Artefacts among the collection up for auction
17 January 2009
Southwold’s reputation as the home of eccentric adventurers has rested on the likes of the late Dennis Collings, whose modest terrace house in Station Road was crammed with treasures and trophies from all over the world and far back into pre-history.
A friend of George Orwell, this traveller-collector – whose front door was famously stuck fast by a mountain of unopened mail – died in 2001. After many gifts to Southwold Museum, the remnants of his heaped hoards are to be sold at Bonhams in London next Wednesday.
Some 37 lots span the Collings passions for natural history, archaeology and anthropology. Most have low estimates, but the huge range and quantity of objects amazes.
Behold a boneyard of tusks, horns and skulls – of walrus, antelope and lion, some of which were shot by the late owner in the 1920s. Like the part-fossilised whale ribs, the ancient fragments of human craniums were pulled from cliffs or picked from sand.
Alongside a glazed case containing 14 bird skeletons (estimate £100-£200) there are two cabinets of exotic butterflies (£200-£400) and a group of Victorian portraits of native Solomon islanders (£400-£600). There are boxes of arrowheads and fossils and masses of Roman pottery and medieval metalware, books, book plates, seals and micro-mosaics depicting Grand Tour scenes.
A large collection of animal bones from the eroding beach at Easton Bavents, north of Southwold (£300-£400), relates to a favourite hunting ground, where Mr Collings also detected the primeval traces of “Bavents Man”.
Visitors were often regaled by the academic’s unintentionally hilarious stories about the “marvellous little chaps” he had largely imagined.
His collection of antique blades and clubs – Japanese Tanto, Malay Bade-Bade, Indian Pesh-Kabz and Maori Greywacke Patu, with the stress very much on the wack – attested to a life of both discovery and danger.
Hubert Dennis Collings was born in Surrey in 1905, the family moving to Southwold four years later when his father Dudley bought a doctor’s practice in the town. Dr Collings was founder-curator of Southwold Museum from 1933, giving much of his own considerable collection, which he had arrayed in the room over St Edmund’s Church porch.
At 18, Dennis set off to survey tropical plants in Portuguese East Africa, staying on to lay a telephone line to Portuguese Nyasaland and compile the first map of the region. Back home, he renewed a friendship with George Orwell that lasted until the novelist’s death in 1950.
After Cambridge, the scholar became assistant curator of the Raffles Museum in Singapore until the outbreak of war. While his wife and children took refuge in Cape Town, he became an intelligence officer, ordered finally to surrender to the Japanese in Java. But a man intent on uncovering history was to remain largely silent about his imprisoned past, claiming to anyone who asked that his horrific ordeal had been “not too bad”. Freedom took him back to Singapore, where he helped set up the Malayan Jungle Welfare School and compiled a dictionary of the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the Malay Peninsula.
After almost a decade as curator of the Ghanaian State Museum and the Portuguese fort of Dalmina, from 1952, he returned to Southwold.
Orwell’s friend was made an OBE for his work in Singapore and Ghana but turned it down in protest at British colonial policy and its consequences.
For decades, those with a curiosity about the world were welcomed to the Station Road museum, where whole departments were stuffed under beds or on top of wardrobes.
In the secret museum with the blocked front door everything was behind the scenes.
The Collings Collection will be part of The Gentleman’s Library sale at Bonhams in New Bond Street on Wednesday. View on http://www.bonhams.com (lots 843-879).
Article from EDP24.