Collecting and Display Research Seminar


4 June 2018, 6 pm


Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street


Elsje van Kessel


Ships, Inventories and Asian Goods in Europe c.1600


This paper asks what knowledge of early modern ships and their cargos can contribute to the history of collecting. In what sense can we describe a ship laden with objects as a collection, and what are the possible benefits of such an approach? These questions derive from my project Stolen Ships and Globalisation: Asian Material Culture in Europe c. 1600. The period around 1600 was a tipping point in the history of early modern globalisation: the Portuguese empire reached its zenith around this time, and the Dutch Republic and England were just beginning to take over Portuguese-Asian sea routes and trading posts. My project studies the successes and failures of early modern globalisation against this background through a focus on art objects and their interaction with human beings and ideas. Central to the research are the analysis of the seizures of Portuguese cargo ships by the English and the Dutch and the aftermath of these events. The project reconstructs the cargos of these ships and responses they evoked.


This paper will look in particular at a range of textual sources from the archive, such as bills of lading and inventories of stolen goods. These record the types of objects on board: apart from spices, Chinese, Japanese and Indian (art) objects like precious stones, jewellery, silks, porcelain, lacquer, and furniture. As this paper will show, they also shed light on the ways people and objects related, and how the meanings of objects changed in the course of their trajectories. While objects’ journeys at sea usually remain an implicit assumption, an essential yet unstudied phase in the life of a collectible, here they take centre stage.


Elsje van Kessel is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews. She completed her Ph.D. at Leiden University, the Netherlands, in 2011, and held an annual stipend at the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris before moving to Scotland. She is the author of The Lives of Paintings: Presence, Agency and Likeness in Venetian Art of the Sixteenth-Century (De Gruyter, 2017). Elsje has received numerous fellowships, grants and awards: among others, grants from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum, and, most recently, a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.


Elsje’s research is broadly concerned with the viewing, use and display of art in early modern Europe. Ongoing research focuses on the art of display in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Venice, Paris, and Lisbon. Her major current research project, from which the present paper is drawn, looks at the circulation of Asian material culture between Portugal, England and Holland c. 1600. Further research and teaching interests include portraiture, early modern art theory, early museums, the visual arts in literature, and theories of presence and the agency of things.


All are welcome!


Susan Bracken    Andrea M. Gáldy   Adriana Turpin




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