In 1728 Ephraim Chambers noted the recent appearance in English of a new word, ‘connoisseur’, which he defined as meaning ‘a Critick, or a Person who is a thorow Judge, or Master in any way; in Matters of Painting, &c.1 For many historians, the rise of the connoisseur is one of the distinctive features of British eighteenth-century culture. According to this interpretation, the rigorous approach of the connoisseur replaced an older, more indiscriminate attitude to collecting usually referred to as ‘curiosity’, and attributed to a character called a ‘virtuoso’. Whereas the virtuoso was fascinated by a wide range of natural and man-made objects and valued them for a wide variety of qualities, from antiquity to intricate workmanship, from uniqueness to historical significance, the connoisseur is presented as having been more exclusively interested in the fine...

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