BICKNELL, Elhanan 1788-1861. Art collector. Born in London, he was the son of William Bicknell, a serge manufacturer and friend of John Wesley and also the religious writer, Elhanan Winchester, after whom he was named. Bicknell initially prospered in the sperm whale business and, in 1819, moved to Carlton House, a large mansion on Herne Hill which stood between the present Casino Avenue and Danecroft Road. Between 1838 and his death in 1861, he assembled there a magnificent collection of British paintings from Gainsborough until his own times, buying many of Turner’s works before the artist had been championed by Bicknell’s neighbour, John Ruskin. Art lovers were always welcome to visit the house, and artists were generously entertained. He was a supporter of Unitarianism and was the main contributor to the building of the Brixton Unitarian Chapel. He died in 1861 and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery. Bicknell wanted to leave the collection to the nation, but the needs of his large family required it to be sold at auction two years later.

Bicknell had four wives and fourteen grandchildren. Two of his sons born in Herne Hill achieved fame. Herman (1830-1875) trained as a surgeon, joined the army but resigned his commission to devote himself to travel and learning oriental languages. Assuming the character of an English Moslem, he became the first Englishman to join the annual pilgrimage to Mecca without having to disguise himself or his nationality. He lived in Persia (Iran) for a time to help him translate the poems of Hafiz. An accident while attempting to climb the Matterhorn hastened his death in 1875 and the poems were published posthumously.

Another son, Clarence, was also born in Herne Hill. He worked as a curate in St Paul’s Walworth before moving to Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. There he was able to follow his great interest of collecting and painting flowers, and he published books on the flora of the area illustrated with his own drawings. The Museo Bicknell, which he established, remains as a study centre for the district; his collection of European plants was given to the Botanic Institute in Genoa after his death in 1918.

Bernard Nurse