Ruined cities and races across Holland... Charlotte Schreiber's Great Collections


Last month, Paul Fraser Collectibles' Great Collections series examined the origins of the world-famous Victoria and Albert Museum, born of the combined collecting efforts of Henry Cole assisted by John Charles Robinson.

Both Cole and Robinson place a crucial role in establishing the Victorians' famed passion for collecting - and also their use of collecting as a way to educate the masses through museums and exhibitions.

For the Victorians, collecting was "as much an expression of the age as cotton mills or railways," writes author Jacqueline Yallop's in her book Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World.

Yet Cole and Robinson weren't the only great Victorian collectors to contribute to this legacy. Another was the aristocrat Charlotte Schreiber, an aristocrat whose impetuousness and collecting obsessions are today the stuff of legend.

Born in Lincolnshire on May 19, 1812, the eldest child of the ninth Earl of Lindsay,Schreiber caught the collecting bug late in life.

This Wax portrait relief of August of Saxe-Gotha,
Princess Dowager of Wales, Mother of George III,
England, 18th century, was given by Lady Charlotte
Schreiber to the V&A in 1884

After decades of self-taught scholarly achievement (including writing the first full translation of the Welsh myth-hoard - Schreiber taught herself Welsh in addition to Arabic, Hebrew and Persian), she duly applied this learning to her collecting.

Schreiber spent 15 years travelling across Europe collecting 18th century ceramics and built an unparalleled collection with assistance of her second husband, Charles Schreiber, a Classics scholar employed as her son's tutor.

Charlotte also retrieved countless historic artefacts from China in 23 exhaustive journeys between 1869 and 1882. She aptly described these excursions as her "China mania", stashing all of her purchases in a red velvet handbag.

Schreiber's devotion and flair was matched by her intensity. Nothing could stand in the way of her collecting obsession - not even the chaosinsurrection of the Paris Commune government in 1880. As she wrote in her journal, of journeying through ruined Paris to examine a collection of art of the Revolutionary Period...

"We took an open carriage and drove about to show Bertie the ruins... We regrettedmuch to hear that in the last days of the Commune, an Obushead [bomb] had found its way into this singular building, by whichtwo- thirds of the (then) collection had been destroyed. I wasvery pleased to have had an opportunity of making this visit."

When Schreiber's passion wasn't luring her into revolution-torn cities, it enticed her into extreme competition with other collectors. Such as the time she raced London art dealer Joseph Joel Duveen across the Dutch countryside in a light carriage, snatching a prized artefact from an old house practically from under  his nose.

Just Schreiber wasn't motivated by just materialism. After her husband Charles' death in 1884, she donated some 1,800 items from the English part of her collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Items were also donated to the museum in 1894, the year after Schreiber's death aged 83.

Victorians flock to the V&A museum in the 19th century

According to the V&A's records, Schreiber's collection of European ceramics was either sold or given to her family, while herfans and playing cards was acquired by the British Museum.

Throughout her long and eventful life, Schreiber's contribution to Victorian collecting and the era's museums, along with the likes of Cole and Robinson, remains an inspiration for today's collectors - a true testament to how collecting can open doors to adventure.


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