A cabinet of rarities: the curious collection of Sir Thomas Browne

Collector of rarities, debunker of myths. Inspiration to writers and doctors alike, owner of a live ostrich and an expert witness at a witch trial.


Sir Thomas Browne is probably the greatest British genius the vast majority of British people have never even heard of.  One of the most extraordinary and voracious minds of the 17th century, the man coined more English words than anyone bar Shakespeare. He became an inspiration for writers from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Edgar Allan Poe. This past exhibit explored RCP physician, philosopher, collector, and polymath Thomas Browne’s curious approach to the world through his writing and his collection.

Skull of sir Thomas Browne
Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) by unknown

Browne saw the extraordinary in the ordinary, and introduced over 700 new words to the English language, while inspiring literary greats such as Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe. His collection revealed a fascinating perspective on 17th-century scientific and medical research.

The exhibit assembled a remarkable collection of manuscript letters and notebooks, animal and plant specimens, books, paintings and artefacts to form a portrait of Thomas Browne. The assembled items also helped portray the close members of his family, the world in which he moved and suggesting a fragment of Sir Thomas Browne’s own great ‘Cabinet of rarities’.


His whole house and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarities and that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things - John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn (1671)


 

From the Royal Society of Medicine came a cast of Browne’s own skull, made in the years after 1840 when his coffin was broken open and his head and hair sold on to a later fellow collector. The Royal College of Physicians’ library provides a rare pirated copy of Sir Thomas’ masterpiece ‘Religio Medici’. Dated 1642, this version was printed illicitly but proved an international literary sensation prompting official publication of the hugely influential work the following year. 

A reproduction of a letter held by the Bodleian Library reveals Browne’s close relationship with his son Edward and enthusiasm for human dissection. Facsimile images of fish from the hand of Elizabeth Lyttleton, Sir Thomas’ third daughter, paint a picture of a family engaged in the pursuit of knowledge of the natural world. 

Graphically illustrating this passion for nature, a Tegu lizard skin and a dolphin’s skull and mandible, all from the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL, were among the exhibit items. Together they leave a lasting impression of the remarkable sights that awaited a visitor to Browne’s Norwich abode, of which the great diarist and intellectual John Evelyn said ‘his whole house and garden is a paradise’, home to ‘the best collection’.
 

Completing a scene reminiscent of Sir Thomas’ astonishing assortment are original 17th century volumes of texts known to have had a place in his library and portraits of Browne, his family and major figures from the scholarly circles of the day. Although Sir Thomas Browne was a member of the intelligentsia, a polymath ruled by logic, he believed in witches and testified in a notable witch trial at Bury St Edmunds. He was both a conscientious physician and a man who saw the divine everywhere in his work.