The Bents’ Collections

Theodore and Mabel Bent (The Bent Archive)

Over a period of twenty years, in the 1880s and 1890s, Theodore and Mabel Bent explored the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa and Arabia, and published extensively on their activities. The objects and acquisitions they amassed along the way, their ‘Collections’, mostly found their way initially, in crates and bundles, to the Bents’ London home – 13 Great Cumberland Place – which fulfilled the roles of museum, laboratory, warehouse, archive, and, it has to be said, showroom.

A few of these literally thousands of things – from big statues to tiny beads – remained at 13 Great Cumberland Place until Mabel’s death in 1929, upon which everything was left to her nieces and thereafter mostly dispersed. However most of the objects found their way in their lifetimes to museums in England and abroad – predominantly the British Museum in London, and equally predominantly not on show today, apart from a few treasures.

Takht-e Soleymān, West Azerbaijan, May 1889: Many hundreds of items brought back by the Bents (between c. 1880-1900) from the E. Med, Africa, and Arabia are today in private hands – probably now unlabelled – having been sold or given away by the couple, or left to Mabel Bent’s nieces on her death in 1929. (And hundreds more are in museums, principally the British Museum.)

Only very rarely does something nice of theirs appear on the market, but at the end of 2022 a beautiful turquoise and cobalt glazed ‘cuerda seca’ tile fragment (13th century BCE) found at Takht-e Soleymān (West Azerbaijan, c. 400 km west of Tehran) was auctioned at Roseberys, London, selling for £650. On the reverse is a label in Mabel’s handwriting, suggesting that the tile hung on a wall of their London home near Marble Arch. The label reads: “Dug by Theodore Bent from under petrified [Roseberys says ‘putrified’] water at Takht-i Suleyman, Kourdistan, 1889”.

Additional provenance comes from Mabel’s diary: “[After] digging some time in front of a mosque, where we found some fragments of old tiles, we retired to an old bath, a large, dank, vaulted place where the hail came in in the middle of the roof…” (Mabel Bent’s diary entry for c. 4 May 1889, in The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent (Vol.3, Oxford, 2010, p.88).

It is known, however, that Mabel was prepared later to sell off items in aid of her various charities, e.g. “Mrs. Bent recently organised a sale of work in connection with the society of the ‘British Israelites’, in which she is keenly interested, and a two-days’ conference, of which she attended this month.” [Belfast Evening Telegraph, Monday, May 25, 1914]

This section of our site (currently under development) lists the main institutions and repositories that curate the ‘Bent Collection’ (as we arbitrarily call it) – from Athens to Zimbabwe, from Oxford (UK) to Istanbul, from Preston (UK) to Cape Town…

As important for researchers as the diverse range of items the Bents returned with, are the assemblages of materials and documents associated with them – manuscripts, photographs, letters, sketches and illustrations, maps, etc.  Consequently, some of the archives with such holdings are also listed below.

The Bents had no children, and their estates passed to Mabel’s nieces and nephews and their descendants. Several items from the ‘Bent Collection’ remain in their care, but they are not included in this section.

If you come across other museum artefacts labelled as ‘collected by J. Theodore Bent’ do please let us know!

The British Museum, London

The British Museum, London, UK: The largest collection anywhere of the Bents’ acquisitions from the E. Med, Arabia, and Africa, with an excellent searchable database – your first port of call. Mabel features in a succinct BM reference, as does Theodore.


Mabel Bent kept a small personal collection of acquisitions with her at her London home until a few years before she died in 1929, presumably these were of some considerable sentimental value to her – tangible memories of her twenty years travelling with Theodore; each thing with its story and tug at the senses – she only had to fix her eyes on them to recall slow, thumping steamers and eccentric hotels. By 1926, it was inevitably time to sort out her possessions, at the prompting of her nieces, who were to be her beneficiaries. Accordingly, over 100 artefacts were donated to the British Museum, including a small collection of musical instruments, mostly flutes, of which the Bents were always very fond; we may assume that the most valuable pieces remained at 13 Great Cumberland Place until the end.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

© The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Ref: 1888.37.8; baby carrier, made of goat skin stretched between two canes, with a pillow of woollen textile.

“On Christmas Eve I bought a cradle from one of the most delightful women I have ever seen… The cradle was made of untanned goatskin fastened to two reeds and slung over her shoulders by two cords…” (‘The Season of the Twelve Days’, in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1887, Vol. 263 (Oct), 380-91).

The Pitt Rivers has over 50 artefacts collected by the Bents, including 12 musical instruments. Their online catalogue is exemplary and items from most of the Bents’ tours are represented, indeed there are rare objects from a cave on Socotra acquired only weeks before Bent suffered a recurrence of the illness that was to lead to his death in May 1897.

The Victorian and Albert Museum, London, UK

Mostly, the items best associated in the V&A with the Bents are examples of embroideries and fabrics from the Eastern Mediterranean, e.g. the island of Nisyros.

The Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece

“The Bent Chemise” in the Benaki Museum, Athens. In early 1885, Mabel Bent bought a number of costumes from islanders on Karpathos (Dodecanese). Three are today in the V&A, London, not on display, having been sold to the museum by the Bents in 1886. After her death (1929), Mabel’s nieces sold another dress to Antonis Benakis and this is on display in the Benaki Museum, Athens; it features in a short video online.

The Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

The Istanbul Archaeological Museum has four Thasian finds confiscated from the Bents by the first director, Hamdi Bey: a decorated marble relief (inv. 376); a head of Hermes (inv. 409); a statue of Fl. Vibia Sabina (inv. 375); and a kouros of Apollo (“The Bent Kouros”) (inv. 374). (See Gustave Mendel, Catalogue des Sculptures Grecques, Romaines et Byzantines, Vol. I (1912) & II (1914), Constantinople.)

The Archaeological Museum, Cape Town, South Africa

The Great Zimbabwe Museum, Masvingo, Zimbabwe

The National Archive, Harare, Zimbabwe

The Royal Geographical Society, London, UK

The Natural History Museum, London, UK

Sulgrave Manor, Banbury, UK

Hellenic and Roman Library, Senate House, London, UK

The British Library, London, UK

Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, London, UK

Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, UK

Liverpool Museums, UK

After Theodore’s death, Mabel had a chance to sort out some shells they gathered from their final trip together to Socotra and she gave quite a large number of them to the Natural History Museum, London, who entered them in their acquisition register for 1897. The entry contains an interesting (later) note by W.J. Rees, as follows: “11 June 1954. A part of this collection, probably the duplicates, were sent to Liverpool Museum, where most of them were destroyed when the museum was bombed.” Liverpool’s ‘May Blitz’ occurred between 1-7 May 1941. William James Rees (1913–1967) was a distinguished British hydroid and cephalopod researcher at the NHM. Theodore, of course, was born in Liverpool on 30 March 1852. (We have not traced any remaining part of this shell collection in Liverpool.)

  • Where you can eat, drink and sleep today where Theodore and Mabel Bent once lived in yesteryear! 

Sutton Hall, near Macclesfield (UK). The Bents’s country retreat for twenty years or so, and now a fine gastro-pub.

Temple House, Sligo, Ireland. One of Mabel’s three Irish homes, and now a luxury hotel.