Cabinet of Curiosities

The items provided for Mr Woodhouse’s amusement were probably part of the Knightley family’s art collection-a collection or cabinet of curiosities amassed over a long period of time:

Mr. Knightley had done all in his power for Mr. Woodhouse’s entertainment. Books of engravings, drawers of medals, cameos, corals, shells, and every other family collection within his cabinets, had been prepared for his old friend, to while away the morning; and the kindness had perfectly answered. Mr. Woodhouse had been exceedingly well amused. Mrs. Weston had been showing them all to him, and now he would show them all to Emma; fortunate in having no other resemblance to a child, than in a total want of taste for what he saw, for he was slow, constant, and methodical. 
Chapter 42

These cabinets of curiosities (also known as Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder) proliferated throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Collectors were typically encyclopaedic in their approach, and the cabinets contents were items thought to be exceptional, rare, and marvellous. the items JA decribes- drawers of medals, cameos, corals, shells, and every other family collection within his cabinets– were typical of the sort of items which made their way into such collections.

Here is a link to a description of the Cabinet of Curiosities assembled by the famous Tradescant family, gardeners to the Cecil family of Burghley and Queen Henrietta Maria, which became known as the Ark and was opened to the public, forming the basis of the Ashmolean Museum:

To be ‘curious’ was a compliment in Elizabethan/Jacobean times and both Tradescants became famous for gardening, design, travel and their collection of curiosities. The epitaph on their tombstone describes very well why they became well known, and the interest there is today in their activities. This can be read today on their tomb at the museum.

The John Tradescant the Elder first travelled after 1609 when he entered the service of Robert Cecil who became the first Earl of Salisbury. He visited Europe to bring back plants and trees including roses, fritillaries and mulberries to the gardens at Hatfield. Later, in the service of Sir Edward Wotton, Tradescant accompanied a diplomatic mission to Russia, and he also visited Algiers, always taking botanical notes and gathering plants. By the 1620’s Tradescant had achieved a prominent position as a director of gardens whose advice was sought by the highest in the land.

In 1626 Tradescant leased a house in Lambeth where he developed his own garden and a cabinet of curiosities where he displayed ‘all things strange and rare’ that he brought back from his travels. The original is in the Ashmolean, and a copy is on display in the museum. Tradescant’s home came to be called ‘The Ark’ and was an essential site to see in London at the time as more was being learnt about the world and different cultures. It was the first museum of its kind in Britain open to the public, charging 6d admission…

At the suggestion of Elias Ashmole, he began to catalogue the collection at the Ark, and the Musaeum Tradescantianum of 1656 was the first museum catalogue published. Tradescant willed that the collection was to go to his widow on his death, but Elias Ashmole obtained the collection by deed of gift and established the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with the collection. Some of these original items can still be seen in that museum and Ashmole is also buried at the Museum of Garden History. The tomb of the Tradescants stands beside the knot garden near that of Captain Bligh of the Bounty, and is covered in carvings representing their interests in life which marked them out as curious men.

And here( unfortunately in French ,so I do apologise in advance to non-French speakers amongst us, but the pictures are very illuminating will give you a good idea of what Im trying to convey) is a fabulous website about Cabinets of Curisoities. Look at the corals, the cameos etc displayed in these pictures: they are the type of items JA describes above.

This fits in with what we know of Donwell Abbey. From its name we can assume that it was once a monastic institution, and therefore could have become part of the Knightley family property after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. We know that the Knightley family are the first in consequence in the area, and have been for years:

The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it; but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family — and that the Eltons were nobody. The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged; but their fortune, from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself, in every other kind of consequence; 
Chapter 16

I think the items have been collected by lots of Knightleys over the years.But not necessarily Mr Knightley, for I agree with Rachel below that it is unlikely he toured Europe due to the wars. JAs brother Edward had two grand tours,but he was ten years older than Geroge Knightley,and so just made it in time 😉 And I don’t think they are looking at sketches made by previous Knightleys, but books of engravings of views of Switzerland and Venice,as the quote above tells us 😉

The collection Mr Knightley displays for his friend’s amusement is yet another subtle clue given to us about the status, longevity and cultured nature of Mr Knightley’s family,IMHO..