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Wunderkammer: Cabinet of Curiosities

Bringing the wider world to a princely court

Frans Francken the Younger was the most famous of an Antwerp dynasty of painters; he trained with his father, Frans the Elder (1542-1616), and joined the Antwerp guild in 1605. He was a painter of religious and historical subjects as well as being the inv
The Cabinet of a Collector ©

Wunderkammer is literally translated from German as a 'room of wonder'. In English it is usually referred to as a 'Cabinet of Curiosities'. Many Wunderkammer originated in royal treasuries, where the crown jewels and items of regalia were housed with other items of value for safekeeping. However, the idea of a Wunderkammer was fully born in the sixteenth century as the princely courts of Europe became less peripatetic and as humanist philosophy spread. It was no longer enough simply to show off one's wealth; every object should also enhance the virtues of the prince. In Inscriptiones vel tituli theatre amplissimi (1565), Samuel Quiccheberg detailed the ideal formula for the Wunderkammer as including naturalia (items created by the earth and items drawn from nature), mirabilia (unusual natural phenomena), artificialia (items wrought by man), ethnographica (items from the wider world), scientifica (items that brought a great understanding of the universe) and artefacta (items relating to history).

Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737)©

Together these works would bring the wider world into the court and provide an understanding of the entire universe. It was an empirical and humanistic view of collecting that showed a prince's extensive powers over the natural world, as well as his trade links and ancestral credentials as ruler. As Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote of the Wunderkammer in the late sixteenth century:

Thus your Excellency shall have added depth of knowledge to the fineness of your spirits and greatness of your power.

Francis Bacon

The figure of the British court who embodied most closely the principles laid down by the sixteenth and seventeenth-century theorists of princely collecting was Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737), consort of George II (1683–1760). An educated and enlightened figure, Caroline had grown up in the courts of Berlin and Dresden and would have been familiar with the Wunderkammer tradition. Items in her closet rooms at Kensington Palace included a stuffed humming bird, a 'unicorn horn' (narwhal), bezoar stones (the accretions found in the stomach of a goat believed to have protective properties), an ivory box of gold dust, Turkish daggers, a portable brass sundial and cameos.



Pendant with thirteen cameos©

By the eighteenth century, Baconian principles of amassing the knowledge of the world were no longer at the forefront of public consciousness. It is therefore difficult to claim that George IV (1762–1830) was consciously emulating the Wunderkammer tradition.  However he was a monarch for whom craftsmanship, lavish use of materials and decorative appeal was paramount and at the time of his death in 1830, his collections included examples of mineral ores, pieces of petrified wood, speciments of agate, musical instruments, drawing equipment, snuffboxes, items of insignia, dress and jewellery.

In 1806, the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) noted that George IV (then Prince of Wales) had ordered not only vast quantities of silver plate from the royal goldsmiths, but also 'articles which can never be required to be used'. Many of the items supplied to the Prince at Carlton House by Rundell's came with a turntable and glass shade, and various articles of plate were placed on permanent show in the Gothic Dining Room, where niches were constructed for their display. Meanwhile, guests to Carlton House were offered tours of the pantries in order to see the finer works of silver and gilt.

Carlton House: The Gothic Dining Room, 1817©

In the 1820s, as George IV spent increasingly long periods of time at Windsor Castle, he rapidly amassed an even greater group of items associated with the Kunstkammer – the final total being 71 cups and covers, including two nautiluses and 14 ivory cups, as well as 46 dishes and salvers, six ewers and basins, the great Shield of Achilles and other works of gilt bronze. Many of these objects are on display in the Lantern Lobby at Windsor Castle.

Click an object below to explore the opulent Kunstkammer items in the Royal Collection.

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.