Richard Fortey

All Things Considered

An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World

By

Oxford University Press 320pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

There is a familiar story about a sad and lonely man filling up an entire house with bric-a-brac until he is obliged to crawl about inside it like a mole, searching for an unfilled corner. Collecting can develop into a disease. Grander collections demand endless money to feed the infection, but the symptoms are similar: an inability to throw anything away, a reluctance to organise what has already been bought in the mad drive to collect still more, and a pathological secretiveness. Henry Wellcome, renowned philanthropist and founder of a pharmaceutical empire, filled whole warehouses with crates of his purchases. Every crate was packed in turn with numerous objects – hundreds of pestles and mortars, dozens of spears, pillboxes, jujus, naïve paintings, African masks, stone tools. He wanted to collect the entire history of mankind.

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