The early collections of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society are very much a reflection of their times, representative of Victorian interests which ranged widely over subjects which today would be considered separate, specialised academic disciplines. This eclectic approach can be seen in the Yorkshire Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, held in 1875, to which some of the pieces still in the Leeds City Museum’s collection can be traced.
The Yorkshire Exhibition was a huge event running from May to September 1875, involving the whole city. It was undertaken in support of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution, which taught every branch of science and art, as well as maintaining an extensive library. This Institution found itself burdened by debt as a result of building new premises in 1865:
“one of the ornaments of Leeds… certainly the handsomest and best-appointed Mechanics’ Institution in the kingdom” (Yorkshire Exhibition Official Catalogue, p.25)
Since 2008 this building has been the home of the Leeds City Museum, so we are still benefiting from its purchase today.
The Yorkshire Exhibition covered almost every conceivable aspect of art, science and manufacture. This picture from the Illustrated London News gives some idea of the scale:
Of the Fine Art department, the Official Catalogue says:
“Where we find so much that is good, it would be invidious to single out examples. Suffice it that Her Majesty and the nobility and gentry of the land, and last, but not least, the wealthy manufacturers of Yorkshire, are all contributors.’
This department included quite extensive exhibits of antiquities, including a case of Cypriot material, mainly from Thomas Backhouse Sandwith and John Holmes, a major Leeds collector and antiquarian. Among Sandwith’s exhibits were this beautiful jug of Red Polished ware, and this vessel described in the Catalogue as a ‘Child’s Feeding-Bottle’. Interestingly, no description seems to match the triple juglet.
Members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society took the opportunity to secure some of Sandwith’s collection for their museum, ‘by a grant from the President’s Special Fund’ (Report of Council of LP&LS, 1876). It’s great to think that these Victorian benefactors had the breadth of vision to ensure that the Society’s collections were comprehensive and thoroughly representative of the arts as well as the sciences, which were in fact the primary focus of interest for many of the key members.
We are also lucky to have, via the Leeds University Library Special Collections, a selection of original Guide Books which really make the Exhibition come to life. The Official Catalogue is serious in tone, giving full weight to the dignity of the occasion and its Royal patronage. It gives a detailed account of every part of the Exhibition and every item on display, and it would certainly have taken more than a single visit to do it justice and give full attention to the densely printed information.
The Yorkshire Exhibition Guide and Visitors’ Descriptive Handbook, published by the Daily Express, is an altogether jollier affair.
Priced competitively at twopence and crammed with advertisements, it sets itself in opposition to the Official Catalogue by cheekily beginning its Preface as follows:
“In this busy age few people have either the time or the inclination to crawl inch by inch through an Exhibition with no aid but the lifeless pages of a Catalogue. With what avidity would the dazed sightseer, bewildered by the multifarious objects around him, place himself under the guidance of a well-informed friend who would conduct him through the several departments by the easiest route, and discourse agreeably upon the most interesting objects along the way. To supply the place of such a friend is the object of the present little work.”
The author has an interesting take on Sandwith’s motivation for assembling his Cypriot collection:
“They were exhumed from the old Phoenecian graves in 1871-2. A famine had taken place in the island at that time, and Mr Sandwith, knowing that there were ancient graves in various parts of the island, set the people to excavate them… The sale of many of these articles relieved the starving people, while Mr Sandwith was enabled to preserve the admirable collection we see here.” (p.10).
I’ll return to this subject another time; it seems sensible, however, to take information in the Handbook with a pinch of salt. The author appears to have prioritised a lively tone over conscientious fact-checking, as evidenced by this dry comment in Nature on his description of one of the scientific exhibits:
This called forth a pained response from the Exhibition’s organisers:
Interesting to see these concerns over competence, authority and control of information, long before the internet age!