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The Greatest English Collector of the 18th Century

Rare Mezzotint of Sir Hans Sloan, executed by John Faber in 1728, from a half length portrait of Sloane painted by Thomas Murray.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane was the first Baronet PRS FRS (1660 – 1753).  Sloane was an Irish physician, naturalist and collector noted for bequeathing his collection of 71,000 items to the British nation, thus providing the foundation of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum.

Sloane was elected to the Royal Society at the age of 24. He traveled to the Caribbean in 1687 and documented his travels and findings with extensive publishings years later. Sloane was a renowned medical doctor among the aristocracy and was elected to the Royal College of Physicians by age 27.

Sloane's fame is based on his well-placed investments rather than what he contributed to the subject of natural science or even of his own profession. During his life, Sloane was a correspondent of the French Académie Royale des Sciences and was named foreign associate in 1709, in addition to being a foreign member of the academies of science in Prussia, St. Petersburg, Madrid and Göttingen. His purchase of the manor of Chelsea, London, in 1712, provided the grounds for the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Over his lifetime, Sloane collected over 71,000 objects: books, manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals, plant specimens and others. His great stroke as a collector was to acquire in 1702 (by bequest, conditional on paying of certain debts) the cabinet of curiosities owned by William Courten.

When Sloane retired in 1741, his library and cabinet of curiosities, which he took with him from Bloomsbury to his house in Chelsea, had grown to be of unique value. He had acquired the extensive natural history collections of William Courten, Cardinal Filippo Antonio Gualterio, James Petiver, Nehemiah Grew, Leonard Plukenet, the Duchess of Beaufort, the rev. Adam Buddle, Paul Hermann, Franz Kiggelaer and Herman Boerhaave.

On his death he bequeathed his books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, flora, fauna, medals, coins, seals, cameos and other curiosities to the nation, on condition that parliament should pay his executors £20,000, far less than the value of the collection, estimated at £80,000 or greater by some sources and at over £50,000 by others.  The bequest was accepted on those terms by an act passed the same year, and the collection, together with George II's royal library, and other objects. A significant proportion of this collection was later to become the foundation for the Natural History Museum. 

Smith, British Mezzotints #329.