Cabinet of Curiosities of William Constable (1721-91)
Cabinets of Curiosities emerged in Europe during the 16th century and
were generally known by the term Wunderkammer, meaning ‘cabinet of
wonder’. In this instance the word ‘cabinet’ refers to a room rather
than a piece of furniture, containing collections of natural history,
geology, archaeology, ethnography, numismatics, works of art and
antiquities. Exhibits often included specimens relating to mythical
beasts that were believed to exist, such as mermaids, dragons and
unicorns and experiments involving magic and alchemy.
Originally the preserve of monarchs and princes, by the 18th century
these precursors of modern museums had also become popular amongst
gentlemen and merchants, many of whom were Fellows of the Royal Society.
New advances in scientific knowledge and new discoveries meant that
there was a more rational approach to collecting and the latest
scientific instruments were often acquired alongside rare and unusual
objects from around the globe.
Despite advances in scientific thinking, even in 1769 William Constable
still believed that it was possible to cross breed rabbits and
chickens, as is revealed in his correspondence with the notable
biologist and Catholic priest John Turbeville Needham (1713-81).
Although William Constable’s collection at Burton Constable was by no
means unique in the 18th century, it is now the most significant
collection surviving in its original country-house setting.