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The Harleys as Collectors

Frances Harris (notes)


To understand the nature and origins of the Harleian collection it is necessary to go back well beyond the date usually given for its foundation (the early 18th century), beyond the first evidence of Robert Harley’s collecting in the 1680s, to the time of his father and even his grandparents; for it was from them that he derived a strong sense of his puritan heritage and of the role of his family in maintaining and defending its parliamentary institutions. His acquisition under Queen Anne of the collections of a notable succession of parliamentarians, Protestant champions, historians, heralds and antiquaries is in keeping with these inherited priorities, and for Harley, by this time a distinguished and learned Speaker of the House of Commons, the collection which he kept at his house in York Buildings off the Strand was also a working one. Further motives for collection-building were status, particularly in competition with Whig magnates and political opponents such as Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and, especially as the main responsibility passed to Humfrey Wanley and Robert Harley’s son Edward, the establishment of the major public collection which London so conspicuously lacked.

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