William Hunter’s Picture Cabinet

Portrait of a lady with a tea cup and tea potThe Hunterian Museum was established through the bequest of the anatomist William Hunter (1718–1783). Hunter was born in East Kilbride near Glasgow and went on to pursue a successful medical career in London. His enthusiastic collecting reflected his wide interests, and the museum includes his zoological, geological and anatomical specimens, as well as ethnology, manuscripts, coins and medals. There are also drawings, prints and 58 Old Master paintings, a number of which remain highlights of the Hunterian collection today. The Hunterian was the first museum in Britain to have a picture gallery. Today, Hunter’s pictures are a rare surviving example of an eighteenth-century picture cabinet.

Hunter acquired works by the Old Masters, and his selection of Dutch and Flemish paintings is particularly strong, with important works by Rubens (1577–1640), Frans Snyders (1579–1657) and Philips Koninck (1619–1688). Also among them is an outstanding painting by Rembrandt (1606–1669), The Entombment Sketch. A highlight of the Italian paintings is Saint Catherine by Guido Reni (1575–1642).

Painting of a mooseThe masterpiece among Hunter’s French paintings is A Lady Taking Tea by Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), although it is unlikely that Hunter himself realised the exceptional importance of the painting within Chardin’s work when he purchased it as fashionable taste then was for history painting from previous centuries. This masterly painting depicts a moment of quiet contemplation. Hunter surely enjoyed its beauty, as well as the fashionable reference to tea drinking.

Another outstanding painting is The Moose by George Stubbs (1724–1806), a contemporary and friend of Hunter’s. It was commissioned by Hunter, who was, in this case, motivated by science: he was interested in proving his theory, subsequently proven to be correct, that the North American moose was a different species to the Irish elk. Stubbs’s chosen setting of a Romantic native landscape for the moose elevates the painting into the realms of beautiful art.

Image1: Jean-Siméon Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735, oil on canvas
Bequeathed by William Hunter, 1783
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Image 2: George Stubbs, The Moose, 1770, oil on canvas
Bequeathed by William Hunter, 1783
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