- Also known as
primary name: Christy, Henry
- individual; collector; academic/intellectual; British; Male
- Life dates
- 103 Victoria Street, London SW (Henry Christy's museum)
- This biography falls into two parts. The first is devoted to Henry Christy himself (1810-1865) and the collection that he himself formed. The second is devoted to the years after his death, and the development of what became known as the ‘Christy Collection’, which included numerous additions - so many that today Henry Christy’s own collection forms a small part of what is now called the ‘Christy Collection’.
1. Henry Christy
A Quaker businessman whose wealth came from manufacturing hats and cotton goods, as well as investments in stocks and property. As a young man, Christy took an interest in botany through the influence of his brother and was advised by his friend William Hooker, later Director of Kew Gardens, on how to collect and record botanical specimens. He later applied these skills to the collecting of ethnnographic and archaeological specimens. As a Quaker he was concerned about the abolition of slavery and the protection of aboriginal peoples in British colonies: he was a member of the Aborigines’ Protection Society.
He began to travel abroad in 1850, when he went to the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, Egypt and north Africa. It was on this expedition that he acquired Cypriot antiquities that he gave to the British Museum on his return (1852,0609.1 to 88). This was the first major group of non-numismatic objects of Cypriot origin acquired by the Museum. He made other gifts directly to the BM during his lifetime as well as many botanical specimens to Kew.
The eastern Mediterranean trip provided a new business venture. During his stay in Turkey he discovered loop pile towelling, and brought a sample back to England where machinery was invented to manufacture it in the family cotton mill in Stockport. The exhibition of the new product at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851 not only furthered his business, but also enabled him to see exhibits from around the world. This fired his interest in travelling. In 1852 and in 1853 he went to Scandinavia, and in 1856-7 spent a year on an intrepid expedition to America, Cuba, and Mexico. During these expeditions he collected and purchased thousands of objects, both natural history and local ethnography, and he also bought much on the market in England.
In 1860 he visited the Somme valley, where the association of stone tools with the remains of extinct animals had implied a much greater length of human antiquity than had been allowed by traditional estimates. This gave a new dimension to his interest in mankind, and fascinated by how this related to Darwin's theory of human evolution, he supported the eminent French palaeontologist Edouard Lartet (q.v.) and financed his excavation of a number of important sites in the Vézère valley around Les Eyzies in the Dordogne in 1862-3. It was in a French cave that he contracted the pneumonia that killed him in May 1865 at the age of 55. Christy was elected to the Royal Society in 1865, but did not live to take his place there. He was also a Fellow of the Geological Society and of the Linnean Society.
Christy arranged his collection to illuminate prehistoric cultures by their parallel with contemporary non-European cultures. The original biography in the DNB concluded, ‘The work of Christy's life has been well summed up as “establishing the close resemblance between the last races of primitive man and the savage life of our own time, and in showing that humanity has in its incipient stage exhibited a singular harmony of expression, not only in its habits and wants, but in the fashioning and ornamentation of its weapons and utensils, quite irrespective of zone and climate”.’
He took advice on how to organise his collection from the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen, and employed his pupil Carl Ludvig Steinhauer to catalogue what was on show to visitors in a room in his apartment in a small guide in 1862. With this exception, his collection was not catalogued or published in his lifetime.
2. The Christy collection (by Antony Griffiths, incorporating the work of Marjorie Caygill)
Christy wanted his collection to come to the British Museum, but knew that there were many potential problems. To manage these he bequeathed his collection to four Trustees, Dr J D Hooker (of Kew), Daniel Hanbury, Sir John Lubbock (the great prehistorian) and A W Franks (of the British Museum), all close friends, of whom Franks became the main organiser and curator of the collection. They offered the bulk of his collection to the Trustees of the British Museum, who accepted it in principle in December 1865. But there was no space in the BM building at Bloomsbury, so the gift remained at Christy’s house at 103 Victoria Street, Westminster, where it was opened to the public on Fridays every week by ticket issued in the BM. It was only after the removal of the natural history collections to South Kensington that space became available in the BM, and the collection was moved to Bloomsbury in 1883.
Certain conditions were attached to the gift by the Christy Trustees, among them the compilation of a catalogue (which never in fact appeared) and a proper display. If these conditions were not met, the Trustees retained the right to withdraw the collection. Christy objects were therefore not incorporated into the BM registration system. Another consequence was that the Christy Trustees were able to make considerable gifts to and exchanges of objects with museums and collectors in the UK and on the Continent. For example some 425 antiquities (Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot and Roman) were given to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in 1874.
The collection also grew by soliciting numerous gifts to the collection (69 donors are already listed in the 1868 catalogue). These additions started in 1866, when large gifts-transfers were made to the BM from Franks’s friend William Hooker in Kew. Large acquisitions were made at the 1867 International Exhibition in Paris, and in 1866-8 exchanges were made with the United Service Museum. The Trustees could also use £5000 in cash which Christy had bequeathed for the maintenance of his collection: this fund (known as the Christy Fund [qv]) was controlled by the Christy Trustees [qv], not by the BM Trustees. They used it from 1866 onwards to purchase important individual objects or collections, which were then added to and combined with Christy’s own collection.
This process created a new ‘Christy Collection’ (here distinguished by using a capital C), and the term as now used in the BM applies to both the foundation collection made by Henry Christy, and to everything added to it in later years. Between 1866 and 1884 most BM acquisitions of prehistoric and ethnographic material were added to the Christy Collection (and were registered with Christy numbers) and not to the BM collection. The use of BM register numbers only picked up in 1884, after the Christy material had finished arriving in the BM. Hence the great majority of objects today in the Christy Collection never belonged to Christy himself.
The cataloguing of the Christy Collection presented a major problem. Christy had never catalogued his collection apart from in Steinhauer’s booklet of 1862 (see above). So the work had to start from the beginning, and the archaeological and ethnographic material was divided into two separate series as had been done in Steinhauer’s booklet.
The Ethnographic collection was tackled by Franks who got his clerk T K Gay (and from mid-1872 C H Read) to create a catalogue on rectangular slips of blue paper (these are now known as the ‘Christy slips’), to which a draughtsman (also paid by Franks) added drawings and redrew drawings that he regarded as inadequate (this can be seen on some slips of 1891 acquisitions).
The numbering in the first place depended on Steinhauer, and the objects in his booklet were numbered in the margin from 1 to 917. To these similar objects were added as A,B,C etc (the lower case letters a, b,c, being used for part numbers). Thus most of the Mexican collection has numbers such as Am,St.627 or Am,St.670A . But for the Oceanic and African series, Steinhauer numbering could not serve, and a new series of Christy numbers was created with slips numbered from 1 onwards.
The order adopted for the Christy number sequence was based on expediency, but initially clustered objects of the same type together, regardless of country of origin. As the collection was sorted and order began to emerge, the logic was reversed, and blocks were arranged geographically and then sub-divided by type. The number sequence therefore bears no relationship to Christy’s own order of acquisition, and as new objects were given to or purchased for the Christy Collection in 1866-7, they were incorporated into the same numbering sequence. Hence Christy’s founding collection and its later additions became and remain inextricably combined (though not confused).
The provenance of objects that Christy himself had acquired was often not known, though future research may answer some of the questions. But it was recorded on the slips for all the objects acquired after 1865. Hence it can reasonably be assumed (and has been assumed in the revision of the cataloguing of the African series) that any object in the Christy Collection without a recorded post-1865 provenance had been part of Christy’s own collection. Objects from Christy’s own collection are hardly found after number 4350, and, with a few exceptions, everything with a higher number is a post-July 1867 addition made to the Christy Collection, the sequence more or less following the date of acquisition. The Christy Collection series numbering goes up to 9999, and then starts again from 1 but with a + prefix added (eg +1234). The highest number used was +8691. This was allotted in 1892, and from 1894 onwards the accessions to the Christy Collection were given numbers in a new date form, which translates on the database as a year, a dash and a number, eg. 1894,-.230 (the final number being a continuous sequence that continues throughout the year). Christy numbers ceased to be used after 1939 when the new numbering sequence began, in which the ethnographical registers were divided between the continents, creating new series distinguished by Af, Am, As, Eu or Oc prefixes (plus Un for ‘Uncertain’).
The collections themselves were physically divided in the same way, and all the existing register numbers (both Christy Collection and BM numbers) were assigned the appropriate prefixes. To find a Christy number on the online database today, a prefix needs to be added using the formulae Af.2666, or Oc,+.3456, or As1894,-.230. For a BM date number the formula is Af1938,0608.159, adding a leading zero where necessary.
The prehistoric material was described on the same type of slip as the ethnographic, but was assigned prefixes based on the findspot in order to keep assemblages together. These have been bound together, and serve as the register numbers today. This section of the Christy collection was physically divided into two on the creation of the Prehistory sub-department: all the stone age material (mostly flints) became part of Prehistory (and is now in the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory); the man-made archaeological material (mainly pottery sherds) has been divided between that Department and what is now the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, depending on where it was found.
- Henry Christy, Catalogue of a Collection of Ancient and Modern Stone Implements and Other Weapons, Tools, and Utensils of the Aborigines of Various Countries in the Possession of Henry Christy, London: 1862, for private distribution
British Museum (prepared by A.W. Franks), Guide to the Christy Collection of Prehistoric Antiquities and Ethnography, London 1868
David Wilson, The British Museum, a history, 2002, pp.158-61
Cook J 2012, 'In pursuit of the human race. Henry Christy and Mexico', in J C H King, et al. (eds), Turquoise in Mexico and North America (London: British Museum)
Kiely T 2010, 'Charles Newton and the archaeology of Cyprus', CCEC 40
King J C H 1997, 'Franks and Ethnography', in M Caygill and J Cherry (eds), A W Franks (London: British Museum Publications, 1997)
Ulbrich A 2011, 'Unpublished sculptures from ancient Idalion. The earliest provenanced find-assemblage in the Ashmolean Cypriot collection', CCEC 41, 183-210