The Sallad Earthen Vessel, and the Scythian Lamb


"Fig. 1" depicts an earthen jar or vase. "Fig. 2" depicts the root of a plant named the "Scythian Lamb".

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 4136
The British Museum

The doors to the British Museum opened to the public in 1759. Although officially founded by an Act of Parliament passed on June 7, 1753, the collections which formed the original content of the museum belonged to three men: Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) (Crook 44). Both Sloane, dubbed “the foremost toyman of his time” by the poet Edward Young, and his collection were already famous by the time George II purchased them for the museum in 1753 (Young 97). The new museum, which prominently displayed Sloane’s natural and man-made curiosities, was a success. A review published in the July 1788 issue of The New London Magazine praises the particular merits of the Sloaniana, “which excite in the contemplative mind the most exalted ideas of divine wisdom in the creation of nature, and prove at the same time a striking monument of human industry” (“An Account of the British Museum” 378).

Visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for tickets, but, as a public institution maintained by government funds, admission was free. As a reviewer wrote in 1839, “The cheapest by far of our public exhibitions as well as in other respects the best, is the British Museum, for that costs nothing” (“Synopsis” 299). Museum policies limited both the number of visitors and the amount of time they were given to look at the exhibits; in 1762, R. Dodsley recorded the rules as follows: “fifteen Persons are allowed to view it in one Company; the Time allotted is two Hours” (xxii-xxiii). In spite of these limitations, the exhibit rooms were frequently over-crowded and the museum-going experience was often harried:
Among the Numbers whom Curiosity prompted to get a Sight of this Collection, I was of Course one; but the Time allowed to view it was so short, and the Rooms so numerous, that it was impossible, without some Kind of Directory, to form a proper Idea / of the Particulars. (Dodsley xiv)
Eric Gidal notes that the British Museum was unique in this unprecedented degree of access granted to the public: "As an institution founded ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public,’ the British Museum marked a union of legitimization and freedom both aesthetic and social" (21). With free admission came crowds, and with those crowds came anxiety regarding who ought to see the collections as well as how they ought to be seen. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the museum continued to gain popularity. By 1805, 12,000 people visited annually. By 1817 that number grew to 40,000, and by 1833 over 210,00 people came each year to see the collections (Goldgar 229-30). As many reviewers noted, large and often raucous crowds were now an inescapable part of the museum-going experience:
[T]he bustling crowds which thrice-a-week are to be seen in the British Museum, swarming with aimless curiosity from room to room, loudly expressing their wonder and disapprobation of the very things most worthy of admiration, or passing with a vacant gaze those precious relics of antiquity, of which it is impossible that they can understand the value as they are, for the most part, insensible to the hallowing associations, which render these objects the links of connexion between distant ages and our own. (“A Visit to the British Museum” 42)
The behavior of these crowds generated considerable anxiety in the press, with one 1839 reviewer even going so far as to publish three “cautions” for visitors to the British Museum and other public exhibitions: “Touch nothing,” “Don’t talk loud,” and “Be not obtrusive” (“Synopsis” 302-3).
The long title of the Museum Britannicum, a guidebook to the British Museum, is as follows:

Museum Britannicum: Or, a Display in Thirty Two Plates, in Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, in that Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the BRITISH MUSEUM, After the Original Designs from Nature, by John and Andrew Van Rymsdyk, Pictors. The Second Edition, Revised and Corrected by P. Boyle. Dedicated (by Permission) to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. London: Printed for the Editor, by J. Moore, No. 134, Drury-Lane. And Sold by T. Hookham, Bond-Street, M,DCC,XCI.
“Table XV. The Sallad Earthen Vessel, and the Scythian Lamb. Figure 1 features a porous earthen vessel with furrows, which were intended to be covered with the seeds of salad herbs. When the vessel was filled with water the seeds sprouted. Figure 2 is described as a 'plant animal called by the Muscovite, Little Lamb.' It is actually the root of a fern-like plant. These figures are from two separate drawings” (Thornton 70).

Classification. Museum. Natural history.

Although the two drawings on this plate clearly unite objects from different categories of the British Museum’s collections—the vessel in Figure 1 is man-made, an artificial production, while the lamb in Figure 2 appears to be a product of nature—the so-called “Scythian lamb” further confuses the classificatory boundaries that the associations between the artifacts in Rymsdyk’s drawings consistently challenge. As R. Dodsley explains in his 1762 guide to the British Museum, the lamb is, despite its mammalian features, not an animal but a plant:
Its Root is covered by a sort of Down resembling Wool, and there are Shoots, or Fibres, which serve well enough to represent the Legs and Horns of the vegetable Animal. A very little Help of the Imagination makes it altogether a tolerable Lamb. Many strange Qualities have been given to this Production, and as strange Stories told of it, some having described it with a Skin like a real Lamb, but of much superior Value, others have said that Wolves delighted to feed on it, besides many more Fictions too tedious to take notice of here; insomuch that some were inclined to believe there was no such Thing in Nature. (149-50)
Ephraim Chambers also takes note of “this vegetable monster” in his 1728 Cyclopaedia, mentioning that while many believe “that wolves are fond of it, while no other beasts will feed on it,” there are also those who “suspected the whole for a fable."

While Dodsley and Chambers are careful to hedge their descriptions of the Scythian lamb with questions about the authenticity of the tales surrounding it, Rymsdyk, as Stephen Asma argues, seems to relish especially “fanciful or inauthentic objects” (251). Dodsley’s reluctance to expand any further on the subject of the lamb and Chambers’s suspicious account of it contrast sharply with Rymsdyk’s minutely detailed rendering. Under Rymsdyk’s capable and exacting hand, the Scythian lamb seems an even more convincing facsimile than the “tolerable Lamb” requiring a touch of “Imagination” that Dodsley describes. In his poem “The Love of the Plants,” Erasmus Darwin writes of “a vegetable lamb” that “seems to bleat” (145); similarly, Rymsdyk’s lamb looks likely to start to life and bleat at any moment. Rather than clarifying the lamb’s classification as animal or vegetable, then, Rymsdyk’s skill in rendering detail and his “enthusiasm for the singular and bizarre” elicits and maintains the confusion it excites (Thomas 133).
“An Account of the British Museum” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

Cyclopædia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Comp. Ephraim Chambers. Vol. 1. London: Knapton, 1728. University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. Web. 10 May 2009.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden: a Poem, in Two Parts. New York: Jones, 1825. Print.

Daston, Lorraine and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone, 1998. Print.

Dodsley, R. The General Contents of the British Museum: with Remarks. Serving as a Directory in Viewing that Noble Cabinet. London, 1762. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Visual Representation of Culture in the Eighteenth Century.” Albion 32.2 (2000): 195-231. Print.

Rymsdyk, Jan van and Andreas van Rymsdyk. Museum Britannicum, Or, A Display In Thirty Two Plates, In Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, In That Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the British Museum: After the Original Designs From Nature. 2nd ed. London, 1791. Print.

“Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum” Eclectic Review 6 (1839): 281-306. Print.

Thomas, Nicholas. “Licensed Curiosity: Cook’s Pacific Voyages.” The Culture of Collecting. Eds. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal. London: Reaktion, 1994. 116-36. Print.

Thornton, John L. John Van Rymsdyk: Medical Artist of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oleander, 1982. Print.

Young, Edward. The Poetical Works of Edward Young. Cambridge, 1859. Print.