RSA Wunderkammer

Posted on 11 November 2017


In 1829 Sir John Soane was made an Honorary Academician of the (Royal) Scottish Academy. The awarding of the honour, on 24th June, followed closely after a personal donation of his Designs for Public and Private Buildings (London 1828) to the fledgling Academy library on 7th May.  From this act, believed to be the first donation by a practicing artist or architect, the Academy’s library has forever been bound up with the inventive discovery of books and objects.  Soane’s extraordinary house became known as an ‘Academy of Architecture’, a place where students could learn not only from the collection, but also the ingenious and eclectic way that it was displayed.

Fast forward to 2017 and it is another Academician, and another ingenious and eclectic house that is laying the foundations for a new chapter in the history of the Academy’s library.  Richard Murphy’s House at Hart Street in Edinburgh; a labyrinth of wonders that the architect describes as ‘a quarter Soane, a quarter Scarpa, a quarter eco-house and a quarter Wallace and Gromit’, was the muse for a new Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonder) to display the Academy’s library and collections.

The creation of a library was part of the founding aims of the Academy, satisfying as it did the yearning for knowledge and for educational collections that were part of the academic tradition.  In 1836 the RSA Annual Report visualised a library ‘connected with the history, literature, and philosophy of Art, and more particularly of a collection of the engraved works of the Masters with the ultimate aim to become a National Library of Art’.  With premises secured in the then Royal Institution building, the library began to grow and following some major purchases William Borthwick Johnstone became the first Librarian in 1853. The post continues today and another William, the sculptor William Brotherston, fills the current Librarian’s shoes.  The library has grown to more than four thousand individual volumes and contains some spectacular items, including William Blake’s Book of Job (London 1826) and John Baptist Jackson’s Titiani Vecelii Pauli Caliarii Jacobi Robusti et Jacobi de Ponte Opera Selectiora (Venice 1745, presented by RSA President William Fettes Douglas).

The Academy’s library was devised with the idea of it being an accessible reference library for artists and architects and until the turn of the century this identity was sustained.  However following the refurbishment of the RSA building and the decanting of the Academy’s stores to the Dean Gallery this function ceased.  In 2012 RSA President Arthur Watson and then Librarian Will Maclean began working with the collections team to review the library, with the ultimate goal of reviving its presence in the RSA building.  Funding through Museums Galleries Scotland’s (MGS) Recognition Scheme helped catalogue the library and secured Turning the Pages software for digitising it and making it uniquely accessible through touchscreen technology.  However it was in 2016 with the Wunderkammer project that the dream of renewed access began to be realised.  Further funding from MGS enabled the Academy to invite Richard Murphy to design a bespoke modular cabinet for the innovative display of its library and collections.  The Wunderkammer is unveiled here in Ages of Wonder before it finds its permanent home in the RSA President’s Room where it can be accessed by members, artists and the public, revealing the library in new and imaginative ways.

Many of the objects selected for the Wunderkammer have had a past presence in the Academy library.  The library was historically arranged with brass trellis and green silk fronted mahogany cabinets that ran around the room.  Atop them sat portrait busts and ornaments, the walls were adorned with paintings and in the centre sat a large table for study.  In later years artists’ palettes were displayed high on the wall above the cabinets and the palette of Past President Sir James Lawton Wingate is on display here.  The challenge for Richard Murphy was to reimagine the display of an entire room into a contraption that would take up just a quarter of the space.  Fortunately Murphy is a master of the spatial sleight of hand and in true Soanian style has designed a mini-universe of mirrors, revealing spaces and intricate cubby holes that afford delightful discovery, of all types of object, at every turn.  The next challenge was to fill the cabinet, which required another kind of distillation from the source material available.  However working in the curators’ favour was the character of the collections as a living thing, where relationships are seeded and grown through the artists it represents.  In one section Flower Piece, the watercolour Diploma Work of Patrick Syme, forms a dialogue with his self-published Practical Directions for Learning Flower Drawing (Edinburgh 1810), his A Treatise on British Song-Birds (Edinburgh and London 1823) and his Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour (Edinburgh and London 1814).  This last rare gem of a book was carried by Charles Darwin on his seminal voyage on the Beagle in 1833.  Featuring taxonomic descriptions with an accompanying colour chart, it was produced in a first edition of one hundred and each square was painstakingly hand-coloured by the artist’s family under his direction.  Syme’s talent as a naturalist shines out from this grouping.  Elsewhere, Phoebe Anna Traquair’s multifaceted arts and crafts identity is discovered through painting, enamel and metalwork.  Contemporary relationships abound; Paolozzi sits next to Traquair and Geoff Uglow’s William Daniell inspired Eilean Donan Castle speaks to the book that inspired the artist’s contemporary reflective journey.  Importantly room remains for key items that shaped the library’s identity, such as David Scott’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and a volume from the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland’s series, of which the Academy holds a near full set.  Alexander Hill was central to these publications and the Wunderkammer is surrounded by his important endeavours here in the historic Members’ Lobby.

Through the Wunderkammer, the relationship that each object and artist has with the objects and artists around it, the artists and individuals from whose collections the objects were gifted and the historic dialogue with the contemporary, forms a rich tapestry rediscovered afresh in a true cabinet of wonders for the modern age.