- Museum number
Staircase of the old British Museum in Montagu House; interior, with figures on stairs, and others on landing looking at three stuffed giraffes and a rhinoceros, beyond at right doorway leading into a room with display cases. 1845
- Production date
Height: 242 millimetres
Width: 288 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Catalogue entry from J.Kierkuc-Bielinski, 'George Scharf', exh. Soane Museum, 2009 (no. 34):
Although founded in 1753 as the world’s first public museum, the British Museum for a long time resisted allowing the general public in to view its collections of antiquities, books and also, at that time, naturalia. This policy changed when the liberal and reformist Whig party came into power in 1832. Under influence of such lobby groups as the Useful Knowledge Society museum going in the nineteenth century became a popular pastime as collections became accessible to the middle class, and even working class, public – if they were correctly attired! By the 1840s and people flocked to see the British Museum’s collections. So much so that on one occasion Scharf was forced to complain in his journal: ‘35,000 persons are said to have visited the British Museum this Whit Monday. I felt very much annoyed by the noise of so many people going continually in and out, talking etc. whilst I drew there’. This drawing, one of Scharf’s more well-known works, forms part of a series he undertook in the 1840s (see also 1862,0614.626) recording the exterior and interiors of Old Montagu House which housed the collections of the British Museum and which stood on the site of the present Museum. It had been built in the seventeenth century for Robert Hooke, First Duke of Montagu, and the Ambassador of Charles II to France. As a result, the interiors showed a marked French taste and much of this earlier, beautiful decoration survived in the rooms that were adapted to house the collections of the British Museum, such as the main staircase, which Scharf has shown here. The stuffed giraffes are shown beneath a painted ceiling; the illusionistic balustrade with putti is clearly visible. Further putti adorn the pediments above the doorways leading off the landing. The German Prince Pückler-Muskau compared the two animals to ‘stuffed guards’ and declared them to be ‘…emblems of English taste…’. Scharf chose to document old Montagu House as it was being pulled down in order for the present edifice by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) to replace it. He records finishing this drawing on the 14 August 1845. He also records that he took a number of fragments from the staircase as it was being demolished later in the year. Scarf had several links with the British Museum. He was employed by them to draw and colour casts of fossils in their collection. He also visited the Department of Prints and Drawings whilst his son, George, was put to sketching the collections of antiquities. Scharf the Younger would himself work for the British Museum. He travelled to the near east on an archaeological expedition which resulted in the transportation to the British Museum of many ancient artefacts and even monuments such as the so-called Lycian ‘Tomb of the Harpies’.
Selected literature: R.D. Altick, 'The Shows of London: A Panoramic History of Exhibitions, 1600-1862', London and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978; P. Jackson, ‘George Scharf’s London: Sketches and Watercolours of a Changing City. 1820-50’, London, 1987.
1826 Prince Puckler-Muskau, visited "the British Museum where a strange 'Misch-masch' of works of art, natural curiosities, books, and models, are preserved in a miserable building. At the top of the staircase, as you enter, stand two enormous giraffes, in the character of stuffed guards, or emblems of English taste."
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1977/8 Dec-Feb, BM, Animals in Art (ex cat.)
1979 Feb-Mar, London, Camden Arts Centre, Camden, no. 16
1983/4 Oct-Jan, London, RCA, Albert, His Life and Work, (ex cat.)
1992 Jun-Nov, Essen, Villa Hugel, London 1800-38, no, 377a
2009 Mar-Jun, London, Sir John Soane Museum, George Scharf
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number