“Variety is the very principle,” Thomas Gambier Parry’s Decorative Arts

1 Byzantine pyx box (so-called)

In 2006-2007, while working for the Research Forum of the Courtauld Institute of Art, I processed the archival records of Thomas Gambier Parry, a Victorian collector and artist.  I read journals and analyzed receipts in order to understand how his taste evolved over his decades of collecting.  I wrote at the time,

Gambier Parry had eclectic interests and a strong sense of civic commitment. A wealthy orphan, he bought his estate at Highnam when he was only twenty-two years old; his art purchases were made with Highnam in mind. He founded a school, a children’s hospital, and a poorhouse for the neediest of his neighbors in Gloucester. He was also on the boards of the local prison and lunatic asylum, and was an active member of the archaeological, choral, and photographic societies. He was president of the local literary and scientific society. Gambier Parry’s lifelong interest in botany demonstrates both his passion for collecting and his interest in variety. He collected pinecones, conifers and ferns, and he founded a pinetum on the Highnam estate. In his journals he often comments on the local flora. For example, he enthuses over multiple discoveries on an 1854 trip to Scotland – “Found phagopteris, holly-fern, oropteris, cystoperis and woodsix!” – with joy similar to his reactions, elsewhere in the journals, to music and art. And, as was the case with art, it was not enough for Gambier Parry to see the ferns: a great part of his joy stemmed from having acquired them. …

Thomas Gambier Parry was a deeply Christian man, as attested to by his interest in devotional art, his investment in the Church of the Holy Innocents, and the frequent ruminations on faith in his journals. His eclecticism may indeed demonstrate his fascination with, and desire to participate in, God’s creation. He returned on occasion to the theme of variety’s aesthetic and religious value. In 1851, for example, he defends his preferred form of architectural design:

Christian architecture abounds in direct adaptation of simple forms drawn fresh from the fount of all beauty, idealized indeed, so that from a type you can recognize the very species and race…Gothic architecture is more fitted for temples which are for the ministry of that sanctuary, that true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man. Nature is the boundless inexhaustible source of all variety. Variety is the very principle of Gothic or Christian architecture…a forest is a lovely assemblage, but no two trees, no two sprigs are alike.

I believe that this fascination with variety informed his painting, his church, his interest in botany, his many civic undertakings, and his collecting.

A partial report of my findings is available here.

About Me

An English diarist and naval administrator. I served as administrator of the Royal Navy and Member of Parliament. I had no maritime experience, but I rose to be the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and King James II through patronage, diligence, and my talent for administration.


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