An Exceptional Straw Work Diorama of an Owl and Kingfisher, Almost Certainly by the Mysterious “Miss Gregg(e)” and Part of the Collection in the Leverian Museum

20th December 2023

This remarkable work of art consists of straw-work figures of a kingfisher and an owl clutching a mouse in its claw, sat upon tree stumps and foliage also made of straw. The background has been painted to depict a river gorge with the ruins of a castle or church at the top of a cliff and a finely-rendered sunset, bathing the piece with atmospheric light.

Straw-work dioramas of this sort are very rare objects but, thanks to an example previously owned by the great furniture dealers Norman Adams and sold in their retirement sale at Sotheby’s in 2009 which is inscribed on the back, it is possible to make a very convincing attribution to the artist Miss Gregg(e). The Norman Adams diorama contains three straw birds and Sotheby’s noted at the time that all of the birds depicted seemed to be American species. This is interesting as, unfortunately, nothing has come to light regarding the identity of Miss Gregg(e).

If the identity of the artist remains mysterious, we are delighted to have made some exciting discoveries relating to the likely provenance for these pieces. An article published in the 1773 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine contains a letter by a visitor to Sir Ashton Lever’s museum, at that stage housed in his stately home Alkrington Hall near Manchester. The author of the letter had visited the museum in 1772 and set forth a detailed account of what he or she had seen on their visit and amongst the multitude of ethnographic objects and specimens of natural history were ‘A few pictures of birds in straw, very natural, by Miss Gregg’ and a ‘curious basket of flowers’ made from cut paper by ‘Mrs Groves’.

The paper basket by Mrs Groves plays a crucial role going forward as it appears to be identifiable in a wonderful print showing the interior of the Leverian Museum as it was known  in 1786 when it had been moved to London. The print shows what must surely be that basket in the left foreground. On the right of the same image is a box frame attached to wall underneath the arched entrance and this is quite possibly one of Miss Gregg(e)’s dioramas.

Sir Ashton Lever was forced to sell his museum in 1784, choosing to dispose of it by lottery. It was run by the new owner until 1806 when the collection was dispersed in an auction that lasted over 30 days. Lot 1578 in the sale, on the 14th day, was  ‘Remarkably beautiful representation of a landscape and birds, executed in straw, by Miss Gregge, framed and glazed’. There are no other pieces by Gregge or other straw-work pictures in the sale but it has been suggested by academics researching other pieces in the sale that sometimes items were lotted together and only one described. Alternatively, some of Miss Gregg(e)’s work may already have been sold before this point.

The Importance of the Leverian Museum

The roots of Sir Ashton Lever’s museum lay in his own private passion for collecting in the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities which became all the more significant during the great scientific advances of the Enlightenment. Lever started with a collection of shells in the 1760s, swiftly expanding to birds, both stuffed and live. He seems to have first exhibited parts of his collection in 1766 at the King’s Arms Inn in Manchester when some of his taxidermy was put on view. Like most collectors of the period, Lever tried to balance his wish for the collection to be seen and admired against the “horrors” of exposing it to the “common sort” of people. After expanding his home to a large extent purely to house the collection (it is rumoured to have taken up the entire front wing of his home by the early 1770s) he became tired of ‘the insolence of the common people whom I have hitherto indulged with a sight of my museum, I am now come to the resolution of refusing admittance to the lower classes, except they come provided with a ticket from some gentleman or lady of my acquaintance’. Shortly after this, he decided to hire premises in Leicester Square in London and transfer the museum there, opening it on a fee-paying basis with the hopes that the museum would pay for itself and he could continue collecting.

An extraordinary watercolour in the British Museum shows the interiors of some of the natural history galleries at this time.

Lever’s museum was quickly established as one of the major tourist attractions of the time but received mixed reviews from the scientific establishment, some of whom felt that the museum was not rigorously categorised in the manner in which it should have been. There can be no doubt whatsoever about the importance of the collections contained there however. The collection was at one stage valued at £53,000-a fortune at the time. Captain James Cook was so impressed by the museum and its ethnographic holdings that he agreed to the display of objects he acquired on his second and third voyages there. The dispersal of the collections of the Leverian could have been avoided as the contents were offered to the British Museum for ‘a  nominal fee’ but sadly this did not happen. Our wonderful diorama is a little window in to the obsessions of a great collector and, more widely, the Enlightenment thinking in Europe in the 18thcentury and the nature and changing state of museum collections at the time.

Further Reading 

A ‘Natural’ Exhibitioner: Sir Ashton Lever and his Holosphusikon by Clare Haynes

New Evidence for the Contents of the Leverian Museum Journal of the History of Collections, Volume 8, Issue 2, 1996, Pages 167–186 by J. C. H. King

The Leverian Museum by Dorothy Goresky

View Further Information here

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