Taylor Bird's Nest


The first image ("Fig. 1") depicts a Taylor-bird's nest, while the second image ("Fig. 2") depicts a wasp's nest.

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 I, Figure I, Taylor-bird’s nest from Bengal. Figure 2, Section of a Wasp’s nest, given by Dr. John Fothergill” (Thornton 69).
Birds. Classification. Museum. Natural history.
The two drawings that comprise this plate are roughly correlated in a more straightforward manner than the vast majority of Rymsdyk’s groupings. Both the Taylor-bird’s nest and the wasp’s nest fall under the general category of natural “wonders” (rather than man-made), and they are both structures built by the creatures for purposes of habitation and reproduction. However, in the accompanying text, Rymsdyk associates the natural work of the Taylor-bird with the man-made work of its namesake:
The Taylor-Bird’s nest . . . is constructed in a Mahot-leaf, near the edges of it are little holes, formed, I suppose, with its bill, being its needle, through which they draw some of the downy filaments of the plant, with which they sew the leaf together, resembling the manner a Lady’s stays are laced; hence they have obtained the name of Taylor-Birds. (Rymsdyk 1)
In the footnote of the same page, Rymsdyk also compares the “situation and ingenious contrivance” of the Taylor-bird’s nest with the work of “a good Architect” (Rymsdyk 1). This textual conflation of the man-made and the natural complicates the notion of segregation that seems to dominate the visual; similarly, Rymsdyk’s whimsical anthropomorphizing of the Taylor-bird contrasts with the scientific specificity of his visual rendering of its nest.

In his 1762 guide entitled The General Contents of the British Museum, R. Dodsley mentions a wasp’s nest that may or may not be the same one that captured the Rymsdyks’ attention: “There is a very fine Wasp’s Nest preserved in one of the Cabinets, well worth observing with Attention, being a most curious Structure” (Dodsley 22). Dodsley, like the Rymsdyks, seems drawn to the wasp’s nest by virtue of its remarkable—although not singular—nature. The attention that Dodsley pays to the wasp’s nest, as well as the Rymsdyks’ careful rendering of the architecture of both the wasp’s nest and the Taylor-bird’s nest, brings to mind Daston and Park’s characterization of the strikingly diverse variety of natural objects that populated early modern Wunderkammern:
Even the cabinet’s unadorned naturalia—the amethyst crystals, the coral branches, the inlays of landscape marble, the delicately curled and spiked seashells—suggested artistry by their striking forms. Nature the geometer had measured the regular crystals, nature the painter had sketched landscapes in stone, nature the architect had sculpted baroque curves and volutes in shells. (Daston and Park 253)
The exacting detail of the Rymsdyks’ drawings of these nests—they are almost like blueprints—can certainly be seen as a representational tribute of the same variety as the Wunderkammern. While the Wunderkammern were collections of curious physical objects, the Rymdsyks’ drawings perform much the same work, displaying these “wonders” with such specificity that they seem to exceed the physicality of a three-dimensional object.
“An Account of the British Museum.” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

"A Visit to the British Museum." The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée [afterw.] and Monthly Critic and the Lady's Magazine and Museum. Vol. XV. Oxford: Dobbs, 1839. 42-8. 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.