19th Century Field Collecting

Field collectors
of some of the shields displayed on Screen 2 at Bethnal Green and South Kensington Museums, 1874 - 1884

Pitt Rivers was a collector but he was not, in the main, a field collector. That is, he was not someone who purchased or obtained the object directly from the original owner or maker. Instead he obtained ethnographic objects largely at second-hand from dealers and auction houses. Occasionally he also purchased from field collectors directly. Of the 38 shields displayed on Screen 2 of the Bethnal Green Museum displays only 6 have named field collectors. 1884.30.28 - 1884.30.30 were collected by Sir Edward Belcher in Malaku, 1884.30.21 and 1884.30.33 were collected by John Petherick in the southern Sudan and 1884.30.34 was collected by R.B.N. Walker in Gabon, Africa. One of these figures is a well known Arctic explorer (Belcher), although the objects shown on Screen 2 did not emanate from this area. The other two field collectors are less well known although both of them were sources of large collections for Pitt Rivers.

Sir Edward Belcher (1799 - 1877)

To see a shield collected by Belcher, click here and here.

Lt Edward Belcher was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1812, joined the HMS Blossom in 1825 when she sailed to NW Alaska to survey the coast. Blossom arrived in Valparaiso in Chile in October 1825, then travelled west to Tuamoto Archipelago (now part of French Polynesia), Pitcairn Islands, Tahiti, Hawaiian Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula and Alaska. The ship only spent a couple of months in Alaskan waters (in 1826) before returning south to San Francisco, Honolulu and Macao. In 1827 she returned to Alaska before returning to England. Both the Capt [Beechey] and Belcher collected artefacts during the voyage. From 1830 to 1833 Belcher surveyed the coasts of North and West Africa and then surveyed the Pacific coastal areas of North and South America on HMS Sulphur for seven years (1836 - 1842). He then commanded the HMS Samarang in coastal surveys in the Far East (Borneo, the Philippines and Formosa) returning to Britain in December 1847. In 1852 he returned to the Arctic, in 1854 he was court martialled and his Naval career effectively ended. It has been suggested that Pitt Rivers purchased some of Belcher's collection in 1872 from the Royal United Services Institute (Chapman 1991: 140). In 1861 he delivered a paper to the Ethnological Society: 'On the Manufacture of Works of Art by the Esquimaux'. According to JCH King in Caygill and Cherry 'Franks and Ethnography' 1997. Belcher's collection was sold on 10 June 1872 and AW Franks purchased some for the British Museum, Pitt Rivers may have purchased at the same sale. At least 72 objects form Belcher's collection within the overall Pitt Rivers collection.

For further information see Chapman's unpublished D.Phil thesis (Chapman, 1981: 188 - 192 [kept at the Balfour Library, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford]) and John Simmons's article on Beechey and Belcher in the PRM Collectors I booklet, on sale in the Museum bookshop (see bibliography).

John Petherick (1813 - 1882)

To see a shield collected by Petherick, click here or here.

John Petherick was a Welsh mining engineer, trader and explorer employed until 1848 in Ali Pasha's service in the Sudan and Egypt. From 1853 on he was in trade on White Nile during which time he explored the River Jur and Yalo. In 1853 - 1858 he was in Azande territory. In 1858 he acted as vice-consul in Khartoum, in 1862 he ascended the White Nile, he left Sudan in 1865. He was HM Consul in Sudan during the late 1850s and early 1860s, while still acting as a trader in East Africa, particularly Southern Sudan. He returned to Europe in 1859 to raise funds for further trade. According to Chapman, Pitt Rivers probably acquired most of his Petherick-sourced collection around 1860 (Chapman, 1981: 94 - 95) from the Royal United Services Institute (Chapman, 1991: 140). At least 100 objects are in the Petherick collection which forms part of the overall Pitt Rivers collection.

For further information see J. and K. Petherick 1869.

R.B.N. Walker (dates unknown)

To see a shield collected by Walker, click here.

From the scanty information given below, which is all that has been found to date by Museum researchers, it can be supposed that Robert Bruce Napoleon Walker worked in West Africa, probably near or in Gabon, either as a trader or as a British government agent. Whilst there he acted as the local secretary for the Anthropological Society. He seems to have presented a collection of artefacts to the Society in 1867 which later fell into the hands of Pitt Rivers, possibly when the Society sold its collections. At least 151 objects form part of the Walker collection. The vast majority of objects identified as having been collected by Walker are from Gabon, most of these are identified as having been made by the Fang. In Louis Perrois' 'Ancestral Art of Gabon from the Collections of the Barbier-Mueller Museum', Geneva, 1986, he mentions '... Bruce Walker, an English traveller and merchant, father of Reverend Andre Raponda Walker, the illustrious and erudite Gabonese nonagenarian, now deceased'.

It seems likely that all the R.B.N. Walker objects in the Pitt Rivers collection were received via the Anthropological Society. Some objects [?all] were exhibited by the Society 2 April 1867 and are discussed in Journal of the Anthropological Society 1867 vol v pp cxlix - clii.

Journal of the Anthropological Society, Anthropological Review vol v 1867 p xcv: letter from R.B.N. Walker (Fellow of the Anthrop Soc of London. Secretary ASL [Anthropological Society of London]) from Gaboon giving news of the shipwreck of the ship carrying his 'best and rarest specimens'. Same reference page cxlix draws attention to the large collection of specimens that has come from Gaboon and been presented to the Society by their active Local Secretary Walker.

Back to top of page

Contemporary field collecting issues