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  • Selling the Duchess: Narratives of Celebrity in A Catalogue of the Portland Museum (1786)
  • Madeleine Pelling (bio)

Beginning on 24 April 1786 and continuing over the subsequent thirty-eight days, the auction of the Portland museum served to dismantle the private collection assembled by Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715–85), who had died some months earlier.1 During her lifetime, the duchess had belonged to the group of intellectual women known collectively as the Bluestockings and yet, unlike so many of her contemporaries such as Elizabeth Montagu, Anna Barbauld, Hannah Moore, or Elizabeth Carter, her activities were rarely reported in the public sphere, her portrait was rarely circulated, and her curatorial activities were confined to a closed circle of elite intellectuals.2 Her museum, representing a lifetime of indefatigable collecting, had previously been housed at her Buckinghamshire estate, Bulstrode Park.3 Following her [End Page 3] death, however, it was removed to London and repositioned within the urban marketplace where fictionalized narratives of her celebrity, cultivated postmortem, helped drive the commercial success of its auction. This paper positions the accompanying sale text, A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, Lately the Property of the Duchess Dowager of Portland, Deceased, as a vital tool in understanding the auction as a cultural event in which post-mortem narratives of celebrity were disseminated so that others might profit.4 I argue that the text functioned as a point of contact between the duchess post-death and the culturally literate consumer community that was attracted to the sale and which relied heavily on the Catalogue, as well as other printed ephemera, to inform both their perceptions of celebrity and their buying habits. Commissioned by the auctioneer Thomas Skinner, and compiled by the collector George Humphrey and the duchess’s librarian, Rev. John Lightfoot, the text reorganized the collection. It gave new meaning to the objects, dismantling previous curatorial approaches and rewriting the duchess as a saleable commodity.

The sale, which was preceded by a public exhibition, took place in the duchess’s townhouse in Privy Gardens, Whitehall (Fig. 1) and was widely reported in daily newspapers and periodicals alike. As early as 11 February 1786, the Morning Post intrigued its readers with promises of a “most copious and splendid collection,” which, the paper touted, contained among its legions of specimens “insects,” “corallines,” “petrifactions,” “snuff boxes,” “pictures and prints,” “old china,” and Greek and Roman sculptures, including the head of Jupiter Serapis and the widely celebrated Barberini, later Portland, vase.5 In Spaces of Consumption: Leisure and Shopping in the English Town, c.1680–1830, Stobart, Hann, and Morgan cite the established and well-rehearsed scholarly narrative of eighteenth-century consumerism “both as a concept and as a set of practices.”6 The auction was at once performative and fictionalized, prescribed and precarious. It presented a scene reflective of “shifting (sometimes temporary) identities.”7 In many ways, it was an [End Page 4] event contoured by the auctioneer and accompanying texts, advertisements, and visual data that served to shape and inform the experience of the audience.

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Fig. 1.

John Bromley, View of the house and museum of the duchess of Portland in the Privy Garden, Whitehall, 1796. Watercolour on paper, 14.1 × 23.1 cm. Inscription at the bottom reads “The House of the Late Dowager Duchess of Portland as it appeared in May 1796, by John Bromley.”

© Trustees of the British Museum.

The explosion in the production and availability of print media coincided with the growth of shopping as a habitual Georgian behavior. This article reveals how, at the auction, these two aspects of urban life combined in the form of the Catalogue to drive profit and reposition previously private property as public inheritance. Drawing on newspaper reports, epistolary evidence, and the text itself, I map the varying ways through which this text was engaged. Here, I examine surviving copies, revealing widespread practices of marginal annotation and extra-illustration that further served to cultivate the narrative of celebrity and extend the social life of the catalogue beyond the bounds of the sale. I consider it as a multifaceted object, a handbook, diary, inventory, advert, guidebook...


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pp. 3-32
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2021
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