Felicity Roberts

“Observation of Matters of Fact”: Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), collecting and the making of natural history

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

This project investigates natural history specimens, texts and images in the Sloane collection, a founding collection of the British Museum.

Start Date: October 2012
End Date: October 2016
Theme: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding
Research discipline: Fine and decorative arts, Museum studies
Locations: Europe
Staff member: Kim Sloan
Department: Department of Prints and Drawings
University and department: English Department, King’s College London
University supervisor: Elizabeth Eger

Why did early naturalists create classification systems?

By the late seventeenth century naturalists had discovered so many species it was hard to keep track. Naturalists needed a way of ordering that knowledge to prevent confusion.

Why might British naturalists worry then about the problems of description?

Naturalists needed to be sure that the information they were communicating was accurate: could others pick out the same plant or animal from their description or illustration?

How did Sloane’s collection shape his natural history?

Sloane was the author of a respected work of natural history and knew the major taxonomists of his day. But he also insisted a class of objects were “different Specimens, going under one general Name”.

About my research

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain, naturalists not only wanted to describe, illustrate and name the natural world and its objects, they also wanted to create classification systems which put their knowledge of natural things in order and showed relationships between species.

The historian Brian Ogilvie has called this the “age of systems”, a time when naturalists aspired to universal knowledge. But naturalists trying to classify, describe and illustrate the natural world also had to grapple with its variety, forming natural history collections, working from specimens, texts and images, piecing their knowledge together. Collections were where particular and general knowledge collided.

The physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) formed one of the largest and most significant early museums, containing a herbarium, zoological specimens, printed books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, coins, medals, antiquities and ethnographic objects. Today it is housed across the British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library.


Aloe, from Sloane album SL,5283. Daniel Frankcom, c1705-1710. Drawing, watercolour, bodycolour and graphite. 476 mm x 290 mm. BM P&D 5283.19.


Ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernua), from Sloane album SL,5219. Anonymous, c17th century. Drawing, watercolour. 124 mm x 169 mm. BM P&D 5219.123.


Bones and teeth, from Sloane album SL,5278. Nicolas Robert, c1635-1685. Drawing, watercolour and bodycolour, on vellum. 384 mm x 248 mm. BM P&D SL,5278.59.

Aims of my research

Using catalogues, drawings and manuscripts from the Sloane collection, my thesis will explore the cognitive, social and sentimental importance to British naturalists of the specimen in the age of taxonomic natural history.

One example is in Sloane’s Preface to his Natural History of Jamaica, volume one: when discussing the vocabulary available to naturalists for describing plant colour, Sloane digresses, recollecting a bramble he once saw growing through a crack in a window, whose leaves on the inside were white and tender, lacking light, but on the outside were green and healthy.

This project is one of three CDAs collectively titled Reconnecting Sloane: Texts, Images, Objects, involving supervisors and students based at the British Museum, Natural History Museum, British Library, King’s College London, and Queen Mary University of London. These CDAs aim to create interdisciplinary knowledge of Sloane’s collection as it was understood and used in his lifetime.


Conference paper, BL Add MS 5267: an ichthyological Sloane drawings album and the natural history of knowledge, British Library prints and drawings: image, evidence, history conference, British Library, Oct 2015

Conference paper, The science of describing in early eighteenth-century England, Enlightenment senses conference, King’s College London, June 2014

Gallery talk, Women in the Enlightenment Gallery, Room 1 British Museum, Dec 2014

Gallery talk, Hans Sloane’s Collection after his Voyage to Jamaica, Room 1 British Museum, Dec 2013

Co-organizer, conference, Collections In Use, King’s College London, 6 July 2015

Co-organizer, workshop, Interventions: Object Histories and the Museum, 12 Feb 2015

Book chapter, ‘“Idleness never grew in my soil”: Mary Delany’s flower collages, gender, and the moral authority of ‘nature’ in eighteenth-century England’, in Jennifer German and Heidi Strobel (eds), Materializing Gender in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Ashgate, February 2016

Co-organizer, conference, Collections In Use, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Los Angeles, September 2017