Leverian collection

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Leverian Museum
Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever's Museum in Leicester Square, London March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone.jpg
Leverian collection is located in Central London
Leverian collection
Location within Central London
Established1775 (1775)
LocationLeicester Square, London
Coordinates51°30′37″N 0°07′49″W / 51.510278°N 0.130278°W / 51.510278; -0.130278Coordinates: 51°30′37″N 0°07′49″W / 51.510278°N 0.130278°W / 51.510278; -0.130278
Collection sizec. 28,000 objects
DirectorSir Ashton Lever
WebsiteA collection of drawings by Sarah Stone

The Leverian collection was a natural history and ethnographic collection assembled by Ashton Lever. It was noted for the content it acquired from the voyages of Captain James Cook. For three decades it was displayed in London, being broken up by auction in 1806.

The first public location of the collection was the Holophusikon, also known as the Leverian Museum, at Leicester House, on Leicester Square, from 1775 to 1786. After it passed from Lever's ownership, it was displayed for nearly twenty years more at the purpose-built Blackfriars Rotunda just across the Thames, sometimes called Parkinson's Museum for its subsequent owner, James Parkinson (c. 1730-1813).

At Alkrington[edit]

Lever collected fossils, shells, and animals (birds, insects, reptiles, fish, monkeys) for many years, accumulating a large collection at his home at Alkrington, near Manchester. He was swamped with visitors, whom he allowed to view his collection for free, so much so that he had to insist that visitors that arrived on foot would not be admitted. (In other words, only those who could afford a carriage or a riding horse were welcome.) He decided to exhibit the collection in London as a commercial venture, charging an entrance fee.[1]

At Leicester House[edit]

Aquatint of exhibit of a stuffed hippopotamus from Charles Catton's Animals[2]

Lever acquired a lease of Leicester House in 1774, converting the principal rooms on the first floor into a single large gallery running the length of the house, and opened his museum in February 1775, with around 25,000 exhibits (a small fraction of his collection) valued at over £40,000.[3][4] The display included many natural and ethnographic items gathered by Captain James Cook on his voyages.[5] The museum took its name from its supposedly universal coverage of natural history,[3] and was essentially a huge cabinet of curiosities.

Lever charged an entry fee of 5s. 3d., or two guineas for an annual ticket, and the museum had a degree of commercial success; the receipts in 1782 were £2,253.[3] In an effort to draw in the crowds, Lever later reduced the entrance fee to half a crown (2s. 6d.)[3][5] and was constantly looking for new exhibits. He also set out his exhibits to impress the visitor, as well as (unusually) including educational information. However, he spent more on new exhibits than he raised in entrance fees.

One admirer of the museum was Philip Bury Duncan as a boy: he went on to become keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.[6] Among the objects displayed was the large Viking silver thistle brooch from the Penrith Hoard, discovered by a boy in Cumbria in 1785. In 1787, a print of it was published, claiming that it was the insignia of the Knights Templar.[7] It was bought by the British Museum in 1909 (M&ME 1909,6-24,2).

Lottery for the collection[edit]

The British Museum and Catherine II of Russia both refused to buy the collection, so Lever obtained an Act of Parliament in 1784 to sell the whole by lottery. He only sold 8,000 tickets at a guinea each - he had hoped to sell 36,000.[5]

The collection was acquired by James Parkinson, a land agent and accountant.[3] It continued to be displayed at Leicester House until Lever's death in 1788, at a reduced entrance fee of one shilling.[5]

Move south of the Thames[edit]

Parkinson transferred the Leverian collection to a purpose-built Rotunda building, at what would later be No. 3 Blackfriars Road. Leicester House itself was demolished in 1791.[3][5]

Leverian Museum collection in the Rotunda. Engraving by William Skelton after Charles Reuben Ryley.

A catalogue and guide was printed in 1790.[8] Parkinson also had George Shaw write an illustrated scientific work;[9] the artists involved included Philip Reinagle, Charles Reuben Ryley, William Skelton, Sarah Stone, and Sydenham Edwards.[10][11] Some of John White's specimens were put on public display there for the first time.[12] The museum also served as a resource and opportunity for women: Ellenor Fenn wrote A Short History of Insects (1796/7), for which the long title concludes as "a pocket companion to those who visit the Leverian Museum",[13] and a similar volume on quadrupeds; the artist Sarah Stone continued to work for Parkinson, as she had done for Lever.[14]

Parkinson had some success in getting naturalists to attend the museum, which was easier at the time to visit than the British Museum. A visitor in 1799, Heinrich Friedrich Link, was complimentary.[15]

Disposal of the collection[edit]

Parkinson also tried to sell the contents at various times. One attempt, a proposed purchase by the government, was wrecked by the adverse opinion of Sir Joseph Banks.[16] In the end, for financial reasons, Parkinson sold the collection in lots by auction in 1806.[3] Among the buyers were Edward Donovan, Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, and William Bullock; many items went to other museums, including the Imperial Museum of Vienna.[17]

The contents of the museum are well recorded, from a catalogue of the museum created in 1784, and the sale catalogue in 1806, with a contemporary series of watercolours of its contents by Sarah Stone.[18] There are also sale catalogue annotations allowing, for example, the counting of 37 lots bought by Alexander Macleay.[19] The Royal College of Surgeons bought 79 lots, and notes by William Clift survive.[20] Purchases from the sale founded the collection of Richard Cuming.[21] In all 7,879 lots were sold over 65 days.[22]

Surviving specimens and objects[edit]

The specimens purchased by Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby were bequeathed to the people of Liverpool upon his death in 1851 and were part of the founding collection of what is now World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. Stanley bought approximately 117 mounted birds, representing some 96 species, at the auction in 1806.[23] 82 specimens still survived in 1812, 74 in 1823, and at least 29 in 1850. Among the present collections of World Museum are 25 study skins (relaxed mounts) of 22 species recognized as having originated from the Leverian Sale. Nine are recognized as having been collected during the second voyage of James Cook and third voyage of James Cook.[24]

A number of ethnographic objects survive in the collections of the British Museum.[26]


  1. ^ Chapter 14, The Royal Toxophilite Society Archived 25 September 2017 at the Wayback Machine, By Colonel Walrond, part of The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes: Archery (1894)
  2. ^ Catton, Charles (1788). Animals drawn from Nature and engraved in aqua-tinta (1st ed.). I. & J. Taylor. p. 72.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Survey of London: volumes 33 and 34: St Anne Soho (1966), pp. 441-72, from British History Online
  4. ^ Abstract of a Petition of Sir Ashton Lever for a Bill to enable him to dispose of his museum. Archived 29 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ a b c d e History of the Empire Theatre (built on the site of Leicester House). Archived 22 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Bell, Alan. "Duncan, Philip Bury". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8229. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. ^ British Museum Enlightenment: The Birth of Archaeology, Silver 'thistle' brooch. Archived 13 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Leverian Museum (London, England) (1790). A companion to the museum, (late Sir Ashton Lever's): removed to Albion Street, the Surry end of Black Friars Bridge. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  9. ^ Museum Leverianum containing select specimens from the museum of Sir Ashton Lever (1792-1796).
  10. ^ Royal Academy of Arts, Philip Reinagle, R.A. 1749 - 1833. Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Musei Leveriani explicatio, anglica et latina (1792).
  12. ^ Australian Museum, Sarah Stone Collection.
  13. ^ A short history of insects, (extracted from works of credit) designed as an introduction to the study of that branch of natural history, and as a pocket companion to those who visit the Leverian Museum.; WorldCat ref.
  14. ^ Christa Knellwolf King, Frankenstein's Science: experimentation and discovery in Romantic culture, 1780-1830 (2008), p. 173; Google Books.
  15. ^ J. A. Bartle, Differences between British and French Organization of Zoological Exploration in the Pacific 1793–1840, Tuatara: Vol. 32, April 1993.
  16. ^ Torrens, H. S. "Parkinson, James (bap. 1730, d. 1813), land agent and museum proprietor". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21370. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  17. ^ The Ibis, Series 3, Volume 3, Osbert Salvin, 1873, accessed 29 August 2010
  18. ^ A collection of drawings by Sarah Stone
  19. ^ Palma, R.L. 1991. Two bird lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera) collected during Captain Cook's 2nd voyage around the world. Archives of Natural History, London, 18 (2): 237-247; PDF at p. 244.
  20. ^ RCS page, List Of Specimens Purchased By The Royal College Of Surgeons At The Sale Of The Leverian Museum In 1806.
  21. ^ "History of the Cuming family collection and the Cuming Museum". Southwark Collections. Borough of Southwark. Archived from the original on 2 August 2014.
  22. ^ "Parkinson, James (1730?-1813)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  23. ^ Largen, M. J. (1987). "Bird specimens purchased by Lord Stanley at the sale of the Leverian Museum in 1806, including those still extant in the collections of the Liverpool Museum". Archives of Natural History. 14 (3): 265–288. doi:10.3366/anh.1987.14.3.265.
  24. ^ Largen, M. J. (1987). "Bird specimens purchased by Lord Stanley at the sale of the Leverian Museum in 1806, including those still extant in the collections of the Liverpool Museum". Archives of Natural History. 14 (3): 265–288. doi:10.3366/anh.1987.14.3.265.
  25. ^ Bauernfiend, Ernst (17 September 2004). "Bird specimens from the Leverian Museum: documentation and present holdings at the NMW" (PDF). Retrieved 18 September 2022.
  26. ^ "Leverian Museum". British Museum Website. British Museum. Retrieved 23 May 2020.