The Collections of C W Wright

Claud William Wright was born in 1917 in Yorkshire's East Riding into a family which had a fascination with natural history.

His mother had a wide botanical knowledge (especially of wild flowers) and an understanding of butterflies.  His father, on the other hand, had a particular interest in birds and fossils, and it was the latter which really grabbed the attention of the young Claud.

Wright's first contact with a celebrated scientist came at the age of just 5 when Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a renowned zoologist, stayed with his family. CW was impressed, and the feeling was mutual.

Perhaps on the strength of this sort of impression, Wright was allowed by his schools to combine the joy of the natural world and searching for fossils in particular, with one of his other joys: avoiding playing cricket, a game he had no talent for, and he took up fielding positions a long way outside the boundary rope to search.

Along with his brother, Ted Wright, Claud was already publishing articles on fossils by 1932. By this stage they were already amassing a substantial collection based around starfish, sea-urchins and trilobites.

In some cases they were very lucky. One of their great finds whilst young was a very rare fossil of an articulated starfish, which they were encouraged to hand over to Hull museum for preservation in 1931.

In 1939, they requested to have it back for study, and it was therefore not destroyed when the museum was bombed soon after.

Whilst the abstract value of such pieces is obvious, many would underestimate how valuable a large collection like this can be. The value of fossils is not limited to the more obvious examples such as T Rex or Triceratops skeletons.

For example, a complete Ordovician Selonopeltist Starfish Plate sold at Bonhams a few years back for $11,750, whilst a sea-lily (actually an animal related to starfish) from the Jurassic period brought $44,815.

Jurassic Sea Lily - a relative of the starfish
Jurassic Sea Lily - a relative of starfish and sea urchins ($45k)

Claud (or Willy as he was more commonly known) never collected for profit. His collections of fossils - and to a lesser extent Chinese porcelain - were a respite from his busy career in the civil service, which also inspired a love of comedy Yes, Minister.

Initially in the War Office during the final years of WW2, he then moved into Defence, the office of the Secretary of State and the Department of Education.

The last job brought his work closer to his hobby again, and following that he chaired a committee on museums and art galleries, which led to the Wright report and the revitalisation of both in the UK.

Naturally, Wright finally donated the collection he held jointly with his brother to the Natural History Museum.

The 25,537 expertly catalogued fossils of ammonites, starfish, crabs and related creatures include 15 species which bear his name, including a 67 million year old ammonite from East Greenland: Saghalinites wrighti.

Willy Wright may not quite have reached that age, but his survival until last month at a creditable age of 93 is a good example of the preservative effect of collecting something you take joy in.


Images: Bonhams

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