The science connoisseur

At the recent ‘Curiously Drawn….’ conference, Kim Sloan of the British Museum spoke on the art collections of Hans Sloane, in her paper ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s pictures: the science of connoisseurship or the art of collecting?’

It is perhaps not widely known that Sloane was a collector of art, amongst his collection he held 15,000 drawings and watercolours and 1000 illustrated books. The collection is now split up and scattered across institutions, with prints at the British Museum, framed oils in the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History Museum, and miniatures at the V&A and Government Art Collection. Kim explains how as part of the Reconstructing Sloane project, the elements of Sloane’s collections are being located, pieced together and analysed.

This poses many challenges on identifying the works, involving digging through layers of different numbering and classification systems; and regrouping individual prints which were once bound together.

Kim explained how one of the aims of the Reconstructing Sloane project is to see what the collection can tell us about Sloane and why he collected art works. It seems Sloane was interested in the art and theory of drawing and painting as he had many books on the subject in his collections. Kim explained that Sloane was aware of the power and usefulness of portraits; he sat for many portraits, often selecting the artists and discussing with them how he should be depicted thereby showing his awareness that they would be hung in important public places.

One of the works Sloane held was a paper by portrait painter Jonathan Richardson (1665–1745) on the art connoisseur, ‘Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it Relates to Painting and an Argument in Behalf of the Science of the Connoisseur’ (1719). Kim explained how Richardson presented connoisseurship, in stark contrast with today’s meaning, as a new science, judging art works using a system of rules and procedures, ticking off specific criteria from a check list. Kim asked whether Sloane applied Richardson’s connoisseurial advice when collecting and cataloguing and what impact this may have had on the nature of his collection.

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