William Constable (1721-1791)

Detail of ammonite slab

William Constable was an avid 18th Century collector, gathering a range of objects from works of art to numismatics, and scientific instruments to natural history specimens.

In 1966, Hull City Museums were generously donated 201 objects from William Constable's Cabinet of Curiosities. However, the majority of his collections are now on display in the purpose built cabinets at Burton Constable Hall.

The Constable Family


William Constable was born in 1721 to Cuthbert and Amey (Clifford) Constable of Burton Constable Hall. He inherited a love of science and botany from his father, and became a passionate collector of natural history.

Cuthbert Constable married again to Elizabeth Heneage, after the death of his first wife in 1731. She bore him a second son, Marmaduke, who like his half-brother also held a great interest in science and owned a great collection of British birds.

Burton Constable Hall

William Constable
Burton Constable, home of the Constable family for over 700 years, is a large Elizabethan mansion set in over 300 acres of historic parkland in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Cuthbert Constable, William's father, inherited the Hall from his maternal uncle William Constable 4th Viscount Dunbar (1653-1718), who had no legitimate children. As a condition of the inheritance Cuthbert was obliged to change his surname from Tunstall to Constable. In 1746, following the death of his father, William inherited the Constable estate. As a patron of architecture he decided to continue his father's remodeling of the Hall as well as modernise the interior design, for which he spared no expense.

Although William married, due to ill health he had no children and so upon his death in 1791 the Hall was again passed to a nephew, Edward Sheldon (1750-1803).

Today, Burton Constable Hall and its surrounding parkland are a museum owned by the Burton Constable Foundation, a charity whose mission is to safeguard Burton Constable for future generations.

Visit www.burtonconstable.com

The Constable Cabinet of Curiosities


Calcite with FluoriteWilliam Constable showed much interest in the advancement of arts and sciences. He was interested in botany, geology, zoology, physics and science in a wide sense.

In 1769 William embarked on a Grand Tour to Italy where he acquired many works of art and curiosities to add to his extensive collections. His spinster sister Winifred accompanied him on his journey and kept a diary of her brother's illnesses throughout their travels. It was thought that he sought the sunshine for health reasons as much as for education.

There were more than a dozen individuals who contributed to William's collection including friends, relatives, the famous zoologist and traveler Thomas Pennant (1726-98) and the well-known naturalist, botanist and philosopher, Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791).

During his studies William set out to observe and collect the phenomenon of nature, both for knowledge and amusement, and even attempted to master the systems of classification that were current before Linnaeus. Despite advances in scientific thinking, even as late at 1769 William still believed it would be possible to cross breed chickens with rabbits, as is reveled in his correspondence with the notable biologist and Catholic priest John Turbeville Needham (1713-81).

Cabinets of Curiosities emerged in Europe during the 16th century (known as Wunderkammer) and were originally the preserve of monarchs. In this instance the word 'cabinet' refers to a room rather than a piece of furniture, containing collections of natural history, archaeology, numismatics, works of art and antiquities. Exhibits often included specimen believed to relate to mythical beasts thought to exist, such as unicorns and dragons.

By the 18th century this had become popular amongst gentlemen and merchants, many of whom, like William, were fellows of the Royal Society.

Stoat SkeletonToday William's Cabinet of Curiosities is displayed in the museum rooms at Burton Constable Hall, along with his collection of scientific instruments. Although curiosity collections were not uncommon during the 18th century, the collection at Burton Constable is of significant importance as it is the only to survive in it's original country-house setting and many of the objects still retain their original 18th century labels.

View all of the Constable Collection or use the advanced search.