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Wunderkammer: Cabinet of Curiosities

Bringing the wider world to a princely court

The Cabinet of a Collector
The Cabinet of a Collector ©

Wunderkammer is literally translated from German as a 'room of wonder'. In English it is usually referred to as a 'Cabinet of Curiosities'. Many Wunderkammer originated in royal treasuries, where the crown jewels and items of regalia were housed with other items of value for safekeeping. However, the idea of a Wunderkammer was fully born in the sixteenth century as the princely courts of Europe became less peripatetic and as humanist philosophy spread. It was no longer enough simply to show off one's wealth; every object should also enhance the virtues of the prince. In Inscriptiones vel tituli theatre amplissimi (1565), Samuel Quiccheberg detailed the ideal formula for the Wunderkammer as including naturalia (items created by the earth and items drawn from nature), mirabilia (unusual natural phenomena), artificialia (items wrought by man), ethnographica (items from the wider world), scientifica (items that brought a great understanding of the universe) and artefacta (items relating to history).

Seeman was an artist of Dutch extraction born in London who worked for George II and Frederick, Prince of Wales, but whose output is represented in the Royal Collection by versions of just two images – official portraits of George II and Queen Caroline

Queen Caroline, consort of George II, collected in the Wunderkammer tradition (RCIN 406182) ©

Together these works would bring the wider world into the court and provide an understanding of the entire universe. It was an empirical and humanistic view of collecting that showed a prince's extensive powers over the natural world, as well as his trade links and ancestral credentials as ruler. As Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote of the Wunderkammer in the late sixteenth century:

Thus your Excellency shall have added depth of knowledge to the fineness of your spirits and greatness of your power.

Francis Bacon

The figure of the British court who embodied most closely the principles laid down by the sixteenth and seventeenth-century theorists of princely collecting was Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737), consort of George II (1683–1760). An educated and enlightened figure, Caroline had grown up in the courts of Berlin and Dresden and would have been familiar with the Wunderkammer tradition. Items in her closet rooms at Kensington Palace included a stuffed humming bird, a 'unicorn horn' (narwhal), bezoar stones (the accretions found in the stomach of a goat believed to have protective properties), an ivory box of gold dust, Turkish daggers, a portable brass sundial and cameos.

 

 

Pendant with thirteen cameos from the collection of Queen Caroline (RCIN 65256) ©

By the eighteenth century, Baconian principles of amassing the knowledge of the world were no longer at the forefront of public consciousness. It is therefore difficult to claim that George IV (1762–1830) was consciously emulating the Wunderkammer tradition.  However he was a monarch for whom craftsmanship, lavish use of materials and decorative appeal was paramount and at the time of his death in 1830, his collections included examples of mineral ores, pieces of petrified wood, speciments of agate, musical instruments, drawing equipment, snuffboxes, items of insignia, dress and jewellery.

In 1806, the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) noted that George IV (then Prince of Wales) had ordered not only vast quantities of silver plate from the royal goldsmiths, but also 'articles which can never be required to be used'. Many of the items supplied to the Prince at Carlton House by Rundell's came with a turntable and glass shade, and various articles of plate were placed on permanent show in the Gothic Dining Room, where niches were constructed for their display. Meanwhile, guests to Carlton House were offered tours of the pantries in order to see the finer works of silver and gilt.

A watercolour depicting the Gothic Dining Room at Carlton House, featuring marvellous gothic panelling and finial vaults and carving. Windows are framed by red curtains to the left, a large long table with red covered chairs is arranged in the middle of t

Charles Wild, The Gothic Dining Room at Carlton House, 1817 (RCIN 922189) ©

In the 1820s, as George IV spent increasingly long periods of time at Windsor Castle, he rapidly amassed an even greater group of items associated with the Kunstkammer – the final total being 71 cups and covers, including two nautiluses and 14 ivory cups, as well as 46 dishes and salvers, six ewers and basins, the great Shield of Achilles and other works of gilt bronze. Many of these objects are on display in the Lantern Lobby at Windsor Castle.

Click an object below to explore the opulent Kunstkammer items in the Royal Collection.

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Ewer

Nikolaus Schmidt (c. 1550/55-1609)

Nautilus cup

Lorenz Biller

Nautilus cup

Attributed to Eliseus Libaerts (active 1561-1569)

Parade shield ('The Cellini Shield')

Attributed to Hans Jacobsz Wesson (active c. 1640)

Basin

Michel Haussner (1573-c. 1638)

Bukelpokal or standing cup and cover

Attributed to David Heschler (1611-67)

Cup and cover

Attributed to Johann Gottfried Frisch (active 1689-1716)

Cup and cover

Friedrich Hillebrandt

Bukelpokal or cup and cover