Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was a great collector of his age. He collected curiosities, books, manuscripts, art, botanical samples, coins… He even collected knowledge, as secretary of the Royal Society and editor of the Philosophical Transactions (1695-1712), and kept his extensive correspondence from other people (forty-one volumes alone at the British Library). Despite his sizeable library and museum, Sloane himself remains elusive. He published relatively little and kept few drafts of his own letters. So, we often meet Sloane through the eyes of others.
In August 1742, Henry Newman described his recent visit to Sloane’s new home in Chelsea (Wellcome Library, A letter by Henry Newman, 21 August 1742, WMS 7633/10; pictured above on blog banner). Sloane was 82 and had supposedly retired the year before because of poor health. Retirement for Sloane, however, was a busy affair. According to Newman, Sloane started his day by visiting the local Coffeeshop of Rarities via the garden passage that he’d had built. This ensured that Sloane did not “want company nor amusements”, even though he had left London. From 5:00 to 6:00, Sloane saw patients and had his servant show visitors “his apartement of Curiosities”.
Newman was “indulg’d” in both activities. He first consulted Sloane about his asthma (caused, he reported, by living in London’s smoke), then was taken on a tour of the collections by Sloane’s servant. Newman noted the sheer size of the library–49,000 books and manuscripts. But what Newman admired most was the effectiveness of Sloane’s catalogues. Catalogues were crucial, both for finding items and for ensuring that everything remained in the same order as it had been in Bloomsbury. There were thousands of glasses with preserved animals also in precise order. The scale of Sloane’s move to Chelsea had been enormous, but “there was not one broke nor one book lost or mislaid”.
Among Sloane’s regular visitors was Princess Amelia. Newman reported that the Princess and her sisters had already visited Sloane three times, but as he “waited on Sr Hans they sent to know when they might come again”. All this description, Newman told his friend, was “to anticipate the pleasure you will have in viewing” the collections. Newman also hoped that Sloane’s “usefull life will be prolong’d many years by the change of his situation”.
Perhaps, as ever, the focus is really on Sloane’s collections. But there are tantalizing glimpses of the man himself. Even in retirement, he continued to practice medicine and to visit the coffeehouse for company. This suggests a sociable man who liked to keep busy and who continued to value his medical skills; others, like Newman, also thought highly Sloane’s experience, deeming him “usefull”. Sloane’s ability to keep his collections organised so that others could enjoy them was particularly impressive. Above all, though, Newman took much pleasure in his visit with Sloane–as did apparently the Princess, a repeat visitor: Sloane’s collections were only part of the attraction for his visitors.