The ‘Gimcrack whim collector’: Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Museum

From the late 1600s until well into the nineteenth, one particular premises, a former coffee house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was a must-see on the list for visitors. Famous for its ‘cabinets of curiosities’, the ‘museum’ was known colloquially by the name of its proprietor. Thus, ‘Don Saltero’s’ was a fixture of the London landscape for over two centuries. But who was the mysterious ‘Don Saltero’, and what sorts of things could visitors marvel at?

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(A print of Don Saltero’s Coffee House, signed by some of its famous visitors, including Hans Sloane: Image copyright of New York Public Library)

As contemporaries remarked, the name Don Saltero had exotic Spanish connotations. But the owner and proprietor was certainly not Spanish – he was an English barber, tooth-drawer and sometime servant to the prominent physician Sir Hans Sloane. His name was the less-exotic James Salter!

By 1715, the premises of ‘James Salter the Coffeeman’ had become a notable place of resort for the literati, and prominent figures of the day. Alongside his coffee and punch-making skills, it was reported that he could shave, bleed, pull teeth and stumps, and play the fiddle as well as any man in England. But it was his growing collection of curios that began to draw the great and the good from Georgian society to Cheyne Walk.

Salter’s collection began when Sloane started to donate a few curios of his own for Salter to display in his shop. In fact the adorning of barber and apothecary shops was nothing new. As Patrick Wallis’s study of London apothecary premises has shown, visitors might encounter anything from holy relics to stuffed crocodiles, and the display of such items served to cement the worldly and slightly mysterious image of the medical practitioner in the customer’s mind.

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(Image from Daily Telegraph)

Amongst the treasures in the Wellcome Library is the 35th edition of ‘A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea’ – a complete list of the contents of Saltero’s museum, down to individual shelves, cupboards and cases. It gives us a fascinating insight into what visitors would have encountered in the home of the self-styled ‘gimcrack whim collector’, and also what sorts of things were considered as prime curiosities.

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(Author’s photograph of original document in Wellcome Library – copyright belongs to them)

Many items were small objet d’art – curious pieces of pottery from far-flung places, or unusually exquisite or highly crafted pieces. Glass Case number 1, for example, contained ‘a cup and saucer, a drinking cup with a foot, a jar and snuff box, all made of cherry stones’. There were all manner of other types of cups and jars in the case, a crystal bottle and tobacco stopper. Tiny instruments, such as the ‘exceeding curious pair of steel scissors’ weighing just 1 and a quarter grains, or the ‘travelling clock, which is 36 hours going down’.

Adorning the walls were a wide variety of prints and portraits. These included images of unusual animals, like the Brazilian Toucan, or the flying squirrel, as well as prints of historical documents such as the signed death warrant of Charles I, and portraits of famous artists, such as ‘a print of the famous Corelli’. Hanging from the ceiling were all manner of mummified animals, fish and birds, along with replica boats, giant shells and ‘the King of Morocco’s tobacco pipe’.

Animal and human curiosities formed another important part of the collection, offering visitors the chance to feast their eyes on the skeletons or stuffed figures of strange and exotic animals. Mummy’s hands, or saint’s relics were particularly prized, and probably pretty standard fare in other types of museum. But Saltero’s had other treasures such as ‘the head of the spatula bird’, ‘a curious horse-shoe fish’, ‘the pizzle of a racoon’, ‘a lizard 20 inches long’ and even (for Georgian Harry Potter fans!) ‘the ‘basilisk, supposed to kill with his eyes’!

Items that seemed to defy nature were particularly prized. Amongst these were the ‘handkerchief made of the asbestos rock, which fire can’t consume’, and the ‘piece of rotten wood not to be consumed by fire’. ‘Several pieces of the holy cross’ were on display in one room, along with other ‘relicks from Jerusalem’, and even ‘the Pope’s candle’. If all that weren’t enough, one cabinet claimed ‘the flaming sword of William the Conqueror’.

In other cases, exhibits tended more towards things that literally seemed ‘fantastic’: Item number 24 was ‘A curious sword set with polished steel, presented by the king of Lilliput to Capt. Gulliver’. Anticipating Tolkien’s Middle Earth by two centuries, astonished visitors could also gaze upon ‘An elf’s arrow’.

Some items, though, defy easy categorisation. Nuns for example, seem to feature fairly prominently! Saltero’s collections included ‘a pair of nun’s stockings’, ‘a nun’s pincushion’ and various other objects made by nun’s. Religious figures such as nun’s perhaps excited interest since they were inaccessible, even exotic figures, who were shut away from society. Likewise, items with connections to royalty gave people a glimpse into another sort of closed world. William III’s coronation shoes gave a taste of the occasion for those who weren’t invited, while those interested in the size of Elizabeth I’s feet could gaze with wonder at one of her stirrups. Quite why ‘a piece of Queen Catherine’s skin’ was on display, or how it was obtained, is unfortunately not recorded!

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(Cheyne Walk looking East – image copyright of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea http://www.rbkc.gov.uk)

Saltero’s was a feature of the London landscape for over 100 years – long after Salter himself died in 1728. By 1799 the collection had begun to be dispersed and sold. Neverthless, the tavern continued to be known as Don Saltero’s well into the nineteenth century. In 1866, John Timbs’ Club Life of London noted that the last few gimcracks were left until about 1825, when we were informed on the premised they were thrown away!’. But, even then, ‘the house is now a tavern with the sign of “The Don Saltero’s Coffee House”’. Long after his death, the spirit of Saltero, and his exotic collections of curios, continued to reign over Cheyne Walk.

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