Hiding in Plain Sight: A Tale of Two Cabinets

This month our Honorary Curator of Artefacts Glenn Benson FLS continues his series of articles on the artefacts that are on display in the Society’s rooms at New Burlington House and, due to their familiarity may go unnoticed.

Published on 4th June 2024

"If the names are unknown, knowledge of the things also perishes..."

Carl Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica (1751)

Two historic cabinets stand practically shoulder to shoulder in the foyer of the Society; known as “Herbie” and the "Silver Cabinet”, they both have tales to tell.

"Herbie”: a working piece of furniture

A black and white photograph of a large wardrobe-like cabinet filled with books either side and, in the central space, three inner cabinets holding paper folders filled with pressed plants
1. “The herbarium, “carefully secured against London smoke and dust by specially devised envelopes”, remained in the green painted cabinets in which they arrived from Sweden until 1915…” – Linnaeus and his Collections, James Britten. [Image: 1907, LSL]

A plain, wooden cabinet (affectionately known as “Herbie”) was one of three similar wooden cabinets designed by Carl Linnaeus to house his looseleaf herbarium sheets according to his taxonomic system of 24 classes of plants.

When James Edward Smith, founder of the Linnean Society of London, bought Linnaeus’s collections of manuscripts, letters, index cards, books, minerals, dried fishes and reptiles, and transfixed insects, the collection included three cabinets stacked with sheets of paper and each sheet displayed a dried plant with annotations.

This was Linnaeus’ herbarium, and the cabinets contained around 14,000 specimens. The Linnaean collections are now held in a climate controlled room within the Society and, in 1938, two of the three wooden cabinets were returned to Hammarby in Sweden, the home of Linnaeus.

“The Herbarium is contained in three upright narrow cabinets formerly belonging to Linnaeus, and in which it has remained up to the present time…”

Linnean Society Council Minutes, 21st of May 1836

“Herbie”, restored and protected

"Herbie" was restored in 2016 by Bainbridge Conservation thanks to the generosity of many Fellows, and formally unveiled in July 2018 as part of the celebrations to mark the retirement from the Society of the late Gren Lucas OBE, BSc, FLS, FRGS (1935-2022). External funding was secured for the purchase of a display case to hold the restored cabinet in the entrance of the Society’s rooms.

Discoveries made during restoration of “Herbie”

“…the herbarium in its three original green-painted cabinets in which Linnaeus kept his plants, as far as possible in the same state as at the death of the younger Linné.”

Proceedings of the Linnean Society, session 1875-1890

One of the inner cabinets from the previous image, tall and thin with spaces for papers full of pressed plants
2. Part way through restoration the ghosts of missing shelves can be seen on the insides of the doors. [Image: Bainbridge Conservation.]

Analysis of the cabinet’s painted surfaces confirmed that the exterior was painted green (now oxidised to black), and the interiors of the two doors are red on a grey base.

Close inspection of the cabinet showed that there have been several adaptations to the original layout of the shelves. There are grooves on either side and the central divider for sixteen shelves which stop approximately 12mm from the front and back. The shelves are approximately 8mm thick and would have been fitted in these grooves at the time of construction. Importantly, this construction detail would suggest that these shelves were not designed to be removed.

Some of the shelves have been cut out (the stubs of the shelves are still visible in the grooves) and the back of the cabinet was altered after the shelves were removed. The back was removed, and strips of wood were attached, extending the depth of the cabinet by approximately 13mm, and the shelves were re-fitted using thin wooden battens which are glued to the sides.

In addition, three styles of paper-based printed shelf numbering systems were identified.

“The Herbarium ... is in perfect preservation, and only needs the addition of numbers to the shelves for the convenience of reference.”

Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London February 1887

It is not unusual for old pieces of furniture to have been adapted over their lifetime, indeed it is to be expected, and a piece of “antique furniture” without these signs of a life well lived is to be viewed with suspicion. Who, when and why these alterations to “Herbie” were made we may never know. With our modern eyes we might see these past alterations as vandalism, but to those who came before us this was a working pieces of furniture designed to hold the gathered knowledge of the Linnaean herbarium, and not relics of Linnaeus himself. Today “Herbie” now stands as an emblem to Linnaeus and his thinking and is used to teach Linnaean taxonomy to those who visit the Society.

The “Silver Cabinet”: a cabinet of curios

Herbie’s neighbour in the foyer could not be more physically different. The “Silver Cabinet”, as it is known, is a late 19th-century ebonised, veneered display case, with incised gilded decorations, Eygptian influenced columns and technically impressive panes of curved glass, the function of which was to display a personal collection of “curios”.

A dark wooden, oval shaped cabinet. It is about one and a half meters across with a curved glass case at the top. The front two doors in the base have been covered with red tissue paper on the inside and small items of crockery and medals can be seen under the glass top.
3. The “Silver Cabinet” today in the foyer of the Society’s rooms at New Burlington House. Image the author.

The name “Silver Cabinet” implies a cupboard full of sporting trophies, or silver adornments and cutlery for a fine dining table worthy of Bridgerton or Downton Abbey, but in this case to know the name of something is misleading. The name “Silver” here reflects the cabinet’s past owner the businessman, collector, and naturalist Stephen William Silver (1817-1905), who was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1874.

Black and white photograph of S. W. Silver in dark wood frame
4. Portrait of S.W. Silver [Reproduced with permission from The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia Inc.]

Stephen Silver was a very successful businessman - for a fuller account of all his enterprising endeavours I would recommend Grace’s Guide To British Industrial History.

At his death in 1905 Stephen Silver left an estate of £83,462, a large library and an extensive collection of “specimens of the various productions of the Earth”.

His collection included specimens of the birds of New Zealand, “one of the most perfect in this country”, which were catalogued by Sir Walter Lawry Buller FLS (1838-1906). The collection of birds is now in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Handwritten letter detailing the delivery of the "glass curios-case" to the Linnean Society
5. Letter to Linnean Society detailing delivery of the "glass curios-case". [DA/COL/2/1/3, item 16]

Silver had a residence at York Gate at the entrance to London’s Regent’s Park. On his death his extensive library of c.7,000 volumes was bought by the South Australia branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia and moved to Adelaide where it is housed in the State Library of South Australia and known as the ‘York Gate Library’.

The Library of the Linnean Society of London holds three books written by Stephen William Silver his ‘Handbook for Australia and New Zealand (1874), ‘Handbook to South Africa’ (1876) and ‘Handbook to the Transvaal’ (1877).

Black and white photograph of detailing in the Sant portrait of the admission of women to the Linnean Society. Shows two women in the background, and man standing in front of them watching as a third women signs the roll of Fellows
6. Detail of the James Sant RA portrait showing the admission of women to the Linnean Society. Miss Silver is at the back, on the right. [DA/COL/6/14: Image author]

In 1908 Stephen William Silver’s daughter, Sarah Marianne Silver FLS (later Mrs Sinclair) (1879-1920), bequeathed her late father’s “curios case” and natural history collections to the Linnean Society with the instruction that they may be distributed to anyone who would appreciate them.

Sarah Silver was among the first women to be admitted as a Fellow of the Society on 19 January 1905, a moment in the Society’s history that is captured in the 1906 oil painting by James Sant RA that hangs on the wall a couple of floors above the cabinet.

Unfortunately, very little is known about Sarah Silver, something we would like to rectify, so please do get in touch if you can add to our knowledge of her life and work.

What we do have is some idea of what she looked like from her depiction in Sant’s painting. (See Figure 6)

“Our vision is a world where nature is understood, valued and protected”

Linnean Society Strategy

This tale of two cabinets shows that they may have more in common than one might think. Both were created for the purpose of holding material that would help their owners better understand the natural world, which is just as relevant today. A world where nature is understood is hopefully a world where it is properly valued and protected.

Photo showing detailed carving on the silver cabinet
6, Decoration detail on the “Silver Cabinet”, an incised arabesque, the inspiration for which are the tendrils of climbing plants. Areas of the cabinet were ebonised, a technique where an underwood was stained or dyed to make it resemble Ebony (Diospyros ebenum).
closeup of the carved leaf patterns on the silver cabinet
7. Detail of the Silver Cabinet, with incised gilded stylised leaf forms.

Glenn Benson FLS, Curator of Artefacts

Acknowledgments

Thanks go to Rich Boden FLS, Vannessa Giles, The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, and the Collections Team at the Linnean Society.

Linnaeus' herbarium cabinet: a piece of furniture and its function - ScienceDirect

‘Herbarium – the Quest to Preserve & Classify the World’s Plants’ – Barabara M. Thiers

Bainbridge Conservation: https://www.bainbridgeconservation.com/aboutus

York Gate Library: https://rgssa.org.au/heritage/treasures/catalogue-of-the-york-gate-library-1882-and-2nd-edition-1886

Not Silver But Gold: S.W. Silver and the York Gate Library: https://search.informit.org/doi/pdf/10.3316/ielapa.200608503

Linnean Society Domestic Archive sources:

DA/COL/2/1/3 – donation of the Silver cabinet and distribution of Stephen Silver's collections

DA/COL/6/14 – James Sant painting and the admission of the first female fellows

DA/COL/3/9 – material relating to the Linnaean herbarium cabinet