The Museum of Mr Cottingham

The more I delve into dark corners of the Internet, the more peculiar the discoveries become. I can’t actually remember what I was trying to find when I came across an article from The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1851. It went on at length about the way that institutions such as The British Museum tended towards the more exotic artifacts – those of Rome, Egypt and Greece “and even the barbarous sculptures of nations less cultivated so long as they come from a distance” over English medieval sculpture and architecture.

It then went on to praise the private museum of a Mr Cottingham who had collected all kinds of medieval paraphernalia and put it on show to the public in his basement. The Gentleman’s Magazine was particularly upset because, since Cottingham’s demise, the collection wasn’t appealing enough to any ‘proper’ museum and it was to be sold off piecemeal – and probably dispersed.

It took me a fair amount of rootling around to find out who the hell this Mr Cottingham was, and there’s not much out there. But from what I can find, Lewis Nockalls Cottingham was a Regency architect who was responsible for most of the area around Vauxhall/Waterloo (now mainly demolished by Waterloo Station, WWII and sundry arterial roads.) He was fascinated by medieval art – and has been credited with being the herald to the Victorian Gothic Revival. He set up his museum in Waterloo Bridge Road, and it would seem that he was the Sir John Soane of his day – collecting stuff of no real interest to most, but of great importance to the bigger picture. Among his very odd collection featured sculptures, plaster casts and bits of old houses – including an entire Elizabethan ceiling – long before that kind of thing was thought of as worth saving.

So why is this of interest to us? Because, The Gentleman’s Magazine was firmly of the opinion that the collection should not be broken up, but should be moved wholesale to Greenwich Park. It argued that, much like the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich, it could be moved to “a suburban locality.” Greenwich, it considered, was the best choice because of the “water access” but they weren’t bothered about the actual venue being particularly beautiful “for it requires no lordly building, but merely such shelter as is afforded by the terminus of a railway station” (mind you they knew how to build those then, too…) and since it was only going to be out of the way of gentlefolk, “a few well-lighted barns” would do.

Sadly Greenwich never got this cornucopia of capitols, canopies, fonts, piscinae etc. This was just before it was acceptable to move cultural things out of the centre of London (though only the following year, the beautiful Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park after The Great Exhibition, down to Sydenham.) The authorities just weren’t interested in saving Mr Cottingham’s Museum and despite public outcry (from what I can tell, it wasn’t just The Gentleman’s Magazine that was outraged) flogged the lot off by auction. One or two bits and bobs ended up in the V&A. The rest – heaven knows.

But this interests me is that it was perhaps the start of Greenwich’s magpie eye for taking other people’s leftovers. We like to collect things that don’t have a home. Only a couple of weeks ago, we had that cannon “back” that the Naval School didn’t need any more. We had The Gipsy Moth (even if we didn’t look after it and it was taken away from us) and The Cutty Sark (hmm – even if we don’t seem to have learned many lessons from looking after the Gipsy Moth…) Over at Ranger’s House, we’re being a bit more circumspect – the magnificent – if extremely weird – Wernher Collection does much the same thing as Cottingham’s, only with gold, silver and diamond knobs on – a collection without a home finally finding a little peace in a house without a collection.

By the way – did anyone ever hear whether we managed to adopt what was left of the Baltic Exchange (?) a couple of years back? It was mouldering in a junk yard and Greenwich Council offered to have it (though I don’t know what they were going to do with it. Perhaps Greenwich Council has a giant garden shed full of things that “might come in useful.”) Then it all went very quiet…

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