16 NOVEMBER 2002, Page 60

Skeletons of mermaids . . .

Patrick Skene Caning

CABINETS OF CURIOSITIES by Patrick Mauries Thames & Hudson, £39.95, pp. 256, ISBN 050510911 Private collections of miscellaneous oddities, valuable works of art and all sorts of objects, animal, vegetable and mineral, of little if any apparent intrinsic value, are collectors' emblems of the world in miniature, microcosmic claims to the whole macrocosm. This splendid book, elegantly analytical and lavishly illustrated, makes the collectors' obsession understandable to the point of envy.

How convenient it would be if all possible books could be comprehended in that hypothetical single Borgesian volume, and how gratifying it would be to own it. The truly dedicated proprietors of cabinets of curiosities seemed to aspire to nothing less, as Patrick Mauries demonstrates with fond sympathy. For them, the specimens secreted in boxes and drawers or displayed on the shelves of their open showcases epitomised universal chaos brought to order. Mauries in person manifests the collecting instinct, revealing himself in his own work as a great collector of collections.

His book offers insights into certain psychologists' theory that

the basic impulse that drives all collectors [is] the need to see reflected in the objects of their collections an exhilarating, narcissistic projection of their own self-image.

What wonderful self-images some of them must have been! Mauries photographically allows access to curiosities gathered by outstanding collectors from the 16th century to modern times, from Emperor Rudolf II to Andre Breton and Alistair McAlpine. The treasures include artefacts in gold, silver and ivory, and fabulous esoterica such as unicorns' horns and the skeletons of mermaids.

Collectors have tried to do more than glorify their egos:

The aim of any collection is to halt the passage of time, to freeze the ineluctable progress of life or history, and to replace it with the fragmented, controllable, circular time frame established by a finite series of objects that can be collected in full.

In short, the typical collector seems to cry, 'Stop the world! — I want to stay on.'