Governor Pitt's Brilliant Diamond, & c


The central image, figure 9, depicts one half of an Egyptian pebble, the interior of which seems to contain the image of a small, white face. This large, oblong pebble is encircled by other, much smaller figures, which are various renderings of stones. The first four figures illustrate the gradation of a diamond from rough stone to finished product: figure 1 depicts the uncut stone, figure 2 depicts the same stone after a first cutting, figure 3 depicts it after a second cutting, and figure 4 depicts the finished diamond. Figures 5 and 7 depict another diamond, the former an image of the product, and the latter a diagram of its many facets. Figures 6 and 8 are also diagrams of (different) diamonds.

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 XXVIII, Governor Pitt’s Brilliant Diamond, &c" features a model of the uncut stone (Figure 1), and in Figures 2 and 3 drawings form casts in metal of the first and second cutting, while Figure 4 is a model of Pitt’s diamond. Figure 5 is a model of the Duke of Tuscany’s diamond, a diagram of which is shown in Figure 7. Figures 6 and 8 are diagrams of the diamonds respectively of the King of France and the Empress of Russia. Figure 9 is a separate original drawing, and is of a rough Egyptian pebble broken obliquely in half” (Thornton 73).
Classification. Museum. Natural history.
While the title of this plate, “Governor Pitt’s Brilliant Diamond, &c,” gives the impression of a series of objects of great value, it is worth noting that none of the drawings are of actual diamonds; they are based instead on “models” and “diagrams” of privately owned diamonds. The drawings of the diamonds, then, are curiously situated somewhere between authenticity and inauthenticity—they may be accurate renderings of the objects on which they are based, but these objects are themselves representations rather than originals.

The curious pebble in Figure 9, situated in the center of the plate, engages a separate classificatory debate. The face in the center looks as if it was carved, but is in fact a natural production rather than an artificial or man-made one. R. Dodsley elaborates on this object in his 1762 guide to the British Museum: “And here is a rough Egyptian Pebble, broke into two Parts; on each Piece is a perfect Resemblance of the Head of Chaucer, as he is usually painted: This is entirely the Work of Nature, not having been at all assisted by Art” (85). As Daston and Park note, pebbles such as this also captivated the early modern collectors who assembled the Wunderkammern:
Figured stones constituted a class of minerals whose sole unifying feature was striking form without apparent function . . . The coherence of the category did not depend upon a common explanation of their origins, but on the implicit analogy between the forms of nature and the forms of art . . . There was no lack of explanations for these stones, including celestial influences impressed upon subterranean vapors, ‘gorgonizing’ spirits that petrified animal and plant remains (as well as generating kidney stones in the human body), organic seed caught in rock fissures that nonetheless produced its usual form in the unusual medium, the vegetation of crystals like plants in stony matrices, plastic virtues shaping stones in accordance with divine archetypes, miraculous interventions, or simply chance. (286-7)
Rymsdyk’s juxtaposition, in this plate, of the authentic and the inauthentic, the rare and the common, the natural and the artificial, again suggests the kinship of his project with that of early modern curiosity collectors rather than with a more systematic form of classification.
“An Account of the British Museum” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

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

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.