The Duchess's shells: Natural history collecting in the age of Cook's voyages.  Beth Fowkes Tobin.  2014.

The Duchess's shells: Natural history collecting in the age of Cook's voyages. Beth Fowkes Tobin. 2014.

Tobin, Beth Fowkes. 

The Duchess's shells: Natural history collecting in the age of Cook's voyages

Yale University Press. 


ISBN 978-0-300-19223-0. 

316 pages. 


When I think of the things discovered and brought back from Cook’s voyages, I think of plants and ethnographic objects.  Possibly, I remember a few bird specimens, animals and fish.  This book shows how shells were also gathered, and given to, or sold, to collectors and dealers when the ships arrived home.


The person with the greatest collection of shells was the Duchess of Portland.  She collected many other things, the Portland vase being her most famous acquisition.  At the time of her death in 1785, she owned thousands of shells, but only three of them can be traced with any certainty to the present day. 


Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley Bentinck was born in 1715, the daughter of Edward Harley, second duke of Oxford.  In 1734, she married William Bentinck, second duke of Portland.  Together they had five children, and lived either at their country house at Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire, or their town house in London.  Her husband died in 1762, so her title changed to Dowager Duchess of Portland. 


Tobin says that in the eighteenth century, “natural history was regarded as a form of polite and edifying entertainment.  Men and women of the educated classes were avid consumers of books about the Linnaean system of classification, engraved and colored prints of botanical and zoological specimens, and the natural histories of local regions and foreign locales”.  In her book Tobin uses chapter one to explore the culture of collecting in Britain during the duchess’s life, especially that of natural history.  Tobin says, “It was the beauty they saw in insects, birds, shells, and, of course, flowers that often attracted people to the study of natural history”.


The duchess’s interest in natural history, apparently, “went well beyond the aristocratic culture of collecting.  With her mastery of the Linnaean system of classification, her natural history collecting took on the seriousness of a scientific endeavor with the specific aim of contributing to knowledge about the natural world”.  This chapter is illustrated with portraits of some of her visitors, including Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.  Among the several collectors of note described in the chapter is Elizabeth Bligh, wife of Captain William Bligh.  She “possessed a very large shell collection”.


Chapter two is about the duchess and her shell collecting.  Tobin sets out her intentions better than I can.  “I describe the life cycle of the shell as a collected specimen… the gathering and preparing of specimens… the acid solution used to remove debris from shells… cutting and folding cardboard playing cards to make little boxes to house the shells… and the tricky business of making tiny labels and gluing them onto both the shells and their containers”.  It is a fascinating account, and enjoyable read, even if you have no interest in shells! 


Chapter three explores the duchess’s connections with other people interested in natural history that enabled her to acquire so many shells, her patronage of many other collectors, and her knowledge of the natural history dealers and their contacts.  Some dealers had “showrooms devoted to shells and other natural history specimens”.  Natural history collections were also sold by auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. 


Cook’s voyages “revitalized natural history by introducing botanical and zoological specimens new to Europe”, and “inspired collectors with a kind of mania for what were known as ‘South Sea’ shells”.  The duchess acquired shells from Cook, Lieutenant Clerke, Banks, Solander, and the Forsters.  She had so many shells from the Endeavour voyage that she was able to offer duplicates to others.  The duchess also obtained shells from the captains and other officers of East Indiamen ships.  One day Solander went to see some ship captains to enquire about obtaining from them some “natural curiosities”, but found they had already been approached by the duchess or others acting on her behalf. 


Banks and Solander visited the duchess at Bulstrode in 1771, shortly after their return in Endeavour.  She visited Banks at his house in Soho, where she saw some of Parkinson’s drawings.  However, points out Tobin, the duchess could not “operate on the same level as Sir Joseph Banks, and could not compete with his skilled procurement of specimens through patronage channels…  As a woman she was excluded from membership in such institutions as the Royal Society, and therefore from the informal privileges enjoyed by members”.  Tobin also tells us that, “not only did shells from Cook’s voyages pass through London auction houses on their way into collectors’ cabinets, but the same shells would also return to auction houses as collectors died and collections were disassembled”.  Not everyone was truthful about where their shells came from.  Tobin quotes from a letter describing how someone had purchased some shells from “a Sailor who said he came home in the Resolution”.  An expert told him, “there was not one S. Sea among them”, and they were probably from the West Indies. 


Of the seven chapters in the book, chapter four is of greatest interest to Cook enthusiasts as it covers in greater detail the shells of Cook’s voyages.  As you might expect, most of the curiosities acquired during the Endeavour voyage were retained by Banks.  Tobin tells us, “his mollusc collection is still intact, the shells now stored at the Natural History Museum in London in a large cabinet with drawers filled with little tin boxes, a technique that Solander had learned from Linnaeus as a way to organize shells”.  Collectors awaited the return of Resolution with great excitement, even though it arrived a year after Adventure, as it had the naturalists, the Forsters.  During the voyage, many of sailors had collected objects to sell upon their return.  Dealers wrote instructions on how to preserve them to encourage the public to buy more.  This information was especially needed for shells as so many of them were small and delicate.  The journals of the voyages talk of native people eating shell fish, and the sailors encountering heaps of shells discarded after eating their contents.


Tobin notes that Cook in his official narratives describes shellfish “as a ready source of protein for his men”, whilst the naturalists wrote about “shells as objects of scientific curiosity”.  She points out that Banks’s journal has few references to shell collecting, whereas JR Forster’s journal “is replete with references to the shells he collected”.  George Forster’s journal describes “not only how the pair collected specimens, but also their feelings as professional naturalists when competing for scare and rare objects, both natural and artificial, with the rest of the crew, including the officers, who had little knowledge of what they were collecting”.  Tobin says “the Forsters seem to have collected their own specimens during their stay in New Zealand, but once they arrived in the Society Islands (Tahiti), they began to rely on local people”, perhaps because they were all excellent swimmers.  In Tonga they collected shells and bought shell ornaments.


After Cook’s death, and the return of Resolution and Discovery without him, “natural history objects associated with him took on an increased value distinct from their scientific and material qualities”.  Tobin has examined many sales catalogues and museum guides of the period, and found they increasingly “promoted the association in their descriptions of material culture and natural history specimens”.  The rarity and novelty of South Sea items declined as the later voyages of Bligh, Vancouver, the French and Russians resulted in increased numbers available for sale. 


In chapter five Tobin describes many of the books about conchology that were published during the 1770s and 1780s and the duchess’s involvement in them.  Tobin does so in greater detail than I expected, so it was with great pleasure that I read how books were published, and the troubles encountered.  When the professional artists of the illustrations caused delays or charged too much, one enterprising person taught young boys to churn out the pictures.  Several authors sent shells to Solander and the duchess to get the proper names for them.  Some books included passages copied from other books, Tobin points out, as “copying passages wholesale from other books was commonplace in eighteenth-century book production, especially in reference books”. 


The duchess decided to produce a catalogue of her own shell collection, and employed Solander to classify it.  Her shell collection was kept at her house in Whitehall, London, and he spent one day a week there, “usually a Tuesday, staying from 11 in the morning to 6 in the evening, pausing only for a bowl of soup”.  He spent nearly four years on the collection.  “At the same time Solander was also at work revising Linnaeus’s molluscan taxonomy, renaming general as well as specific categories”.  The catalogue was never completed, due to Solander’s death in 1782 and the duchess’s death in 1785. 


What happened to her collection is covered in chapter six.  In her will, the duchess stipulated that her natural history and decorative art collections should be sold.  It took nine months to prepare for the sale.  Whoever was in charge decided to break the collection into lots that might attract many buyers, removing the order of the original collection.  It was expected that most buyers would not be naturalists nor be interested in taxonomy. 


Pre-auction viewing lasted ten days.  The crowds were so great that ladies fainted in the heat and pick pockets acted without being caught.  About 1,700 copies of the sale catalogue were sold before the sale began.  Many copies have survived, often with annotations by those attending the sale.  The sale began on 24 April, 1786, and lasted 38 days, but not on Sundays, nor on 5 June, the king’s birthday.  There were 4,263 lots, of which about half were of shells, with each lot comprising from one shell to dozens of them.  Thirty days were devoted entirely, or largely, to shells. 


Where they all are now, we don’t know.  Tobin writes, “Shells once owned by the duchess must still exist, given that there were thousands of them.  Some may be housed in natural history museums, regional museums and local history societies, attics, basements, and secondhand shops”. 


The final chapter in the book examines how the duchess and her shells were considered in the nineteenth century.  It seems that her reputation as a naturalist did not survive after the deaths of those who knew her personally.


I spotted one error in the book, when Adventure is described as being “the ship that was to accompany the Endeavour”, an unfortunate slip for Resolution.  It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this marvellous book that opened my eyes to the ways of the natural history collectors at the time of Cook, the impact upon them of his voyages, and the sheer wonder of shells, that I had never appreciated before.



Ian Boreham


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 34, volume 39, number 4 (2016).

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