Eloise Donnelly

Collecting Renaissance decorative arts and the making of the modern museum 1850 - 1900

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Researching medieval and Renaissance decorative arts collecting in Britain 1850-1900 and the formation of museum collections.

Start Date: October 2015
End Date: September 2018
Theme: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding


What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors
Research discipline: Fine and decorative arts
Locations: Europe
Staff member: Dora Thornton
Department: Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory
University and department: Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
University supervisor: Peter Mandler

What factors generated the renewed interest in medieval and Renaissance objects 1850-1900?

The project will research the social and economic factors behind the boom in Renaissance decorative art collection at this time.

How did key curators and collectors inform scholarship through display and exhibitions?

The influence of collectors, curators, dealers and key exhibitions will be explored.

What was the impact of this type of collecting on the art market and the making of the modern museum?

The study will investigate how demand stimulated faking and forgery of medieval and Renaissance objects, and how the shift in taste influenced museum collecting policies.

About my research

During the second half of the Nineteenth Century there was a boom in the collecting and displaying of medieval and Renaissance art objects in Britain.

Stimulated by a series of major exhibitions of decorative arts, collectors began to compete with each other to secure the most prized objects for their collections. This new demand gave rise to an inflated, risky market where fakes and forgeries circulated with authentic pieces amongst dealers and sale rooms.

Institutions such as the British Museum were also striving to acquire important pieces. Often finding themselves priced out of the market, they encouraged wealthy buyers and connoisseurs to leave their collections to the nation, resulting in a number of major bequests to pubic museums.

This project will research these networks of collectors, dealers and curators to consider how they contributed to the formation of Renaissance decorative art collections in the British Museum and beyond.


Vase, Patanazzi Family (workshop of), Urbino, 1580 – 1590 with the addition of a 19th Century foot; WB.62


Mirror, Susanne de Court, Limoges, c.1600, WB. 46


Oval locket, 1610-20, England, WB. 170.

Aims of my research

The project aims to provide, for the first time, a detailed study of the collecting networks of medieval and renaissance decorative arts in the UK during the second half of the nineteenth century, examining how these relationships impacted upon the formation of museum collections.

The research will focus on the influence of exhibitions, dealers, collectors and key objects.