific region. Kaeppler points out that most of the latter "could only have come from Cook's voyages".

Despite the lottery tickets being only £1 1s 0d each, only 8,000 were sold "reimbursing Lever £8,400 for his life's work and the dissipation of his fortune". The winning ticket was drawn on 23 March 1786, and the museum went to James Parkinson, a law-stationer, who decided to move it in 1787 to the Rotunda in Albion Street, on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. He also renamed the Holophusicon. His new name was the Lever Museum. Some people prefer the name the Leverian Museum. Sir Ashton Lever returned to Lancashire, but died the following year.

Parkinson was an enthusiastic owner, who continued to expand the collection. He changed the layout so that the first main room to be entered was now the Sandwich Room: "ornamented on the sides with flaxen mantles from Nootka, or King George's Sound and New Zealand, made by people to whom the use of a loom is totally unknown; above which are the war-clubs, adzes, and paddles of New Caledonia, Otaheite, and the Friendly Islands. The Sandwich room is dedicated to the immortal memory of Captain Cook".

By now the Leverian Museum "was the largest collection open to the public at regular hours. Unlike other contemporary collections, it did not require visitors to be members of the scientific establishment to make use of its contents."

Unfortunately, this part of London was unfashionable and, once again, expenses exceeded income. Parkinson was also unable to sell it to the nation, possibly due to opposition from Sir Joseph Banks, who was a major benefactor to the British Museum. In 1806 the collection was put up for auction.

The auction took place at the museum in six parts. There was so much material that it took 65 days. The 7,879 lots realised £6,642 13s 6d from about 140 purchasers. Some people bought just one or two lots, others bought several hundred specimens. Kaeppler has tracked down twelve annotated copies of the sale catalogue that give "the purchasers' last names, the purchase prices, corrections to the printed entries, drawings of some of the objects, and other useful information." Many copies are now in museums, one of which has been reprinted in facsimile.3 Some copes are in private hands, and one was recently sold.4

The descriptions of the lots are insufficiently detailed to make it easy to follow their trail and identify their many different locations today. But Kaeppler decided to try. She "made a master list of the lots... Work then proceeded to identify who these purchasers were, and to associate the individual specimens and artifacts from the lots... Research was carried out in museums, private collections, and libraries in Britain, continental Europe, the United states, New Zealand and Australia to locate specimens and drawings and to illuminate their histories and ties to the Leverian Museum."


Thus ends Chapter One of this book.


Several artists painted many of the items in the collection whilst it was at Leicester House and at the Rotunda. They were used for "scientific works, models for stage properties, and art exhibitions at the Royal Academy. The greatest number was painted by Sarah Stone, including objects from Cook's Second and Third Voyages. Kaeppler has studied the paintings as "most of the objects are painted accurately enough that they can be used to identify the unique objects that they are." Indeed, Kaeppler found them to be "the most important element in the research for this book... Without Sarah Stone's drawings this study would not have been successful." Stone became such a part of the Holophusicon that in 1783 almost 300 of her paintings were displayed in a large room there. "Many of her natural-history paintings, especially those of birds, have great artistic merit, in addition to their usefulness to the study of natural history." Kaeppler emphasises the importance of Stone's work by comparing her depiction of some objects with those of John Webber who, Kaeppler believes, "depicted generalized types, sometimes with distinctive features of individual objects, but seldom with accurate detail... Webber was an artist... Stone was an illustrator".

In a section that I found particularly interesting, Kaeppler examines the four famous paintings of Cook by Webber, Cleveley, Carter and Zoffany, and considers which of the objects depicted were modelled on those in the Leverian Museum.

In chapter three Kaeppler looks at the natural history objects in the Leverian Museum. They included birds from all over the world, many of which "became the type specimens on which subsequent knowledge of these species partly or even wholly depended." Unfortunately, she found it difficult to trace what happened to the birds from Cook's voyages as they were not always so noted in the sale catalogue. However, the largest number is now in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, and they are still studied today.

How did material from Cook's Second Voyage end up with Ashton Lever? Kaeppler tells us that in 1786 Sophie von la Roche, a German visitor to the museum, wrote in her diary that Cook "so much admired this good Ashton's intellect, that he gave him a complete collection of all kinds of South Seas curiosities, which to me seems much vaster even than the one in the British Museum." Lever also purchased items from auctions, such as that in 1776 held by Samuel Jackson, who might have acquired them from George Jackson, carpenter's mate in Resolution, and that in 1779 held by George Humphrey, who "simply went to the ships [Adventure and then Resolution] when they docked and bought whatever he could."

During the Third Voyage Cook collected some items to go to Sir Ashton Lever, even "sending six Birds from the Cape [of Good Hope] to Leicester Fields." After the return of the ships, Lever acquired so much from Elizabeth Cook, "several of the Officers of the voyage, particularly Captain King and Captain Williamson" that in early 1781 Lever was able to declare "he is now in possession of the most capital part of the curiosities brought over by the Resolution and Discovery". Later that year he bought several items from the sale of the collection of David Samwell, surgeon in Discovery.

Chapter four deals primarily with Lever's acquisition of ethnographic objects from Cook's voyages and their subsequent purchasers at the 1806 auction. Until his acquisition of these artifacts, the majority of his collection comprised natural history specimens. What is particularly remarkable is the Kaeppler is able to identify many of the objects collected from the Cook Voyages "Thanks to the journals of the voyages, the recording by Lever of field-collection information, and the depictions by Sarah Stone". Kaeppler's analysis of the sale catalogue of 1806 shows there are "more than 900 artifacts listed individually and sometimes described in detail-nearly one third of these being Hawaiian." Sarah Stone depicted 348 ethnographic objects from the Pacific.

Kaeppler's research shows the "largest and most important group of ethnographic purchases [from the 1806 sale] is now in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna".5 About 80 lots were purchased comprising about 230 objects. The second largest is that made by John Rowe: 77 lots of 150 objects, of which 75 came from the Cook Voyages. Tracking them down is, for Kaeppler, "the most important discovery of this study" as by the 1960s no one knew the objects were linked to Cook or the Leverian Museum. Only three years after they had been purchased, a museum was built for them in Devon. The story of how Kaeppler made the association, and tracked down what has happened to them since their dispersal at different times over many years, is fascinating and cannot be adequately summarised in this review. It is followed by another about 54 lots of 135 objects purchased in the name Smith by a "Capt. Cook who bought as Smith". This captain lived for a short time in Devon, and his collection was sold by auction in 1813. Next comes the 80 lots purchased by Reverend Vaughan at the Leverian sale. Kaeepler "recognized the ethnographic part of the collection, now in the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, though the identification of a Tongan club depicted in a Stone sketchbook".

Kaeppler then turns her attention to the mysterious Mr Atkinson, who "bought some of the most important ethnographic artifacts at the sale, including the feather cloak and helmet presented to Captain Cook by Kalani`?pu`u, Chief of the island of Hawai`i" that is now in Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand.6 Kaeppler thinks the purchaser was William Atkinson, the architect of Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, and she thinks this house has some items that could be from the Leverian Museum. Kaeppler has included in this book photos of the buildings associated with the stories. The stories continue with intriguing section headings, such as "Hewett, Vancouver and Cook: Detective Work in the British Museum", "Mrs. Higgins, A Lady of Taste from Bedfordshire: Further Detective Work in the British Museum" and "Purchases and Purchasers: Some Lost, Some Found".

Kaeppler devotes the rest of the book (60%) to a "summary biography". of every ethnographic artefact in the museum. Each one starts with the description from the 1806 sale catalogue, other descriptions of the museum, drawings and paintings by Sarah Stone and others of that time. They continue with the various identifiable owners of the object, to the present location, if known. For example, a drum from the Hawaiian Islands displayed at Norwich in 2006 and illustrated and described in Cook's Log,7 has the following biography:

209 "... drum, Sandwich Islands"
Purchased by Dick.
In the Museum of Peter Dick, where it was described as "curiously carved with eight grotesque Figures.
Sold at auction of Peter Dick as lot 40 (second day) "most industriously cut out of the solid wood, and very curiously carved with a number of Grotesque Figures supporting it."
Purchased by Tiphook
Cuming Museum, Southwark, London
Acquired by Ken Webster, a London dealer
Exchanged to James Hooper in 1948
Sold at Hooper auction at Christie's in 1977 as lot 272
Purchased by the British Museum
Catalogued in British Museum as 1977.Oc.8.1
Height 29 cm, diameter 16.5 cm

This "catalogue" is profusely illustrated and crammed full of information. It is divided into three chapters, each one arranged by area and by artefact type within each area.

Chapter five is dedicated to the ethnographic items from the Pacific Islands. The areas are Hawai`i, Tahiti, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Easter Island, New Zealand, Tonga, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Australia, and those identifiable only as the South Seas.

Chapter six covers North, Central and South America. Of interest to CCS members are the areas Nootka Sound, Prince William Sound, Unalaska and Kamchatka. For Nootka Sound the artefact types include: tongue clubs, stone daggers, masks, rattles and whistles, hats and caps, and cloaks.

The last chapter covers India, Turkey, Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome and ancient Britain, European ceramics and other collectible items.


Christian Feest8 is to be congratulated for his part in ensuring this book has been published, with nearly 1,000 photos (most in colour) spread over 300 pages. It is a marvellous account of a fantastic piece of detective work, coupled with tremendous detail of the ethnographic items tracked down or waiting to be found. Adrienne Kaeppler9 says that over the last forty years she has "learned many things about how complicated historic research can be, but also how important and rewarding such research is". I am delighted to be able reap the benefits by studying this book without undertaking the huge effort involved. Having finished this review, I'm off to read the book again.

Ian Boreham


  1. Cook's Log, page 20, vol. 32, no. 2 (2009).
  2. Cook's Log, page 24, vol. 28, no. 2 (2005).
  3. Leverian Museum: A companion to the museum MDCCXC. The sale catalogue of the entire collection 1806. A facsimile reprint of the above two rare volumes, the sale catalogue with manuscript annotations, prices, and buyers' names. Harmer Johnson & John Hewett. 1979
  4. Cook's Log, page 44, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).
  5. Cook's Log, page 47, vol. 33, no. 3 (2010).
  6. Cook's Log, page 30, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011).
  7. Cook's Log, page 18 and 42, vol. 29, no. 2 (2006).
  8. Cook's Log, page 48, vol. 33, no. 2 (2010).
  9. Cook's Log, page 48, vol. 32, no. 4 (2009).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 27, volume 34, number 4 (2011).

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