Magpie's nest of antiquities catches city before cameras
Wealthy antiquary George Weare Braikenridge was a magpie who collected, and hoarded, anything and everything to do with the city and countryside he loved.
Without his foresight, our understanding of Bristol and Somerset in past times would be very much the poorer.
Antiquary George Weare Braikenridge
When he died in 1856 at the age of 81, the Bristol Times newspaper described him as the largest collector of general and local antiquities in the West of England.
His large house in Brislington, plus Claremont Hall, another large property he owned in Clevedon, were stuffed with interesting and historic things ranging from old stained glass to wood carvings.
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In the early 19th century Brislington belonged to rural Somerset and the collection also includes many paintings and drawings of that county as well as of Bristol itself.
One of the most valuable objects in his ownership was a Gothic oak cradle – thought to be that of King Henry V – which he had bought for about £30.
Dating from the late 15th or early 16th century and now in the Museum of London, it's thought to be the only one in existence.
Sold off by his descendants in 1908, some of his vast collection found its way into various New York museums.
Of Scottish (rather than West Country) descent, the Braikenridge family had settled in Brislington in the 1730s.
George's father became a tobacco planter and merchant in Virginia which is where he was born in 1775.
When he was 10, George was sent to live with relatives in Bristol to further his education.
In 1793 his father came back to England to set up a dry-salting business in Temple Street.
The company, which George joined, sold the chemicals used in such things as dyes and preservatives.
The family lived in Long Ashton and then Redcliffe Parade.
When his father retired in 1802 George decided to go into partnership as a merchant trading with the West Indies.
He bought a house in Queen Square but finally settled in Brislington, where, in 1823 he bought a large house in Wick Road.
By his mid-40s George had made enough money to retire from business and indulge his passion for antiquities.
The walls of his house were decorated with old carvings and paintings and an ornate chimney piece, rescued from an ancient house in Small Street, had pride of place.
Even his furniture, which he had specially made from old bits and pieces, was in the Gothic Revival style that was so popular at the time.
But it is for his collection of pre- photography paintings and drawings of local scenes that George Braikenridge is best remembered today.
He wasn't an artist himself but commissioned others, some from the very talented Bristol School, to make a record of the city.
Over a period of 30 years, he added many of these prints and drawings to previously published texts and histories. Braikenridge had no intention of writing a history of Bristol himself but attempted to update previous ones by adding new material.
This included such historic events as the coming of the railway to the West Country in the 1840s and the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His wonderful library, mostly devoted to books about Bristol, also included an eclectic collection of newspaper cuttings, pamphlets, bill-heads, broadsides and sales catalogues. And his collection of about 300 deeds, mostly from the 15th century, included some which the boy poet Chatterton had stolen from St Mary Redcliffe to write his forged medieval verse upon.
Cheap in their time, and often discarded, they are now regarded as absolutely priceless.
Talented artists such as Samuel Jackson and Francis Danby, whose works can be seen in the City Museum today, supplied the collector with paintings of the city and its surrounding countryside.
And more than 100 drawings of Brislington, mostly executed by artist Thomas Rowbotham, now form a wonderful record of the village as it was in the days before cameras arrived on the scene.
The artist's dock and street scenes are especially evocative of those times. Among the many hundreds of things that Braikenridge rescued from destruction were such diverse objects as old bottles and barge-boards.
Also included in his collection were the gaily painted figures that still chime away the quarters above the doors of Christ Church in Broad Street.
Bought by Braikenridge in 1824, they had been saved by another collector when the original church was demolished. During the 1830s the family started visiting Clevedon, then a fashionable place for wealthy people to spend the summer months.
In 1838 Braikenridge decided to buy a plot of land there, in Highdale Road, as well as two semi-detached houses nearby which he had knocked together to make one residence. Enlarged by his son in the 1860s, Claremont Hall was converted into apartments in the 1990s, one of which was sold recently for £275,000.
The original library, with its high ceilings, is still adorned with the coats of arms of various Bristol families. At one time the mansion, which has sweeping views over North Somerset to the Mendip hills, was occupied by Clevedon Urban District Council.
An invaluable resource for local historians, the extensive Braikenridge collection is now housed at the Bristol Record Office on the Cumberland Basin, the Reference Library at College Green and Bristol Museum.